Thirst for knowledge
Since we were founded in 1983, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has played a key role not only in the appreciation for single cask, cask strength whisky, but in our deeper understanding of what we’re drinking, how it’s produced and where its flavours come from. A thirst for knowledge has always been as important to us as a thirst for the whisky itself, as Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan reports
“Single malt in the early 1980s was the preserve of the intellectual: artists, poets, doctors, lawyers (and being Edinburgh there was a wheen of those), the informed dreamers,”
Cast your mind back – if your mind goes that far back – to the year 1983, and think about the whisky scene at that time. What whiskies were available in your local shop or pub? How did you drink them? Were they more likely to be blends than single malts? And could you even have imagined such a thing as a cask strength whisky drawn from a single cask?
On our 40th anniversary, we can reflect on how different the whisky world is in 2023, and The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s role in that development.
“Single malt in the early 1980s was the preserve of the intellectual: artists, poets, doctors, lawyers (and being Edinburgh there was a wheen of those), the informed dreamers,” says whisky writer Dave Broom, in his reflection of the period that the Society was born. “But there were rumours that somewhere in darkest Leith (Leith? In the early 80s?) there was a cabal of true believers, heretics and keepers of the flame gathering and plotting.”
That cabal of true believers gathering and plotting in Leith were the founding figures of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. But as well as bottling whisky from single casks, they realised that sharing an understanding of what was in the cask was essential to building a knowledge and appreciation for the whisky.
ABOVE: a 1980s Society Tasting Panel meeting, with Pip (centre) and Dr Jim Swan on his right
“The industry was in the doldrums and nobody knew why – and the reason was because it was so bloody boring!” says Society founder Pip Hills. “Nobody wanted to know about whisky because people were just repeating the same things over and over again – and some of them were true and some of them weren’t true.
“We were able to come along and say: ‘It’s not like you think it is – it’s different, the real thing – whisky taken in its perfect form, which was at cask strength. And we could demonstrate the truth of it, all you had to do was to let people try it, and people who were used to drinking whisky said: ‘This is marvellous’ and people who said they didn’t like whisky said: ‘I don’t like whisky, but I like this!’
“We were able to go out there and simply tell the honest truth about whisky and say: ‘Everything you think you know about whisky is probably untrue, and we will tell you what it’s really like’. And what it’s really like is absolutely wonderful.”
PICTURED: Pip at The Vaults in Leith, Edinburgh
Since Pip formed the Society in 1983, we have made whisky knowledge a key part of our offering to members, from providing detailed information about the whisky’s age, maturation and character on the bottle itself and in the accompanying Tasting Notes, to wider reflections on how best to nose and taste whiskies and on to various aspects of the whisky-making process.
“For some of us, depending on how long you’ve been enjoying whisky for and how you came to be introduced to this wonderful spirit, the Society may have played a major role in your whisky journey and shaped how you approach whisky today,” says Andrew Derbidge, the Society’s cellarmaster and NSW manager at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia.
Whisky knowledge has always been a central feature of the Society’s member magazine, Unfiltered. As a newsletter, magazine and now as a monthly digital publication, Unfiltered has featured industry experts and insiders to illuminate us about every aspect of whisky’s production, and magic.
From barley varieties to strains of yeast, fermentation times, water sources and differences in distillation, Unfiltered has delved into every detail of how whisky is created. In our first relaunch issue in November 2008, in an examination of maturation, Highland Park’s Russell Anderson told us: “We do not have all the answers. We won’t have them in my life. Whisky is a ‘black art’ and long may it continue.”
The examination into the black art of whisky-making will certainly continue, serving up a mix of insight and entertainment for Society members in the pages of Unfiltered. And if you’re concerned that the more we delve into the mysteries of what makes our single cask, single malt so special, the less romantic it becomes, we’ll leave the last word to James Brosnan, director of research at The Scotch Whisky Research Institute.
“For me, the more we find out about Scotch, the more interesting the story becomes.”
We’ll drink to that.
“For some of us, depending on how long you’ve been enjoying whisky for and how you came to be introduced to this wonderful spirit, the Society may have played a major role in your whisky journey and shaped how you approach whisky today,”