The Members’ Secret Society
You always remember your first time, don’t you? Your first Whisky, your first Single Malt Whisky and of course your first Single Malt, Single Cask, Cask Strength Whisky…
Not long after 28 Queen Street, Edinburgh was opened as a members venue for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society I was invited to an event, an introduction to the SMWS. As a very keen Whisky drinker and wannabe Whisky know-it-all I was intrigued, excited but mostly curious. What is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society? I had no idea what to expect as the society’s name alone induced an image of a darkened doorway, a secret knock to enter and a handshake to belong.
My experience that night at Queen Street was nothing short of magnetising, there was so much knowledge to soak up coupled with many anecdotes and tales of the SMWS, told by their own ambassador. I was hooked, it was like Alice discovering Wonderland. The Society was the cryptic crossword for Whisky I was waiting for, coded distillery names, a secret tasting panel and a very dark mysterious place known as the home of the Society called THE VAULTS. With the first mention of the VAULTS I dreamt of an underground lair, accessed only by a dimly lit tight spiral staircase (no handrails) leading to an intricate tunnel system that would eventually arrive at the huge overbearing bank vaults straight from James Bond’s Goldfinger, yip exactly like that.
We were informed this was where the “secret tasting panel” met to sample the casks, my imagination was now in hyper drive. I can remember adding to my already wild ideas a huge silver gated doorway fronting a locked vaulted room where a row of tasters sampled whiskies and furiously wrote their nosing and tasting notes in silence, oh and the room was almost pitch black and the panellists were all blindfolded – active imagination!
The reality is the Vaults in Leith is the home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and also the illusive tasting panel. This is where they meet a few times a week to discuss, taste, approve or disapprove of the Society’s next bottlings, they are also responsible for the amazing, wild and wacky names for these perfect whiskies – a few recent ones that stick in my mind “Getting steamy in the sauna”, “As purple as Prince”, “Ham goblin’ ghoul” and “Holy moly!” to name a few.
This independent panel is one of the vital parts to the Society’s success and also one of the key processes which makes the Society truly unique. The panel is made up from an ensemble of trusted noses, some of them have long enviable careers in the whisky industry, while others are whisky aficionados from completely unrelated backgrounds such as health, sales or finance. Each panel is headed up and controlled by a chairman, it is their role to ensure consistency, quality and order in the room while 7 cask samples are making their way round the the panels various noses and palates. As a group they all play a vital role for the Society in selecting only the very best casks for the members. I feel I must note, in case of any doubt and for the record, the panelists are not blindfolded, the door isn’t locked and they are allowed to have the lights on, I have been reliably informed.
Another unique aspect of the SMWS is the coded number system, to me this is the beauty, stripping away the emphasis that is nowadays pinned on the brand and the packaging the Society relies upon just two numbers for identification, thus distracting members from thinking about the official house-style associated with that distillery. The first number relates to the distillery where the Whisky was distilled and the second number informs us which cask this bottling is from. For example “35.125 – A cornucopia of complexity”, 35 is the number allocated to all bottlings from this Speyside distillery and this particular bottling was from the 125th cask bought and bottled from that distillery by the Society.
Ordering by number is the norm in the members rooms: “Can I have two 77.38” what on earth is a 77.38! An instant reaction is usually to reach for your smart phone and check, or even better skillfully memorise all 132 distilleries the Society has bottled from so far, an enviable party trick.
So fast forward to right now, it’s a sunny summer afternoon and I’m sitting in the Vaults, SMWS HQ, in the heart of Leith, once the gateway and hub to the wine and spirit trade in Scotland. A private three dram tasting has just finished in the main members room, and I can see the Alice in Wonderland effect gripping hold of the guests, they are amazed by what they have just tasted and heard about Whisky and the Society, the ambassador has just blown their minds about Single Cask, Cask Strength Whisky – they’re hooked just like I was on that first evening at Queen Street.
I do fondly think back to my fabricated image of the Society and have a chuckle, obviously there was never a handshake or secret knock required, there was no underground tunnel system and those huge Vaulted doors couldn’t be found anywhere in Leith. However, what I have found is the Society can be a little curious and mysterious but by being a member of this club of whisky drinkers I’ve access to some of the best Whisky in the world, privileged!
If you are not familiar with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society let me give you a very quick fools guide:
- founded in 1983 by it’s Whisky loving creator Pip Hills after buying his first cask of Glenfarclas and sharing this with his friends (the first members)
- one cask led to many, and their love of single cask, cask strength scotch whisky grew, with it grew the members and the uniqueness of the tasting notes
- on all bottles the source distillery is only ever identified by a number
- no cask is ever bottled for its members without first passing a tasting panel of independent noses
- approximately 14 casks are bottled and released every month exclusively for the members
- the Society not only bottles Scotch Whisky, but have also bottled single cask Welsh, Japanese and Irish Whisky and also Bourbon and Rum
- there are three members rooms in the UK (2 in Edinburgh, 1 in London)
- the Society has a further 10 international branches, including USA, Australia, Japan, Switzerland, Sweden and France
- currently there are over 30,000 members worldwide
A Scotch Malt Whisky Society membership is £122, with a yearly renewal of £62. The membership pack includes three 100 ml bottles of single malt, single cask whisky, each from a different distillery. You also receive a subscription to the SMWS magazine, “Unfiltered”, access to all members rooms and the ability to buy some of the most unique whisky in the world.
This article appeared in Whisky Quarterly Issue 4