MEMBERS AT OUR HEART
Samantha Rothbart was one of 13 SMWS members from around the world who won a competition to travel to The Vaults to take part in a cask selection process for our annual Gathering event. Here, she describes the experience…
The group gathered outside Edinburgh’s George Hotel seems to have little to connect them, other than waiting for a taxi. But this seemingly motley bunch, representing 13 countries from across the globe, has one very important thing in common. We are all whisky enthusiasts. And more than just loving a dram, we are particularly fond of particularly excellent drams — which is how we find ourselves on our way to The Vaults, the spiritual home of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
We’ve been given the opportunity to take part in the cask selection for the SMWS Gathering. This worldwide event celebrates the ethos of the Society, connecting members through a series of celebrations and events, both in person and online. To help celebrate the Society’s 40th anniversary, we’ve been invited to choose the Gathering exclusive bottle for each of our countries and write the tasting notes.
ABOVE: Members take part in a blind tasting with blue glasses
You might call it work, but I would happily do it for a living.
Over the next day and a half, we are immersed in a sensory workshop, with experts from the Tasting Panel to guide us. We nose the whiskies blind and work in teams to agree on each whisky’s three key characteristics. Nosing is followed by the much-anticipated tasting. Intriguingly, each country’s table has a choice of bottles simply marked ‘Sample no. x’.
Next, the stringent process of selection. We’re assessing, reflecting and drawing on the deep recesses of memory to pluck out the perfect descriptors. This is quality control. Without context, and only a gradient of colour to go on, it’s a puzzle — but one we are all more than happy to try to solve. Having made our choices, and after a brief break for lunch, the sight we return to is quite something to behold.
PICTURED: Samantha Rothbart chats with SMWS chief executive Andrew Dane (R) during the cask selection event
ABOVE: members approve one of the beguiling offerings
All of our ‘rejected’ bottles are lined up tantalisingly along the bar. We now have the opportunity to taste the other countries’ discards and decide if we want to claim another whisky for our country.
A shift in the atmosphere suggests that everyone is ready for some very Serious Business. Amid the swirls of amber, the popping of bottle tops and the constant motion of people circulating the room, bottles vanish and reappear.
But, somehow, we manage to decide. Some have stuck to their guns while others have been romanced by a more beguiling offering.
With morning comes the tasting note writing session, and the opportunity to taste our chosen whiskies again. This time, we’ll also know which distillery our whisky comes from, along with how it was matured and finished. I feel mildly apprehensive — there’s every chance I’ll look at the previous day’s notes and wonder what I was drinking. But isn’t that what makes whisky so interesting?
It is not static, but constantly evolving. In the bottle. In the glass. In the mouth. We should find something new and unexpected each time.
Before the final stretch, we are treated to a history of the very first Tasting Panel by none other than Pip Hills, the Society’s founder. It feels an appropriate way to wrap up the trip. After all, this is a Society of storytellers and its history of friendship, connection and good whisky is integral to what makes the Society what it is today.
The experience has been both intense and extremely rewarding. Being involved in the selection process has made me feel that much more a part of the fabric of this close-knit Society. It provides a home for whisky lovers from all walks of life. It is a cosy hub for friends and like-minded enthusiasts.
We all leave much richer for having been able to learn and connect over some lovely whisky. It won’t be our last Society visit (or our last time seeing each other, I hope). At the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we come for the whisky, but we stay for the company.