SMWS 101

A club uncorked

With unconventional origins, the Society has developed some distinctive practices over the years. Here’s what you need to know about how we end up offering such a fantastic range of whiskies – and how to make sense of what’s inside our iconic green bottles

MAIN PHOTOS: PETER SANDGROUND AND MIKE WILKINSON

So there you are, SMWS membership card in hand, entering one of our Members’ Rooms or opening up our web page and suddenly being confronted with a seemingly endless array of green bottles. But wait a minute. None of them has a distillery name on it – only a stripe of colour on the label distinguishes it from the next one.

What are you to do? First of all, relax. You’re in good hands and the bottom line here is that any liquid that’s ended up in a green Society bottle has been approved by the discerning noses of the Tasting Panel. You may all have slightly different preferences, and the Society caters for everyone, but there’s a guarantee that if it’s been bottled, it’s great stuff.

THE TASTING PANEL

That guarantee of quality is thanks to the Tasting Panel, which has existed in one form or another since the Society started out in the kitchen of founder Pip Hills’s home on Scotland Street in Edinburgh. He describes that group as a “motley bunch”, made up of a cross-section of Edinburgh society who “had experience of drinking whisky and were also handy with words. In the Scotland of 1983, a fair proportion of the population could be said to have met those criteria,” recalls Pip in his book The Founder’s Tale (essential reading for an insight into the Society’s origins).

As well as evaluating the samples of whisky, the Tasting Panel started to explore a language they could use to describe single cask, single malt – something that had never been done before. In the early 1980s, whisky was described only in terms of how old it was or where it came from, but with little reference to its actual flavour. All that was about to change.

HOW IT WORKS

That original Tasting Panel was tasked with ensuring the sample in front of them was worthy of ending up in a Society bottle, and with creating Tasting Notes to accompany it. The Panel’s role has remained unchanged with the passage of time, with only the personnel changing over the years, although it is still a combination of both Society experts together with independent authorities from the wider whisky world.

Among the long-standing participants are renowned whisky writer Charlie MacLean (pictured) and the ‘Whisky Bard’ Robin Laing (pictured below), who has been a chairperson for the past 20 years.

“We have members of the Tasting Panel who have been involved since the early days of the Society and bring all those years of experience and whisky knowledge to the task,” says the Society’s spirits manager Euan Campbell, who co-ordinates the Panel and selects the samples for its assessment.

“Whenever a new panellist joins the group they come with a recommendation from an existing member, and then have to pass a sensory evaluation to be able to qualify as a panellist.”

THE JUDGING PROCESS

The Tasting Panel meets regularly to judge a selection of samples, assessing the colour, nosing and tasting the whisky neat, then with a drop of water. The participants discuss each sample, decide whether it’s of the required quality, award it an overall score and assign it a flavour profile – but are under no obligation to pass any of the casks they have sampled.

“Quality is obviously a prerequisite,” says Euan. “But we’re also looking for something unique and curious in prospective Society whiskies – something that gets us talking.”

THE TASTING NOTES

After the Panel has passed judgement, the chairperson gathers the notes from each of the contributors and comes up with a distinctive name and Tasting Note for the bottle, which capture an element of the whisky’s personality. Most Society members will be able to recall a bottle name or Tasting Note that has made an impression, raised a smile or maybe even sent them off to search out the meaning of an unfamiliar reference.

“People like Charlie and me are guys of a certain age who grew up in Edinburgh and a lot of the time when you are nosing and tasting whiskies, it brings back childhood memories,” says Robin Laing. “Those memories can be specific, often to do with medicines that you had as a child, or Scottish sweeties.”

Not all the references are particular to Scotland, however. The Tasting Panel has always been multinational and includes both women and men – so everyone brings their own points of reference to the whiskies. “The main thing is that the Tasting Notes have to be informative, relevant and accurate,” says Robin. “But it’s also good to have a bit of fun.”

“We’re looking for something unique and curious in prospective Society whiskies – something that gets us talking.”

EUAN CAMPBELL

SCIENTIFIC INPUT

With almost 40 years of experience in selecting and describing whiskies, the Panel is well-versed in the process, but is always looking for ways to enhance its ability to identify a whisky’s qualities. With that in mind, the Society is now a member of The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI), the industry-funded research and technology organisation. The Tasting Panel works with SWRI’s flavour and sensory science experts to increase its ability to measure the intensity of individual flavour characteristics – as well as identifying unfavourable elements.

CRACKING THE CODE

Now you have a bottle of this precious whisky in your hands, approved by the Tasting Panel and ready to savour. But what does all this information on the label actually mean?

Once again, we need to dip back in time, to when the first Society bottling was released to a small but passionate group of members: Cask No. 1.1.

That bottling gave birth to a coding system that’s still in place today, with the first number representing the distillery the whisky is from, and the second representing the number of single casks that the Society has bottled from that particular distillery.

In that first bottling list, Cask Nos. 1.1 and 1.2 were openly identified as bottlings from Glenfarclas. Cask Nos. 2.1 and 3.1 only referred to as a Speyside and an Islay from unidentified distilleries. The cask coding system grew from there, and is now iconic within the whisky world. Some particularly devoted members may immediately be able to name a distillery based on its number.

Why not just put the distillery name on the bottle?

First, a little background about why the system started in the first place. The Society code was initially devised to protect the brands of the distilleries which supplied us with these single casks. Distilleries invest a great deal in creating consistent whiskies to a strict flavour profile, by skilfully combining the contents of hundreds of casks into each bottling batch. Each of these single casks, however, has a unique character that – although potentially fascinating – may differ significantly from the distillery’s target flavour profile.

By not naming names in the early days, the Society was able to show those initially sceptical distilleries that their valuable brands would not be damaged by single casks that might not represent their usual flavour profile.

Of course, what started out as a straightforward coding system has become somewhat more complicated over the years. As the Society’s range of bottlings has increased, the coding system has developed to include classifications such as A for Armagnac, B for bourbon, C for cognac, G for grain whisky, GN for gin, R for rum, and RW for rye whiskey.

The Society’s coding system has come a long way since Cask No. 1.1 was released in 1983. Rest assured, there are many more numbers coming your way to savour – and maybe even to memorise.

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FIND YOUR FLAVOUR

Even for the seasoned member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, each new Outturn represents such an embarrassment of riches that it is often difficult to know where to start.

That’s where our 12 flavour profiles provide another layer of information to help you navigate the hundreds of Society bottlings released each year.

“Our flavour profiles are deliberately very broad strokes,” says spirits manager Euan Campbell. “Rather than trying to describe exactly what makes a whisky special – which is still the job of the Tasting Notes – they’re simply a way of navigating the whiskies, so you can begin to pin down what you’re looking for.”

What do they mean?

Each of the 12 flavour profiles is colour-coded for ease of reference, and range from Light & Delicate to Heavily Peated. Though it’s perfectly possible to have a dram that is both Old & Dignified and Peated, the profiles were chosen to pick out the dominant characteristic of each bottling.

The idea of agreeing a common language for describing character is, of course, nothing new. The standard flavour wheels widely used by blenders and other industry professionals set out agreed points of reference – such as "leathery", “medicinal”, and “vanilla” – which act like waypoints on the complex landscape of flavour.

While perhaps not as evocative as the Society’s Tasting Notes, these more objective descriptions are invaluable when trying to convey an accurate description. Think of the flavour profile as providing a top-line description of what to expect from the whisky, while the detailed Tasting Notes reveal its soul.