A CLUB UNCORKED
With unconventional origins, The Scotch Malt Whisky 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
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 creating Tasting Notes to accompany it. That role has remained unchanged with the passage of time, with only the personnel changing, although it is still a combination of Society experts and independent authorities from the wider whisky world.
Among the long-standing participants are renowned whisky writer Charlie MacLean MBE and the ‘Whisky Bard’ Robin Laing, who has been a chairperson for the past 25 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 head of whisky creation 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.”
PICTURED: SWRI's Frances Jack
ABOVE: Charlie MacLean
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 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 women and men – so everyone brings their reference points.
“The main thing is the Tasting Notes have to be informative, relevant and accurate,” says Robin. “But it’s also good to have a bit of fun.”
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 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.
ABOVE: samples bottles ready for testing at the SWRI
ABOVE: the label shows the bottle is one of 264 drawn from the 35th cask from distillery number 6
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 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 the Society has bottled from that 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 were 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 that supplied us with these single casks. Distilleries invest a great deal in creating consistent whiskies to a strict flavour profile, skilfully combining the contents of hundreds of casks into each bottling batch. Each of these single casks, however, has a unique character that 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 brands would not be damaged by single casks that might not represent their usual flavour profile.
What started out as a straightforward coding system has become 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 whisky.
The 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.
ABOVE: single cask Cognac bottlings
The anatomy of an
SMWS bottle label
1. THE NAME
Each bottling is given a descriptive name based on its essential flavours and characteristics.
2. THE TASTING NOTE
Each bottle also carries a unique whisky Tasting Note, a description of the flavours in store when you delve into the magical malt. A more detailed and expressive Tasting Note is published online with the First Friday Outturn every month.
3. THE CODE
Each bottle of Society whisky carries a bottling code. The first number represents the distillery the whisky is from; the second represents the number of casks that have been bottled from that distillery. So this bottle shown is the 86th cask bottled from distillery 46.
4. THE FLAVOUR PROFILE
Every bottle is colour coded according to the Society’s unique 12 flavour profiles, from Young & Sprightly through to Old & Dignified, which we introduced to help whisky lovers navigate the hundreds of bottlings we release each year.
Unique and limited, SMWS whisky is pure, undiluted, unadulterated cask-strength whisky, and each bottle is drawn directly from a single cask. Each cask may only yield a few hundred bottles or much less – and once it’s gone, it’s gone forever.
6. THE AGE
Our bottlings clearly show the whisky’s age, unless it is one of our occasional no age statement (NAS) releases.
The precise date this precious one-of-a-kind liquid was created.
The previous contents of a cask, and the number of times it was used, can tell you a lot about what the whisky will taste like. Society bottles carry the cask type on every bottle.
Another useful signpost is this indication of the whisky’s origin, without specific reference to its distillery.
The Society’s cask strength whiskies are undiluted for your drinking pleasure, and are sure to pack more of a punch than your average single malt, which is usually watered down to around 40% abv.
ABOVE: a set of drams at the ready for a flavour profile event
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 head of whisky creation Euan Campbell. “Rather than trying to describe exactly what makes a whisky special – which is still the job of the Tasting Notes – they’re a way of navigating the whiskies, so you can begin to pin down what you’re looking for.”
Each of the 12 flavour profiles is colour-coded and they 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 nothing new. The standard flavour wheels used by industry professionals set out agreed points of reference – such as “leathery”, “medicinal”, and “vanilla”. 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.