A lifelong affair

Our feature in Unfiltered No. 59 about keeping track of your whisky journey prompted long-standing member Peter Hughes to get in touch about his own Society experiences, documented meticulously since he signed up more than three decades ago


Peter Hughes’ Society journey dates back to January 1991, an inquisitive phone call to SMWS HQ at The Vaults, and a recommendation that set him off on a lifelong exploration of the spirit in our green bottles. More than 30 years later, Peter now has 12 volumes of detailed tasting notes, covering almost 1,500 Society whiskies, and it’s still very much a work in progress.

“When I first called the Society, it was Anne Griffiths – or Cooper as she was then – who picked up the phone,” remembers Peter. “We got chatting and she told me a bit about this Cask No. 46.3 from the 1990 Winter Bottling list that she liked. I bought that along with a contrasting bourbon cask bottling, and that was it – I was hooked.”

From his base in London, Peter became a passionate member of the Society and started not only making regular purchases but attending the tasting events that were taking place periodically in London and the south-east of England at the time. Anne Griffiths became responsible for developing the Society’s tasting programme in the UK, and Peter and his fellow members were keen to make the case to her for a Members’ Room of their own in the capital.

“Anne was doing regular tastings in London and got on well with the membership down here,” says Peter. “A few of us started to badger her about setting up a Members’ Room in London, and she became a champion for that.

“We have lots to be thankful to Anne for what she did, along with the managing director Richard Gordon at the time.”

Peter and his fellow members’ powers of persuasion did the trick, and the Society’s new Members’ Room at 19 Greville Street in the Farringdon district – next to the Hatton Garden jewellery hub – officially opened on July 20, 1999. Appropriately enough, Peter was the very first member to celebrate the occasion with the inaugural dram in the new venue.

“I found out from the manager that the doors would be opening at noon, and having been the one to badger the Society into opening a Members’ Room, I was determined to be the first person to have a dram there,” says Peter. “I still remember it – it was Cask No. 90.4, 21-years-old, light and summery. My tasting notes tell me it would have been perfect for a hot summer’s day or a picnic.”

Peter even managed to turn a promotion within the Metropolitan Police that covers London to relocate to the station in Holborn – a handy 10-minute walk to the new Members’ Room.

“I was always popping in to Greville Street after work, assessing drams with the staff or other members and sitting there scribbling my tasting notes,” says Peter. “I was even asked to contribute to the Society’s Tasting Panel at one point, which was a huge privilege and responsibility and something I really enjoyed. You’re selecting whiskies for a membership that doesn’t have access to sample drams in a nearby venue, so honesty was important – if a sample didn’t hang together or wasn’t balanced you had to be clear about that, although you would also recognise if something was cheeky, different or had a certain character.

“I’ve always been willing to have a debate about whisky, and enjoy the stories behind the drams – such as with Cask No. 10.56. It was the Society’s first bottling from a huge Spanish gorda cask, and although was only six-years old it was amazingly mature for its age.

“It was something new for the Society and was to be applauded, much as some of the custom cask bottlings that we’re seeing now.”

One thing that’s been constant in Peter’s entire time as a member of the SMWS is in his meticulous and detailed record keeping, with a note of every dram tasted, every bottle purchased and every document retained.

“If I’m tasting a dram in the members’ room as a one-off experience, I’ll normally spend up to 45 minutes with it and I’ll only add water once I’m satisfied I’ve got to grips with the unreduced nose and palate,” says Peter. “After that I’ll add water and repeat the process. After about 20 minutes I’ll let it stand before returning to it later. Once at home, I’ll transcribe my notes into the tasting book. “I never refer to SMWS tasting notes until I’ve sampled the whisky for myself. Only then will I compare notes, and sometimes I’ll comment in my notes on any similarities or differences between the two.

“It’s a bit different whenever I buy a bottle, as I’m able take more time to assess it. I’ll start note taking straightaway, but I’ll often stick with rough notes until I’ve sampled it for the sixth or seventh time. I’ll also do this over a period of time, say a month, possibly two, and in some instances even a bit longer. Only then will I write the notes up as a definitive tasting note in my current book.”

Now retired, Peter has been able to develop his interest in the history of the First World War with a series of three books, Visiting the Fallen, about the war graves in and around Arras and stories of the soldiers who died there. He’s also enjoying his Society as much as ever and making regular visits to Greville Street now that restrictions have lifted.

“The staff are brilliant, always helpful and happy to have a chat about style and flavour profile, and ready with suggestions for bottlings that may not be on the current list,” says Peter. “I also like to help other members with my own recommendations – anything I can do to help is part of the relationship I have with the Society. It’s nice to nurture that kind of etiquette and atmosphere, where everybody has that sense of belonging. It’s something that’s unique to the Society and I hope it continues that way.

“It’s been a fantastic journey, and it’s still going on. Relax and have a dram…”