Oh for a Dram o’ the Good Stuff…
It all started in the early 1980s. A small group of whisky enthusiasts in Edinburgh with distillery connections got a hold of a cask of Speyside Malt and what would become the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was born
There was a time when the availability of Single Malt was far, far less than it is today. Most Single Malt was passed to blenders so that they could mix it with grain whisky, to give the world its Johnnie Walker, Ballantines, Bells, Grouse, Teachers, and so on. Even though blended whisky remains the very much larger part of whisky production , more and more people across the world are coming to appreciate the craft of single malt, and the “one of a kind” fascination that are bottles of single cask single malt.
Single Malt is a blend of casks from a single distillery. Mixed together for consistency. So that this year’s bottle is the same as last year’s bottle. So that you’ll know what to expect. So that your palate won’t have to experience new flavours.
The Society is constantly in amongst the stores and warehouses of the whisky world, sourcing great casks before they get blended. To find those unique and complex flavours that are the natural balance between the spirit and that one cask.
Capturing a moment in time and place. That day the spirit was distilled and the cask filled. Sometimes, that date, always given on our bottle, will resonate with a member or a friend just because of the importance of the date for them. A bottle distilled on your birth date, perhaps?
Here’s a thought for those not au fait with types of whisky. Every cask develops differently, with a curious and unique flavour profile. You can fill two same type casks with the same spirit from the same distillery on the same day and store them together in the same warehouse for many years. The chances are that they will develop differently. (The Society has done just that – and members could sample them side by side). The wonderful romance is that science cannot explain it. It’s a representation of the place and the craft of the people who make it. One distillery manager described it as 1,000 little quirks in each distillery passed down over decades or much longer.
When the bottles from that cask are gone, that particular flavour has gone forever. There will never be another. But each month there will be new aromas and flavours to try for members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
But, how did that small group of friends become The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS)?
The group enjoyed their single cask whisky so much that they were keen to get another. Their ‘leader’, Pip Hills, drove off north in his Aston Martin Lagonda. Now, car enthusiasts out there, you’ll know that Aston Martin Lagondas were not designed to carry large quantities of whisky but that wasn’t going to deter Pip and his quest for another round of unique flavour.
Back he came to Edinburgh with a cask strapped on the roof (or so the ‘legend’ is told)… The word had spread. More friends joined the group to sample this wonderful whisky. The next time there were even more. So, the group had a bit of a think one evening over a glass – perhaps we need to formalise this tasting group somehow. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was born.
Describing the Whisky.
Every single cask whisky is unique. Our Single Casks would have different levels of complexity and flavour from the commercial Single Malt of that distillery. Members of the Society, and their guests and friends, can focus on the aromas and tastes of every bottle rather than be influenced through pre-judgement by which distillery it came from. But it is about enjoyment, opinions and conversations, too
Finding out from which distillery a bottle has come, the fun could then be to detect which of the flavours from the cask could be identified from the commercial bottling of that distillery’s malt. Or how the same spirit developed differently in two or more different type of casks. To help the concept of a fresh palate and a fresh experience, the numbering system was adopted, rather than using the Distillery brand, with a ‘bottled by …..’ designation.
Our numbering system is possibly now iconic in the whisky world. The very first bottle would be 1.1, signifying the first distillery to supply a cask and the first cask from that distillery. Incidentally, the Society is now at bottling number 1.205 from that very first distillery, a wonderful family owned one with a giant reputation in the world of single malt.
From that small band of whisky enthusiasts in Leith 32 years ago at The Vaults (our spiritual home), the Society has expanded, opening a London Venue in Farringdon in 1999, another venue in Edinburgh New Town (Queen Street) in 2004, to our latest addition in late 2017, the Kaleidoscope Bar in London’s Devonshire Square (open to non members too). Alongside branches in 18 countries across the globe – the attraction of single cask whisky has caught on, you might say… The Society is now the biggest bottler of single cask single malts in the world with 16,000 members in the UK, approaching 30,000 including our International branches, enjoying whisky from 132 Malt distilleries over the years. Whisky from Scotland, of course, but also Japan, Wales and Ireland, Single Cask Bourbons from the USA , 14 grain distilleries – and even single cask rums and Armagnacs.
Our members and guests / friends can relax in the comfort of our venues in Leith, Edinburgh and London. We have an award winning restaurant at our Queen Street site. Members and guests not close to the venues can enjoy preview tastings across the country of up and coming releases. And some member’s tastings at these external venues have exclusive bottlings just for those tastings. The chance to sample and buy there and then.
Our venues have the largest number of single cask single malts, on bar, in the world. But, we can’t let this paragraph go by without mention of our friends in the Denmark branch in Vejle, at Hotel ToRVEhallerne, which opened four years ago and already boasts over 500 Society Malts in their bar! Well worth a visit.
Membership in the UK extends to all of our branches here and elsewhere. New members stretch across all demographics and we are delighted to see almost 50 per cent of new members in recent years are women. Whisky short, whisky with cocktails, whisky with different foods – with chocolate, with cheese. You name it, we can pair a whisky with it.
Tastings in unusual places. London Eye, pop-ups in Shoreditch and Covent Garden, atop Scottish mountains, in atmospheric and historical cellar vaults in Edinburgh and London; anywhere our members or corporate guests wish to go, in fact. Just tell us – we can be there with our unique whisky.
The one Big thing – and SMWS as a starting point?
The “big thing” is the flavour of a special, intriguing whisky, the anticipation every month of another release of new bottlings, to add to these still available from previous months and the olfactory and flavour journey of the experience. An education for those who seek to understand whisky and how the different flavours arise.
Most whisky commercially available is a mix of ex- Bourbon Casks, ex-Sherry casks, or a bit of both. The flavours are blended to appeal to enormous numbers of people around the world who find whisky delicious and fascinating. At SMWS, sampling single cask whisky from a 1st fill ex-Bourbon or a 1ST fill ex-Sherry cask, or a refill version of either, can allow your palate and olfactory senses to begin to appreciate and understand how these different types of casks contribute to the different flavours in a Single Malt or a blend. Then the balance of flavours in the commercial brands will be more distinguishable on your palate.
So, our new members don’t ‘graduate’ to the Society experience. Often, it’s where they start. Yes, there are few who don’t also enjoy proprietary whisky. And it can be intriguing fun comparing a single cask to the single malt from the same distillery. SMWS whisky is not chill filtered; it does not have artificial colouring, nor is it diluted before bottling. So the natural complexity of the cask and spirit balance is available in all its glory. Being undiluted, members can decide for themselves at what strength they wish to drink it, rather than have to choose between standard strengths for commercial bottlings.