Some of you have been members longer than others, but if you think our move into additional maturation is a recent development, then think again

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In a bottling list from as long ago as 1991, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society described “an experiment” with Cask No. 39.7, which was transferred after 12 years in a second-fill fino cask into “a really good oloroso cask, where it had lain for two years”. The result was described as “a very good whisky indeed”.

That may have been an experiment, but the Society started to properly embrace its own cask management and additional maturation in the mid-1990s, under the guidance of all-round whisky guru Dr Jim Swan.

Whisky expert Dr Jim Swan was a tremendous source of knowledge for the SMWS.

The Society’s managing director at the time was Richard Gordon, who recalls: “Jim’s work was ground-breaking, and he became a tremendous resource to the Society, where our main interest was in top-quality wood for new fill. But we also used the opportunity, when buying in casks, to start finishing various aged and semi-aged whiskies, mainly in sherry and port.

“That allowed us to take young whiskies, from three to five years old, and then enhance their flavour profile over the subsequent years. We also used various port and sherry casks to give some older whiskies an additional one or two years of maturation. All of this gave added interest to members and resulted in some outstanding whiskies.”

In among the treasures lying maturing in the Society's warehouse.

That approach has developed in the intervening years, and is now overseen by our spirits manager Euan Campbell at the Society’s own bonded warehouse. As well as taking delivery of spirit, that’s where he receives regular shipments of empty casks from cooperages in Scotland, the United States, Portugal, Spain and France.

Euan monitors maturation, draws samples for presentation to the Tasting Panel, and decides what whisky could benefit from moving from one cask to another. He sees additional maturation as allowing members to experience more variety and complexity in the Society’s bottlings.

SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell visits a cooperage in Huelva, near Jerez in Spain.

“Variety is something we’re always striving for, so this is another layer of complexity that we can add,” he says. “If you have a batch of 100 casks, all in first-fill bourbon, we might decide to put some into Spanish oak Pedro Ximenez hogsheads, some in oloroso, some in madeira. Obviously, we’re not going to mature everything in a different cask, but we have the opportunities to do something a bit different, and ultimately members get more choice.

“You quickly get a sense of what works, and I think most whisky lovers can instinctively pick up on the characteristics that work well together. The trick is knowing how to achieve those characteristics through wood management. But at the same time as knowing what works, if you’ve got quality spirit and quality wood, it’s enthralling to experiment and produce something that’s nothing like what you’d expect.”

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