The opening of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s first ever bottling, as well as some other “unicorn” drams, proved a revelation for those lucky enough to attend the SMWS masterclass at the Old & Rare Whisky Show. Stephen Mathis reports

On Sunday, 25 February 2018, fans of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society packed into a long, narrow dining room a few steps from the Old & Rare Whisky Show’s main hall to take part in an extraordinary masterclass. Led by Angus MacRaild, with some help from Charlie MacLean and Arthur Motley, this masterclass featured seven historic SMWS expressions.

Angus MacRaild led the tasting of seven historic SMWS expressions.

The headliner – and the opener – was the 1.1, the first cask the SMWS ever bottled, complete with SMWS founder Pip Hills’s handwriting filling in the information on the label. Playing a close second fiddle was the 2.2, a less impressive dram, but still only the second cask ever bottled from this iconic distillery in Moray.

A bottle of SMWS Cask No. 1.1, complete with Society founder Pip Hills's handwritten information on the label.

The 72.56, the most recent bottling of the bunch (distilled in 1982 and bottled in 2017) took the third spot. In the fourth spot, Arthur Motley, who served in numerous roles with the Society, including sourcing many casks in the 1990s, contributed the 116.2, an early SMWS bottling of Japanese whisky, as a last-minute surprise dram in the fourth spot.

The fifth spot featured the 102.14, a 38-year-old from a distillery nestled in Cairngorm National Park. Finally came two expressions from closed distilleries, both of which are scheduled to reopen in the coming years: the 43.10, an 18-year-old from Islay, and the 61.1, the Society’s first bottling of a cult malt from Sutherland.

As we tasted, the presenters explored all sorts of interesting angles on these expressions, from how the whisky from that closed distillery on Islay evolved through the 1960s and 1970s to how the beautiful peat notes might have gotten into the 102.14. But in the presence of these historic drams, the stories from the Society’s history flowed most freely. With the wonderfully complex and tannic 1.1 in our mouths, it seemed easier to picture Pip Hill and his friends bottling this expression and others in his kitchen.

The line-up of Society bottlings at the Old & Rare Whisky Show masterclass.

The stories of SMWS members cutting up their membership cards in protest of the Society’s bottling Japanese whisky became simultaneously more real and more incredible as we inhaled the aromas of the 116.2. The glorious depth and elegance of the 35 and 38-year-old expressions engendered new appreciation of the vision and foresight of the Society’s top brass. And tasting bottlings from two closed distilleries that were considerably younger than most one can find now only added to that appreciation.

Of course, the 1.1 is a unicorn dram for whisky geeks and longtime fans of the SMWS. Fellow attendee Dr Matt Lurin wore an illuminated unicorn horn to taste it (to play out the motto: Drink the Unicorn, Be the Unicorn). But for most of us, this masterclass was an amazing opportunity to taste through the history of the Society and learn more of that history along the way. Having completed it, that history is so much more vibrant and alive.

Attendee Dr Matt Lurin in appropriate costume to taste these "unicorn drams".

But the drams were also damn impressive and tasty in their own right. I think it was the combination of tasting history and history tasting so good that led Peter Siegenthaler, a whisky importer from Switzerland, to exclaim as the class adjourned: “We’re in heaven!”