When Anne Dana first set eyes on The Vaults in Leith, it was a derelict building in an off-the-beaten-track location. As an interior designer, Anne didn’t waste any time setting about the challenge of transforming the historic but decrepit building into The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s headquarters. But that’s not all she took on board.
As work on the Members’ Rooms progressed, Anne started researching the whisky industry, finding out where the Society could source single casks, how to bottle and package the whisky, and working out who would be interested in buying it.
“There was a small group of people at first, and I suggested that each of us should come up with 10 other names, and that would give us the beginning of what would become The Scotch Malt Whisky Society,” says Anne. “Once we got those names we sent out membership cards and told them what whisky we’d be able to offer, starting with four casks in late 1983. It just exploded from there.”
While The Vaults was undergoing its transformation, Anne threw herself into her whisky-related research.
“I said to the directors, you know, I can’t just be sitting here, I’m quite an industrious person. So, I started reading up, tasting and exploring the whole whisky world. I began visiting distilleries, building up connections and found the people working in the industry to be generous and helpful. They didn’t necessarily want a really good cask to be tipped in with everything else, so we came away with some very high-quality casks.”
After the SMWS was up and running, Anne became its first managing director, building up the membership and establishing the first tasting room at The Vaults, while continuing not only to source the Society’s single casks, but to start laying down stock for the future.
“I suggested that we start leaving our stock to mature, because I thought we’d sold some of our whiskies too early,” she says. “That’s when we started to lay down our own spirit and choose the barrels that it would be put in. It was a very interesting and exciting time.”
END OF ONE ERA, START OF A NEW ONE
Anne Dana ran The Scotch Malt Whisky Society until 1990, and just as she was leaving for pastures new, another Anne was beginning her 18-year association with the Society. Anne Griffiths, or Cooper as she was then, set foot inside The Vaults for the first time in November that year, to provide some cover for the busy Christmas period.
She quickly became an integral part of the Society team, responsible for developing its tasting programme in the UK and around the world, helping establish international branches, becoming a director and setting up the London Members’ Rooms at 19 Greville Street, among many other achievements.
“After the phone calls settled down following that Christmas period, I became interested in tastings, found out I had a reasonable nose, and had some ideas about how our tastings should be structured and organised,” says Anne. “The Society’s chairman at the time, Douglas McKay, would go through some whiskies with me, and he was a born orator and a wonderful guide.”
Under Anne’s direction, the Society’s tastings programme expanded, as did its international presence, and Anne herself was often on the road to introduce the joys of Society single cask, single malt to eager new audiences, from the United States to Sweden to Australia.
In 1996 she became a director of the SMWS, an unexpected but much deserved reward for her dedication to the Society’s cause, and after relocating to Birmingham she developed the regional tastings programme and project managed the opening of the Members’ Rooms at 19 Greville Street in London.
Reflecting on her experiences over almost two decades with the Society, Anne says: “There weren’t many women in the whisky world at that time, but there was something about this place that broke down barriers,” says Anne. “The ultimate accolade I received when I became a director was when I was told I knew our members better than anyone.”
AN INCREDIBLE BREEDING GROUND
While Anne Griffiths was expanding the Society’s reach and winning over new members, a young potter who was working in catering at an Edinburgh delicatessen happened to be introduced to the Society. Before too long, Annabel Meikle was working behind the bar at The Vaults, before leaping at the opportunity to organise events and tastings.
“We were holding a Society whisky school, and I signed up for it,” says Annabel. “Whisky writer Charlie MacLean and the late Dr Jim Swan were running it, and it was incredible, it was like opening a Pandora’s box into the whisky world and I’ll never forget it.
“Charlie said I had a very good sense of smell, and he taught me enough that I was able to join the Society’s Tasting Panel. But he would also test and challenge me, to be more specific in my descriptions. If I said I was getting smoke, he’d say what kind of smoke? Bonfire smoke, stale cigar smoke?”
Annabel also saw the potential for the Society to open a second Members’ Rooms location in Edinburgh, and found out about a possibility in the heart of the city’s New Town.
“A friend of mine had a development including a townhouse at 28 Queen Street, so I went to see it with then-managing director Richard Gordon,” she says. “We put our hard hats on to walk around the site and the minute we went in, we said ‘Wow!’. From that point, it took two years of negotiating and development until our Members’ Rooms opened in 2004.”
After three years travelling the world as global brand ambassador for Glenmorangie, Annabel returned to the SMWS to run the Members’ Rooms at The Vaults. Now she is director of The Keepers of the Quaich, the invitation-only society that recognises outstanding commitment to the Scotch whisky industry. It’s the latest step on a journey that began the day she stepped into The Vaults for the first time.
“For me, the Society is the most incredible breeding ground for people who have an interest in the whisky world, and there have been so many examples of that,” she says. “It’s an amazing place for helping to set people on the road within the whisky world.”
Anne Dana, Anne Griffiths and Annabel Meikle have all played crucial roles in the Society’s history, but there are other women who have taken on their mantle. Canadian branch co-founder Kelly Carpenter, United States communications director Amanda Victoria and the Society’s managing director for China, Christina Leung, are among the current generation of women responsible for bringing the best single cask, single malts to whisky lovers around the world, and building on the past 35 years as a Society of significant women.