We’re at The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Open Day at Islay House on the opening day of the Islay Festival of Malts and Music, and the party is getting into full-swing in the grounds of the stunning hotel on the banks of Loch Indaal.
But tune in to the mixture of languages and accents drifting across the marquee and onto the lawn and you’ll get an immediate indicator that this is very much an international event. Society members have travelled from all over the world to be here, to sample the Society’s special festival bottlings, and to share the experience with kindred spirits from near and far.
It’s a measure of how the SMWS has grown from a small group of friends living near each other in Edinburgh to become a truly international Society, with members and branches across the world.
This year may be the Society’s 35th anniversary, but both Japan and the United States branches have been running now for 25 years. Australia celebrated its 15th anniversary last year.
Andrew Derbidge, director and cellarmaster for the SMWS in Australia, reflects on what the Society’s presence there has meant for the development of whisky appreciation in the country.
“Cask strength, single cask whiskies were virtually unknown in Australia when the Society opened its doors here in 2002,” he says. “With one or two notable exceptions, there were no real whisky bars, most liquor retail outlets sold only a handful of malts, and whisky tastings for the public were held once in a blue moon. The landscape was certainly primed for the Society to make a difference.
“As the Society’s membership numbers grew over time in Australia, so too did the whisky category as a whole. I wouldn’t for a moment suggest the Society can take credit for this, but it’s certainly been a journey and a joy for us to play a not-insignificant part in the changing whisky landscape in Australia.”
Someone else who knows all about the international aspect of the Society is Olaf Meier, a long-term member from Germany who found a home-from-home at the Society in Edinburgh as one of our team of ambassadors.
“The international membership has become a really important part of the Society’s character,” he says. “Sure, people will always want to make the trip to Scotland, but with very active branches all over the world, members are making their own connections between countries, and that’s brilliant.”
Indeed, as well as having an active Society membership across the EU, there are also now established branches in Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, Switzerland, Taiwan and the US. Each branch releases a regular Outturn of new whiskies throughout the year and hosts events for members and their guests.
And as well as our three Members’ Rooms in the UK, at The Vaults in Leith, 28 Queen Street in Edinburgh and 19 Greville Street in London, there are also opportunities for members to sample Society whiskies at a network of partner bars in 20 countries worldwide, providing a home from home for Society members and fellow whisky fans.
The Society will always be about bottling the best single cask, single malt in the world – but more than that, we offer the opportunity to become part of a truly global Society of similarly minded whisky lovers – whatever language they happen to speak.