Everyone knows unexpected things can happen at parties. However, when a few friends got together at a home in Edinburgh’s Scotland Street in 1983 it wasn’t the neighbours who ended up being disturbed, but the entire Scotch whisky industry.
He had just started up his own architects practice and had appointed Pip as his accountant. “I interviewed various people and Pip was by far the most human and entertaining,” says Ben. “He wasn’t a chartered accountant, but he gave me some really sensible advice. We first met in 1982 and quickly became good friends.”
Pip had a keen interest in Scotch and was unfailingly adventurous. Following a debate with other friends on the merits of filtered and unfiltered whisky he headed off to Speyside to purchase a barrel of unfiltered single malt from the Glenfarclas distillery.
To recoup his expenses he hosted that momentous bash. “Everyone brought along a demijohn and filled it up. It turned into one hell of a party,” says Ben.
Business in a barrel
It was during that fun-filled afternoon that the idea of buying another barrel and establishing a business first arose. “I thought it was an excellent commercial idea, but I also believe one of our aims was to continue the party. We all thought we would have lazy afternoons putting the world to right, and possibly make a little money.
“However, it wasn’t until a second, equally enjoyable, party that things became serious – that’s when we decided to do it.” ‘It’ was the establishment of the SMWS.
There were five original members: Pip, the writer/playwright W Gordon Smith, actor Russell Hunter, Glasgow-based developer David Allison, and Ben.
Pip was the glue who brought everyone together and he soon found The Vaults in Leith for sale at a price of £40,000. “The other four put in £10,000 each and I put in £10,000 worth of time and architectural expertise,” added Ben. Although it was a substantial investment, all five were confident they would succeed.
Ben took on the complicated task of getting The Vaults in order. A variety of planned uses in a listed building, which included flats and a museum of whisky, meant that an exceptional amount of complex regulations had to be met. Fired with enthusiasm, all five had a hands-on role, with David Allison’s development expertise also coming in particularly useful.
“Just as the first flats were ready for sale, the whole project went bankrupt,” says Ben. However, since a separate company had been created to undertake the development the SMWS was unaffected. Eventually, the work was completed by another developer.
Ben explains: “When we opened the doors of the SMWS it was an instant success. Membership grew very quickly. I put that down to the quality of the product!”
He remained a director of the company with a particular responsibility for design matters. Among other things, he took on creation of the logo and labels, while early share certificates were written out in his own hand. “I enjoyed that role very much. Initially, it was very exciting. The only drawback was that we didn’t have time to wile away the afternoons as planned.”
Crazy, but influential ideas
As the business continued to evolve matters became serious – more stock was required, staff had to be hired and so on. Costs and overheads went up, and as a result, new shareholders came on board. The original five started to play less of a role. “There is a difference in life between those who set things up and those who run them,” said Ben. “Although I’ve had my own practice for a long time, I see myself as a maker/creator. I stayed as a director of the SMWS for a couple of years but then became an ordinary shareholder and my involvement was limited to enjoying the whisky and the friendships.”
He believes that enjoyment of other’s people’s company sums up the ethos of the SMWS, and it was set from the start.
“I think it’s wonderful to see how the original crazy ideas we had have been influential. The development of the Society has had an impact on the industry worldwide. In response to our determination to increase people’s appreciation of good whisky, the major distilleries have diversified their offerings.”
As time often enhances a great whisky, so it can see even the best of friendships dissolve and fragment. “Unfortunately I haven’t seen Pip in a long time,” said Ben. “I’ve lost track of David and sadly both Russell Hunter and W Gordon Smith have passed on.”
However, the memories, and the SMWS, live on. “One of our great achievements is that there’s never anything dull about Society whiskies. They’re always different and they always keep the party going.”