The tie that binds us

From being a passionate member in the early days of the Society, John McCheyne is now our master brand ambassador, taking his passion for whisky and the SMWS to a global membership

In my youth, I studied Esperanto outside formal education (alongside learning the accordion – but that’s another story!)

Esperanto is a hybrid language – its concept was that people from across the globe could learn and adopt it, and come together in pursuit of knowledge, friendship and understanding of different cultures, as a benefit of having a common form of communication.

As an Esperanto speaker you earned a lapel badge. That badge announced that you were a member of a community, with the ability to connect with others without knowing their native language. So, wherever you travelled you could recognise and be recognised and have common ground with a stranger – perhaps only to discover that this constructed language was actually all you had in common.

Esperanto is still in use today, but it hasn’t developed in the way the concept and community hoped. It doesn’t have a founding in something real. There is no underlying passion. Later, I was destined to come across something very passionate and real.


Over the last decades people internationally have shown a desire to learn about other cultures and languages, and travel the world doing so. There’s a ‘culture of connoisseurship’ developing. Food and drink are primary in that desire, and whisky is central. And Scotch is a byword for whisky the world over.

In the 1980s, I found a gathering of people who also signified inclusion in something by a lapel badge. But this was a membership of a community with a love and passion for the same thing, who could share and discover and develop their knowledge and passion together. It was The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

It was a powerful revelation. They could express that passion with other members who enjoyed the togetherness and real feeling of ‘society’, irrespective of any other interests or opinions on life, love and the universe. It started out in Scotland.

Now that membership has spread over the years since 1983, from the first International branches in the early 1990s to around 25 countries today, with whisky as the common language.


And a journey it truly is. A never-ending monthly experience of bottlings from existing, first-time and new distilleries. And this isn’t just ‘whisky’. This is a limited, unique expression of a moment in time and a period of maturation available only to those with that lapel badge, showing membership of the Society.

Every bottle is different, and members discover and share the epiphanies of flavour together. Many say that they can approach and understand single malt much better now because the Society’s bottlings have educated their nose and palate to recognise flavours from the different types of wood.

The Society was an important first step on their journey of whisky discovery.

That journey has continued through the Society’s continual innovation, from non-Scotch whisky expressions to blended malts and other Single Cask Spirits from around the globe.

Members enjoy the range of flavour profiles, and appreciate that the Society can develop so many profiles from the same new-make spirit through its innovative and imaginative maturation programme.

And the exact dates of distillation can often be an added thrill when that date coincides with an important date or anniversary in a member’s life.


Meeting in Society Members’ Rooms, partner bars, and each other’s homes, they share that passion and the knowledge and entertainment that comes from Unfiltered magazine, podcasts and social media stories providing educational pieces on distilleries and the wider whisky world. Meeting each other, building lifelong friendships with members and Society people, extending their network through social media, events, festivals and gatherings.

This is no ordinary whisky club. This is an ongoing experience of flavour, friendships and fun. From the love of whisky flows everything else. And it is wonderful to see how important this sharing means to members. Often, they will enjoy the whisky only in the company of others.

So, I’m proud to have had that lapel badge for so long – I now sometimes wear all three versions, new and historical, when at events and abroad – and I’m delighted that whisky and SMWS is part of me and my life. Member, then ambassador. And when I think back to my youth and Esperanto, I’m grateful that I found a real language that unites me with members and friends across the globe.

If I could go back in time, perhaps I would offer my Esperanto teacher a large glass from distillery 29, and the chance to wear a very different lapel badge. Now we’re talking my language!