Michael Jackson’s Thriller takes MTV by storm. Flashdance and Return of the Jedi are among the year’s biggest movies. Chicken Kiev is quite possibly a feature of your sophisticated dinner party menu. The Macintosh computer doesn’t exist yet. And in Scottish football, Aberdeen beat Real Madrid to win the European Cup Winners’ Cup, while Dundee United capture the Scottish Premier Division.
The year is 1983, and it also happens to be a desperately low point in the history of Scotch whisky production and export. Among the distilleries to cease operation during the course of the year are Port Ellen, Brora, Banff, Dallas Dhu, Glen Albyn, Glen Mhor, Glenlochy, Glenugie, Glenury, St Magdalene and the Carsebridge grain distillery.
Against this backdrop, a curious group of Edinburgh whisky enthusiasts set up home in a dilapidated old wine warehouse in Leith known as The Vaults. Their mission is to defy industry expectations by selling whisky taken from a single cask, un-chillfiltered and bottled at cask strength. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is born.
By their own admission, the characters behind this new venture were whisky amateurs with few connections within the industry. They were warned that their scheme couldn’t possibly work, often on the grounds that if it could have been done, somebody would have done it before them.
Thankfully for all of us who have learned to appreciate the pleasures of single cask, single malt, they stubbornly ignored the advice and carried on regardless.
The early enthusiasts who had the opportunity to sample this single cask whisky declared that it simply tasted better than any other single malt they had drunk, and that malts tasted better than blends. Society founder Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills subsequently wrote in his book Scots on Scotch about the reasons why it proved so popular.
“Firstly, casks of whisky vary greatly in type and quality, and the cask has a profound influence on the whisky that is matured in it. When bottling malt, distillers put together the contents of many casks, some of which are not necessarily of the highest quality.
“Secondly, we were taking the stuff straight from the cask, whereas almost all of those distillers who bottled malt at all, bottled it after subjecting it to a process called chill-filtering. This consists of refrigerating the spirit and then filtering it very finely, so as to ensure that the whisky in the bottle cannot go cloudy. The result is by any standard a very fine liquor, but it lacks some of the character of malt whisky taken, unfiltered, from a single cask.”
By November 1983, the SMWS offered its first bottlings to members: casks 1.1 and 1.2 were identified as being from Glenfarclas, the others a Speyside and an Islay from unnamed distilleries. The iconic SMWS code for distillery and cask number was born – 35 years later we bottle around 500 casks a year, and we’re now up to distillery 135. Members have never had more choice or more variety of flavour profiles.
As The Scotch Malt Whisky Society enters its 35th year, we celebrate the spirited visionaries who saw the potential of whisky in its purest form at a time no one else was considering it and the wider industry was suffering. Over the course of the year we’ll be recalling key moments in the Society’s development, some of the characters who have played significant roles in its growth, and we’ll be releasing special 35th anniversary bottlings through the course of the year.
Each one has been chosen to demonstrate the kind of intriguing, surprising casks you only stumble across at the Society – and that inspire the same need to share with kindred spirits as those whiskies in Edinburgh in the early 1980s.
We’ll also be throwing special events and 35th anniversary parties to celebrate your involvement in the Society – and your role as the lifeblood running through the veins of everything we do.
Here’s to a fantastic 35th anniversary year, and many more to come.