In from the cold
Society founder Pip Hills is marking the 40th anniversary of the club he formed with an updated edition of his book Maverick – The Founder’s Tale, which covers everything from the origins of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, his exile in the mid-1990s and finally returning to the fold five years ago. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan caught up with Pip at The Vaults to find out more from the Society’s original maverick
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
History, as Pip Hills tells me over a rather special dram in The Vaults, can be complicated. “And people, on the whole, don’t like complicated histories,” he says. “This is true of whisky, as of anything else.”
It is certainly true of the history of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, the club Pip and his pals founded in Edinburgh 40 years ago. Since 1983, there have been various twists and turns, ups and downs and ins and outs along the way with the Society’s story – including its founder being fired from the position of chairman in the mid-1990s.
“Well, as you know, there came a point in the Society's history when we ran into trouble and I was ejected,” says Pip. “They offered me the option of staying, but in an emasculated form and it didn't appeal.”
Nothing was heard of from Pip in the years following that ejection, apart from a brief contribution to the Society’s An Honest Tale essay, published in 2001 to mark our 18th anniversary. The expression ‘damned with faint praise’ comes to mind:
“Pip Hills is not the sort of man who believes that it’s better to be safe than sorry. Managerial prudence? Don’t be so bourgeois! But let’s give credit where it’s due: he’s passionate about whisky – the good stuff. And in the early years, the Society needed someone with an adventuring, ‘carpe diem’ approach and Pip Hills could seize the day like he owned it. We acknowledge his creative genius. We acknowledge Pip Hills’ creativity, while remaining chagrined at some aspects of his stewardship of the Society.”
You can read the rest of An Honest Tale HERE to get a further flavour of the Society in its late teenage phase, a challenging time as it can be for many teenagers.
By his own description, Pip remained ‘out in the cold’ until the Society reached a new level of maturity, with its 35th anniversary in 2018. That’s when I became determined to track him down. But, within the Society his reputation still preceded him and I was warned to approach with caution and potentially be prepared to feel the effects of someone who’d been nursing his wrath for quite some time.
ABOVE: Pip peruses the edition over a dram from Distillery No.1
The reality couldn’t have been more different, and when Pip invited me to visit him at his home in Montrose I spent a splendid couple of hours chatting about the Society’s origins and his life of whisky-fuelled hi-jinks. I even put the recording of the conversation onto YouTube, because this was before our Whisky Talk podcast had seen the light of day and I felt the need to share this initial encounter with as many members as possible.
I reported back to HQ that Pip wasn’t as fearsome as we might have imagined, and we subsequently invited him to return to The Vaults and meet the team. He says he had only ever been back once in the intervening years, when he was asked at the door for his membership card. “I said I had lost it, but that I knew my membership number. ‘And what’, the doorman enquired, ‘was my membership number?’ ‘Oh,’ I said, ‘That’s easy. One.’”
This time, member number #001 liked what he saw and liked the people he met. A reintroduction and rapprochement took place, Pip featured in Unfiltered issue 39 in May 2018, and subsequently he started working on his own history of the Society’s beginnings – a book called The Founder’s Tale, first published in 2019.
“I could see that all sorts of myths had grown up, and I decided the best thing to do would be if I wrote the story of the Society’s origins from my point of view, which resulted in The Founder’s Tale,” says Pip.
The book was very well received by Society members and the wider whisky world. Now, to celebrate our 40th anniversary, the SMWS is releasing an updated version of the book with a new title: Maverick – The Founder’s Tale. Pip has added several chapters and a selection of photos from the past 40 years – but the main addition is in his extended essay, entitled Coming in from the Cold.
“It is very pleasing to be allowed to put my version of how things were in the first place under the aegis of the Society,” says Pip. “I’m afraid I’m plagiarising John le Carré, because the only possible title for the new essay had to be Coming in from the Cold. This is very much my feeling about things, having been in the whisky wilderness for 20-odd years, to come back to a very welcoming Society, which treats me terribly well. I hope everybody enjoys it. It’s a joyous sort of book, because I left out all the unpleasant bits.”
ABOVE: Pip with the first edition of The Founder’s Tale
I can’t give too much more away about the essay or the updated issue of Maverick – The Founder’s Tale, other than to point members towards the endorsement on the back cover from a certain editor of Unfiltered magazine, who says of the book that it contains: “The remarkable whisky-soaked adventures of a true original – cask-strength stories from a natural raconteur.”
It’s certainly essential reading for all members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and brings Pip’s story full circle from the club’s origins to his return to the fold – an unlikely tale, with challenges along the way, and a satisfyingly happy conclusion to the tale.
As we wind up our chat, a member who has been hovering on the sidelines for a while grabs his opportunity to introduce himself and express his personal gratitude for Pip’s part in founding this worldwide community of whisky lovers.
“I have to say I’ve been delighted to come back to the Society,” says Pip. “It’s very nice to have tens of thousands of people around the world, who all want to shake my hand and say, ‘Thank you for starting this’.”