As we approach the end of 2017 and look ahead to our 35th anniversary next year, it’s hard to believe how far The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has come. And yet…our team is still based here at The Vaults in Leith, where Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills and friends founded the Society in 1983. It’s still our spiritual home, still a place of pilgrimage for our inner-circle of whisky enthusiasts, and still the beating heart of our curious club. The more things change, the more they stay the same…
But some things certainly have changed. From that small group who were captivated by the then-unknown delights of undiluted single malt from a single cask, to an international club of more than 25,000 members, the Society has spread the love for the finest drams from here in Leith across the world.
Along the way, we passed into the hands of The Glenmorangie Company in 2004, before regaining our status as a privately-owned company in 2015. With that return to independence came the opportunity to take stock of where we were as a Society, and to start planning for the next generation of spirited adventures.
Our members are at the heart of everything we do, and this year we carried out our most extensive survey yet, with more than one in 10 of you around the world taking the time to let us know your thoughts in answer to a wide a range of questions.
With all that in mind, we thought it was a suitable time to reflect on some of the activity that’s taken place across the Society over the past couple of years and look at where the journey is taking us.
Freedom to experiment
John McCheyne, our SMWS master brand ambassador, says he believes that this has been “the most innovative year since we got it all going in Leith in 1983”. Given how long he’s been involved, he should know. With our return to private ownership has come the opportunity to try some new things, to push the boundaries a little, and restore some of the Society’s sense of adventure.
This year, we’ve introduced a new look to our iconic green bottle for the first time in almost 10 years, we’ve expanded our range of products with the Single Cask Spirits collection, we’ve released our first ever blended malt whisky (if you ignore The Last Drop bottling from some years ago, which is perhaps best forgotten about) and unveiled The Vaults Collection of our rarest and most prestigious whiskies.
There has never been a greater choice from the Society, but we acknowledge that when you make changes, you run the risk of stirring up an element of discontent. Whatever we try out, we want to listen to our members and gauge the overall feedback. If something doesn’t work out, we’ll be the first to hold our hands up and admit it – with the knowledge that you can’t please all of the members all of the time. Whisky is a subjective subject, and we’ve always been aware of the need to provide not only great whisky, but thought-provoking whisky. There’s a difference, of course – one might be suitable for a quiet evening of relaxation, and the other is where the dram sparks conversation, debate and potentially divisive opinions. We welcome that discussion and want to continue to provide the conversation in the glass.
What’s in the glass
Since March 2015, we have offered whisky from 79 distilleries and we have built up our stock to the point we now have casks of whisky and other spirits from 121 distilleries in our own bonded warehouse. In that time, we have more than doubled the amount of cask stocks we hold, and we’re now able to take a more pro-active approach towards wood management and maturation.
As anyone who works within the whisky world will tell you, there are a huge number of factors involved in the availability of whisky from one year to the next – it’s a fluid industry in more ways than one. But the Society is in a better position now than it’s ever been to offer members a continual variety of bottlings. And variety is what we’re all about, much more than where the whisky comes from. Our Flavour Fanatics events earlier this year celebrated that approach, reinforcing our belief that the best way to enjoy whisky is to focus on its flavour, not its place of origin.
A long-term approach
Independence for the Society also means being able to source and buy our own casks and manage the maturation of our stocks, with the opportunity to introduce some experimentation along the way.
We can now purchase new make spirit and supervise its maturation in our own casks. There’s no guarantee that all those newly filled casks will end up as a Society bottling, but having more control should mean more samples passing the fastidious noses of the Tasting Panel.
The ability to allow whiskies a period of additional maturation in a second cask also adds to both the quality and diversity of whiskies we offer to members. Variety is something we strive for, so if we have a selection of similar casks, we might decide to put some into Spanish oak Pedro Ximenez (PX) hogsheads, some in oloroso, some in madeira. Ultimately, you get more choice.
Where we decide to transfer the whisky between casks, we ensure its single cask provenance is preserved – it’s only ever the contents of one cask’s worth of spirit, which happens to be travelling through more than one vessel. We’re moving towards having any additional maturation in a different cask for a minimum of two years, and in the interests of transparency the relevant cask information will always be in our Tasting Notes.
In the interest of developing our expertise in all of these areas, we will start 2018 as a member of The Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI), the industry-funded research and technology organisation. Being a member of the SWRI ‘research club’ will help us build on the skills we’ve developed at the Society over the past 35 years, and demonstrates our continuous quest to pursue a diversity of flavours and the highest quality bottlings. It’s all about being able to nurture our stock and offer more choice for members.
A pat on the back
It’s always reassuring to receive industry endorsement for our bottlings, and 2017 has been the most successful year yet for the Society in various prestigious competitions. At the start of December, we regained our crown as Independent Bottler of the Year 2017 in Whisky Magazine’s Independent Bottlers’ Challenge, along with the awards as Independent Bottler of the Year for the Campbeltown, Speyside and Grain categories.
Elsewhere, we won two awards in the International Wine & Spirit Competition (IWSC), three in the Luxury Masters, two in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC), two in the Ultimate Spirits Challenge® (USC) spirits competition and the ISC awarded its gold medal to SMWS Cask No. 9.116: Boozy fruit trifle, which it ranked as “an excellent product of a superb standard”. Cask No. 9.116, incidentally, is a 20-year-old Speyside dram matured in an ex-bourbon cask before being finished in a first-fill port barrique – a fantastic seal of approval for our approach to additional maturation.
Is there more to life than whisky?
Some might disagree – but while whisky is absolutely at the core of what we do, we are also keen to appreciate the best examples of other single cask spirits. How could you disagree with Jerome Royer, master selector from cognac house Louis Royer, who told Unfiltered on the magazine’s visit to Cognac: “If you’re interested in exploring, the possibility of making discoveries never ends.”
This year we launched our Single Cask Spirits collection, with bottlings of rum, cognac, armagnac, bourbon and even gin. Exploring and a sense of adventure is in our DNA, so you can expect more intriguing offerings from our Single Cask Spirits – but also rest assured that whatever else we bottle, our priority will always be on single cask, single malt. If that’s what you’re most interested in, you’re in good hands.
All about you
Our Society wouldn’t exist without our members, the lifeblood of our organisation, and we want you to feel that you belong to an inner-circle of enthusiasts. Your membership illustrates your curious nature, growing your enjoyment of whisky by participating in new and enriching experiences.
We also recognise that exclusivity matters, and we are committed to protecting that. That means we decided to cancel our experimental Sample Subscriber option in the UK and EU and the ability for non-members to buy all of our bottlings at higher prices.
But we also rely on you to introduce more people to the Society – an increase in membership means a more diverse community of whisky enthusiasts and the ability to purchase more casks. The membership experience is central to what we’re about and we want to ensure you feel connected not only by being able to purchase bottlings, but through attending tasting events, visiting our Members’ Rooms, or checking out one of our partner bars and enjoying member benefits there. Members’ Rooms are still only open to our members and their guests, but through our Kaleidoscope bars we are introducing new enthusiasts to the Society. We’re always listening to your feedback about what kind of Society you want to see.
Taking the pain out of renewal
We recognise that there have been difficulties with our membership renewal process, which we’re actively working on to improve, and hope that you see the benefits of that process very soon. We’re also putting more resources into improving our online and digital experience. Bear with us.
New bottle designs, the introduction of our Single Cask Spirits range, our first ever blended malt Scotch whisky, premium bottlings and the launch of The Vaults Collection – John McCheyne was right, it’s been quite a year.
In 2018, we’ll be building on everything that we’ve put in place this year, and continuing to offer you variety not only in our whiskies but in our wider range of bottlings. Next year also happens to be the Society’s 35th anniversary, so you can expect celebrations and special events to mark our middle age.
We can reflect on an exhilarating period since early 2015 and take some satisfaction at everything we’ve been able to put in place since then – with the knowledge that the Society is in healthier shape than it’s ever been. We have the people, support and the stock in place to ensure a bright future. We look forward to bringing you along for the ride.
As always, we welcome your thoughts. Drop us a line any time at firstname.lastname@example.org
Merry Christmas and all the best for 2018 from the entire SMWS team
The Vaults, Leith