United in spirit
Since we formed in 1983, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has been all about celebrating Scotch whisky in its purest form, often from lesser-known distilleries around the country. But for more than half of our lifespan, we have also been seeking out the best whiskies from beyond our own shores, as Julien Willems reports
Around the world ships sailed, their holds full of casks and bottles, from port to port. From Caithness to Kintyre, distilleries big and small, legal (or not), they found buyers for their products among neighbours near and far. But how did Scotch whisky find such fame?
In the Lowlands, Coffey stills poured out rivers of grain whisky, leading to the first blended whiskies, popularising Scotch by making it both cheaper, more consistent in quality and more accessible than many spirits. Without the invention of Aeneas Coffey’s continuous stills, the world may have overlooked whisky entirely. What the Irish visionary could not foresee though, is the irony that the Scots would be the keenest users of his invention. In doing so, Scotch would ultimately supplant and to some extent hinder the international standing of Irish whiskey.
ABOVE: Aeneas Coffey pictured alongside his revolutionary stills
ABOVE: Masataka and Rita Taketsuru
In time, Scotch whisky travelled the world, Dewar’s Highlanders danced on New York’s Times Square, and the rest is history. In 1918 came Masataka Taketsuru, who travelled half the globe to Scotland to learn the craft of whisky making. Returning to Japan, he founded Yoichi distillery and then what would eventually become the Nikka group. This story is well known, and there is no doubt many more founding epics can be discovered wherever Scotch style whisky is distilled, illustrating a well-known basic law of mechanics: “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
Indeed, it was only a matter of time, with Scotch pushing its way through to the world, for the world to push back with its own take on Scotland’s decadent tipple.
PICTURED: a Society bottling from distillery number 137
RIPPLES ON THE POND
In 2002, the Society released its first Japanese whisky, Cask No. 116.1: Coconut peapods and tropical hothouses. As Olaf Meier, long standing member, Tasting Panel chair and ambassador for the Society recalls: “I do believe that the SMWS was the first organisation to bottle Japanese whisky independently in the UK, and it created a bit of a stir among our members. Back in the day, the Tasting Panel worked from the Society’s head office and I remember that on this occasion, there were more than a few ripples on the pond.
ABOVE: the original bottlings from distillery number 116
ABOVE: hand labelling for the Society’s first Australian whisky
“Shortly after the announcement and the release of 116.1, some envelopes started arriving with membership cards ripped or cut off and letters or notes denouncing the Society’s will to bottle ‘stuff’ from Japan. I say stuff, but that’s not exactly the word some used! Thinking back, I had not tried any Japanese whisky before discovering this first cask bottled by the Society, but I remember thinking ‘well that’s tasty!’”
There were similar reactions when the Society first released Irish whiskey in 1988, or so I am led to believe. But it is hardly surprising, there’s often a price to pay for going off the beaten track. You can only hope that those who weren’t keen at first eventually change their minds, when faced with a good tipple. Perhaps blind tasting would have had a role to play here…
Since then, the list of non-Scotch interlopers has grown ever longer: Australian, English, Irish, Japanese, American, Welsh, Indian, Israeli, Taiwanese, Danish, Swedish, with some other nationalities on their way.
PICTURED: the unusual still set-up at distillery number 128
EMBRACING OUR WHISKY SIBLINGS
Whisky is now, much like its early history, a decidedly international affair. And the Society, having members throughout the world, understands this, probably more than many others. Being its curious self, the Society has never been shy of trying new things, even if (or sometimes because) these would prove particularly challenging to the ubiquitous fans of the immutable. Life changes as the world changes, and to live in your time means embracing it… never carelessly, though.
Ultimately, it’s not about being the first to offer something from overseas: the Society wants to find what our members will like, once the distillery name and preconceptions have been taken away.
While Scotch whisky by the cask is always available, it is nevertheless traditionally subject to substantial variations in both price and variety. So, it is wise to keep an open mind and think outside the box when it comes to sourcing high quality offerings. Indeed, no matter which way the winds of trade blow, our imperative is to succeed in constantly adding more unusual and interesting bottlings for our members to discover, enjoy and grow fond of.
Should we not listen, look, search and share the most beautiful works of our distant whisky siblings? Why not? After all, especially when the dram is good and the flavours fair, aren’t we a’ Jock Tamson’s bairns*?
*A well-known phrase in Scotland to indicate that under our skin there’s more that unites us than divides us