When Robert ‘Ronnie’ Watson joined the newly founded Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1983, he was a spritely 47-years old. Across the world in Hong Kong, his fellow SMWS member, Fawn Ma, had just been born.
Now, 35 years later, the SMWS has invited these two Society members to our spiritual home, at The Vaults in Leith, to compare notes on their whisky experiences and discuss what the Society means to them.
At the age of 82, Ronnie is a well-known face at The Vaults, where he’s been a regular visitor since before the Members’ Rooms were even completed, and has served on the Tasting Panel in the past.
Fawn has recently moved to Edinburgh and only joined The Scotch Malt Whisky Society a few months ago, where she’s keen to expand her whisky knowledge.
Fawn: Why did you become a Society member in the first place Ronnie?
Ronnie: My father took a dram, but he was very much into blends. My father-in-law liked malts, and I preferred them to blended whiskies. I read an article about this new Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and thought, I’d like to join that, but didn’t do anything about it. Then my two daughters bought me my membership at the end of 1983, and I’ve been a member ever since.
Fawn: Growing up in Hong Kong, my father was always really interested in whisky, not just Scotch but Japanese, and whenever he travelled he would bring back different bottles. When we had friends over, he would open something and let us try it, so I got to sample various styles of whisky.
Ronnie: Do you remember which ones?
Fawn: A lot of Scotch whiskies, including Laphroaig, which I thought had a very particular, peaty taste. Then I tried a lot of the Japanese ones, which were quite sweet and easy to drink, and my interest mainly started from there. I liked the fact that they all tasted so different, I found that interesting. It helps that my boyfriend is from Speyside, and the first time I met him he had a hip flask of whisky as well!
Ronnie: How did you discover the Society?
Fawn: I came here to The Vaults and I loved the building, the space and the atmosphere, and everyone at the bar was very friendly. They never made me feel silly for asking questions or not knowing enough about whisky. I’d tried a lot of different whiskies but didn’t know much about them, so thought it was a nice idea to find out more.
Ronnie: What do you prefer, what style or flavour profile?
Fawn: I don’t even know what terminology or words I should use to describe it! But I like this 112.21: Mulled Tokaji and Belgian waffles, it’s quite sweet, from a Madeira cask. But I also like smoky whiskies, although not too full-on. How about you Ronnie?
Ronnie: I’ve got a dram here of 10.147: Marmalade rock pools, it’s very pleasant. But I’m more of a Speyside fan, and I like whisky matured in sherry casks.
Fawn: How do you take your whisky?
Ronnie: I warm the glass in my hand and swirl it around a little bit, then taste it neat first, see what it’s like, but with a drop of water it’s amazing how the flavour can change.
Fawn: How much water do you put in?
Ronnie: It depends on the whisky’s strength. If you have a 60% abv whisky, that can take quite a lot of water, but you don’t want to kill the taste so it’s best to add just a little bit at a time.
Fawn: How did you work out what kind of whisky you liked? Just by trying and tasting, or did you go into tasting sessions?
Ronnie: I used to go out with my pals in Edinburgh, 50 or 60 years ago, to find malts in different pubs, but they were difficult to find back then. In 1983 there were specialist pubs that sold single malt but after joining the Society I didn’t need to go hunting anymore! I was able to explore a range of whiskies, attend tastings and learn from them.
Fawn: I haven’t attended any specific tasting events yet, but I guess that would be a good way to learn more about whisky – and meet a range of different people.
Ronnie: That’s been the best thing for me about being a member of the Society – it’s been easy to meet people, especially if you go to tastings. I’ve met so many people over the years.
Fawn: That social aspect is also important to me, being part of a community with a shared space and a common interest, whether they’re young or old, retired or working.
Ronnie: I’ll drink to that!