A decade of SMWS drams in Canada
WORDS: MADS SCHMOLL
The world of whisky is one of boundless exploration, with new friendships and relationships forged every step of the way. This month we’re raising our glasses to our friends and colleagues Kelly and Rob Carpenter, who are celebrating the 10-year anniversary of running the Society’s branch in Canada
It’s been a decade since Kelly and Rob founded SMWS Canada, but their whisky journey started long before then. For Kelly it was a natural transition after growing up in a house where both parents appreciated Scotch. Rob’s epiphany came thanks to a 21-year-old Glenfiddich Cuban rum cask he tasted after moving to Edinburgh in 2004 to pursue a master’s degree.
At that time, Rob and Kelly were both members of the University of Edinburgh’s Water of Life whisky society, where they met fellow Canadian Sam Simmons – otherwise known as Dr Whisky. “He said he had a fabulous place he wanted to take us, which turned out to be The Vaults,” says Kelly. “That was our introduction to the SMWS and over several drams that night the wheels started spinning in Rob’s head about how to bring it to Canada.”
That journey wasn’t straightforward, however. “At the time, the Canadian trademark was held by the Society’s US branch, so while we put together a business plan, the UK head office was working on re-acquiring the trademark to allow us to open a Canadian branch,” Kelly says. Even once the wheels were in motion, there were no guarantees and, in the meantime, there were also several other interested parties. “It took five years to get the trademark, and after submitting our business plan – which wasn’t the only one; we knew we had competition – we were awarded the branch and we officially launched in October 2011,” says Rob.
The Canadian branch of the SMWS launched at flagship partner retail store, Kensington Wine Market in Calgary. “While most of the attendees were local, we also had folks from all over Canada fly in to attend the event,” Kelly says. “After that, we adopted the UK format of having monthly Outturns and tastings. We realised from our visit to the UK Members’ Rooms over the years that the best way to promote the Society would be to get the whisky in glasses in front of people. It didn’t take long for the tastings to become hugely popular and for a community of members to grow and thrive.”
A year later, the Canadian branch was celebrating its first anniversary with a special Society bottle-shaped cake, and since then the community of members across the country has continued to expand – always with exploration at its heart.
“We have a diverse group of members who all have one thing in common – a love of whisky, and sometimes other spirits!” says Rob. “They are delighted to expand their whisky journey through the variety of SMWS bottlings made available to them.”
Among the biggest dates on the Canadian branch’s calendar are the tastings held at its four partner liquor stores, where members can get together and also purchase their SMWS bottles*.
“We love that moment at a tasting or festival when someone’s eyes light up upon trying their first SMWS dram and they have that ‘a-ha!’ experience,”
Andrew Ferguson and Evan Eckersley at Kensington Wine Market in Calgary
“The monthly tastings at our four partner liquor stores are incredibly fun events; often the same people will come and make a night out of it, and over the years we’ve watched strangers form friendships and have even seen whisky clubs develop,” says Kelly.
“It’s really heart-warming to know that often we’ve been the catalyst for that, and have been part of this wonderful group of members who have engaged with the brand, and us personally.”
And with a growing community, bringing the Society to new members remains one of the best parts of the job. “We love that moment at a tasting or festival when someone’s eyes light up upon trying their first SMWS dram and they have that ‘a-ha!’ experience,” Rob says. Paying it forward is equally important to Rob and Kelly. “Over the years there have been several charities we’ve supported by providing bottles or membership kits to silent auctions,” says Kelly. “In the fall of 2020, though, as we watched hospitality and other businesses struggle through the pandemic, we decided to kick it up a notch.”
This past January Kelly and Rob launched their Giving Spirit programme. “Every quarter, we designate one bottling from an Outturn as our Giving Spirit bottle, and SMWS Canada donates 100 per cent of our profits from the sales of that bottling to charity,” says Kelly. “We pick a new charity each quarter, and so far it’s been really successful; our members have stepped up and supported the cause, which is great and we thank them for that.”
“We know what’s coming down the pipe, and sometimes it’s hard not to let the cat out of the bag about certain releases that we know will excite the members”
What's ahead for SMWS Canada?
For now, celebration and the return to a new normal. “We’ve just agreed to run the Canadian branch for another five years,” says Rob. “Right now we’re focused on enjoying our 10th anniversary and getting back to in-person tastings, and returning to festivals and other events.”
As for their favourite part of the Society, it’s hard to pick just one answer. “We know what’s coming down the pipe, and sometimes it’s hard not to let the cat out of the bag about certain releases that we know will excite the members,” says Kelly. “Seeing their reaction when a certain bottling speaks to them is well worth having to keep our lips sealed ahead of time!”
In the end however it all comes back to community. “We love the global aspect, which has admittedly been tricky during the pandemic,” says Rob. “It affords members the opportunity to enjoy what other branches have to offer: different bottlings, partner bars, and member venues.”
* Due to Canadian liquor regulations, SMWS Canada cannot sell directly to members; bottles must be sold through retail liquor stores.
Adam Bradshaw of Canadian partner retailer The Strath in Victoria BC
Drams poured at the launch party for SMWS Canada in October 2011