In an emotional homecoming, Richard Goslan chats to Pip Hills as the Society’s founder shares his vision over a vintage bottling

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I’m chatting with Pip Hills in the Tasting Room at The Vaults, and if he’s feeling ever so slightly nostalgic, it’s with good reason. The man who founded the SMWS has returned to share a dram of the Society’s first ever bottling later in the evening with a bunch of fortunate members. He’s currently sitting in the same room where he entered the building for the first time in the early 1980s. He’d popped in on the off-chance to see if it might be for sale from JG Thomson as a home for newly formed The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Thankfully, it was.

Society founder Pip Hills with the bottle that started it all back in 1983, Cask No. 1.1.

“I’d always liked the building, so I walked up the stairs and asked to see the manager, and he brought me in here, into this very room,” says Pip. “By mere coincidence the firm was moving to new premises in a month’s time and yes, he was sure that the directors would look favourably on any reasonable offer. I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen, in the way that they do when the Zeitgeist seems to be taking command of the ship. I was just delighted with it and I’m delighted to see that it hasn’t changed.”

A packed Members' Room at The Vaults gathered to hear Pip's stories and to savour a taste of the Society's first bottling.

Pip and his small consortium bought The Vaults from JG Thomson and by the end of 1983 had released their first official bottling list to a small group of Society members. Cask 1.1 came from Glenfarclas, eight-years old and from an ex-sherry cask. And that’s why we’ve gathered here tonight, to crack open a bottle of 1.1 with the Society’s founder, taste this glass of liquid history, and enjoy Pip’s reflections on how he started the Society and introduced the world to the joys of single cask, single malt. The members are as engrossed by his stories as they are by the whiskies being sampled tonight.

Pip savours his taste of Cask No. 1.1 with SMWS ambassador Fin Anderson.

“Everybody who knew anything about spirts only had to be shown a Society whisky once and they would say: ‘Where did you get this stuff? Why have I not known about it before?’” he tells us. “It was such an easy job selling the stuff, like giving away gold! It also opened doors, and acted as a kind of currency on quite a number of occasions. During those years, looking back on it, it’s a sort of catalogue of mild delinquency, but I found that the presence of whisky lubricated many human transactions that otherwise might have been awkward.”

Even at the age of 78, Pip takes his audience through his detailed memories of some of those human transactions and mild delinquency, as the Society and its membership spread from Leith to London and beyond. The good news for members who would missed out on the opportunity to hear the stories first-hand is that Pip is currently compiling his Society anecdotes in a book that’s due to be published by the end of this year.

A much deserved toast to Pip with glasses of Cask No. 1.1 raised in appreciation of the Society's founder.

The bad news is that you had to be there to savour a precious drop of 1.1. We’d like to say there’s always a next time – but this evening was truly a one off.

“I don’t reckon that life gets much better than sitting in this room, drinking the best liquor on the planet!” Pip says in his closing remarks. You don’t need a dram of 1.1 in your glass to drink to that. Any drop of Society whisky will suffice.

WHISKY TALK podcast with Pip Hills

Pour yourself a dram, settle back and enjoy Pip’s entire presentation by tuning in to episodes 1 and 2 of Whisky Talk, the new podcast from Unfiltered. You’ll find episode one here and episode two here, as well as on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher and Tunein.

Pip Hills Cask No. 1.1 tasting: “We were just taking what we could get…but it turned out pretty well.”

This feature is from the May 2019 issue of Unfiltered. The magazine is delivered four times a year to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To sign up and receive your own copy, visit