The party principle
Ben Tindall is one of the founding members of the SMWS and the architect responsible for renovating The Vaults
Everyone knows unexpected things can happen at parties. However, when a few friends got together at a home in Edinburgh's Scotland Street in 1983 it wasn't the neighbours who ended up being disturbed, but the entire Scotch whisky industry.
The afternoon's events led to the setting up of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Hosting the party was Pip Hills, and among the friends was Ben Tindall.
He had just started up his own architectural practice and had appointed Pip as his accountant. “I interviewed various people and Pip was by far the most human and entertaining,” says Ben.
“He wasn't a chartered accountant, but he gave me some really sensible advice. We first met in 1982 and quickly became good friends.”
Pip had a keen interest in Scotch and was unfailingly adventurous. Following a debate with other friends on the merits of filtered and unfiltered whisky he headed off to Speyside to purchase a barrel of unfiltered single malt from the Glenfarclas distillery.
To recoup his expenses, he hosted that momentous bash. “Everyone brought along a demijohn and filled it up. It turned into one hell of a party,” says Ben.
BUSINESS IN A BARREL
It was during that fun-filled afternoon that the idea of buying another barrel and establishing a business first arose. “I thought it was an excellent commercial idea, but I also believe one of our aims was to continue the party. We all thought we would have lazy afternoons putting the world to right, and possibly make a little money.
“However, it wasn’t until a second, equally enjoyable, party that things became serious – that’s when we decided to do it.” 'It' was the establishment of the SMWS.
There were five original members: Pip, the writer/playwright W Gordon Smith, actor Russell Hunter, Glasgow-based developer David Allison, and Ben.
Pip was the glue who brought everyone together and he soon found The Vaults in Leith for sale at a price of £50,000. “The other four put in £10,000 each and I put in £10,000 worth of time and architectural expertise,” added Ben. Although it was a substantial investment, all five were confident they would succeed.
Ben took on the complicated task of getting The Vaults in order. A variety of planned uses in a listed building, which included flats and a museum of whisky, meant that an exceptional amount of complex regulations had to be met. Fired with enthusiasm, all five had a hands-on role, with David Allison's development expertise also coming in particularly useful.
“Just as the first flats were ready for sale, the whole project went bankrupt,” says Ben. However, since a separate company had been created to undertake the development the SMWS was unaffected. Eventually, the work was completed by another developer.
Ben explains: “When we opened the doors of the SMWS it was an instant success. Membership grew very quickly. I put that down to the quality of the product!”
He remained a director of the company with a particular responsibility for design matters. Among other things, he took on creation of the logo and labels, while early share certificates were written out in his own hand. “I enjoyed that role very much. Initially, it was very exciting. The only drawback was that we didn't have time to while away the afternoons as planned.”
ABOVE: Join Ben Tindall in the Society's September virtual pub session, when he tells us more about his role in renovating The Vaults, and designing the Society's first bottle label.