You know that something’s important to people when they create a society around it. As it turns out, Scotch whisky is important to quite a lot of people out there, including us.
Well, we’ve already been through the whole shebang of appreciation- from drinking nameless whisky mixed with Coca Cola, to buying thousand of dollars of prized scotch.
All that remains is for us to don the robe, pull up the hood, and join some secret whisky society.
A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (and Ladies)
There is some mystique in the exclusive private society. A large part of it is in the intrigue of it all- the very fact that these groups are closed makes us wonder what happens behind those shuttered doors. Yet, the heart of these private groups is their exclusivity. Membership is by invitation, and invitation is rare.
Scotch whisky is no stranger to these private groups and honours. The very greatest one is to be named a Keeper of the Quaich. Very much like a peerage or a knighthood, one’s induction is held with pomp and ceremony at Blair Castle in Scotland.
There are also the Malt Maniacs, a group of independent whisky lovers. While lacking the pageantry of the Keepers of the Quiach, the membership might be even more exclusive. We met one of their number (the only one in Singapore) for a tasting of Ardbeg, and he proved his mettle.
But there is a third one that we were interested in, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society- and it’s quite different from the Keepers and the Maniacs.
Joined by passion
In many ways, the origins of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society(SMWS) are quintessentially Scottish.
In 1983, a group of friends gathered in Edinburgh. After a singular experience with a cask of Speyside whisky, they decided to pool resources and buy even more casks to enjoy. Oh, and enlist more like-minded enthusiasts so that they could repeat the process ad infinitum.
If that sounds like a thought that many Scotch lovers have had at some point- then you’re quite right. The difference between the SMWS folks and us is that they actually went ahead and acted on it.
Fast forward 30 years, and the SMWS is 25,000 strong, and has been hailed as the International Bottler of the Year by Whisky Magazine.
In sharp contrast…
You might have noticed a few ways that SMWS is quite different from an actual secret society. There is no particular mystery about what they do- they select and buy whisky casks, bottle them and sell them only to their members.
It’s also definitely not the most exclusive (though by no means completely open). To join, you simply have to sign up for membership, pay your dues for the year, and you’re in.
So what’s so special about them, you might ask?
The important part is that they’re both a club and an independent bottler not tied to any distillery. SMWS buys a cask of whisky from a distillery of their choice and matures it in its own warehouses. It has both mandate and complete freedom to select whichever casks they think are worthy of bottling- and they’re famously picky.
Before bottling, each cask must pass through the gauntlet of an internal Tasting Panel (members of whom are whisky connoisseurs independent from any distillery) before being selected. The selection process is based on flavour only- none of the spirit’s origins or age are revealed during the first tasting. Once a cask is deemed worthy, a non-chill-filtered, cask-strength whisky is then bottled.
The weight of the world
This has three implications which might not be immediately obvious.
- One- since SMWS selects by the cask, there aren’t that many bottles of each to go around. A blessing and a curse. While there’s supreme exclusivity, once a bottling is gone, it’s gone
- Two- As these are single cask whiskies, each batch- even from the same distillery- might be different. You get a different experience each time, even if they’re from the same distillery or batch- surprises which can be good or bad. Distillery names are no longer a guarantee of quality
- Third- As there is little to no data on the internet for each small batch, you have to primarily rely on the information on the label, not from external reviews
You might realise that there’s a lot of leaning on the tasting panel, and by extension, SMWS, to solve these three big problems. If it’s competent, each bottle is an exciting adventure. If not, it’s a pig’s breakfast.
The question is whether the panel does a good job or not. We tried the whiskies to find out.
Actually drinking whisky
An aside: the official tasting notes from the SMWS are both delightful evocative, and far more important than the name of the distillery and the age statement of the whisky (remember the three points above). They don’t even use the distillery names for their bottlings, but use code and batch numbers instead (these are no secret).
35.176 (Surf and Snowboard)- $210: The label describes it as “Christmas in the Caribbean”, and it certainly delivered on that. It has a nose of pine, almond cream, ginger, tropical fruit and even hazelnuts. On the palate, we got honey, lemon, mango, cream, hazelnut and spice. Towards the finish, it starts to show a subtle (at first) oakiness. Not bad. It’s actually a 14 Year Old Glen Moray – we would never have guessed.
44.75 (Sticky blossom and spice)- $240: The notes read: “patience will be rewarded as after a short wait the whisky blossomed with a sweet and nose tingling exuberance, bountiful with ripe red apples, sticky wine gums, elderflower and honey on toasted crumpets”. Quite so. We got crushed apples, lemon, blackcurrant jam, nuts, elderflower and honey on the nose. The palate was savoury-sweet, with apple, lemon, spice, and a medicinal note, The finish was dry herbal tea and spice. A delicious 12 year Craigellachie.
55.41 (Soothing and inviting) -$270: We scented orange and bitter lemon- closer to marmalade than slices. There were also dried apples, grapes- both the raisin and the fresh variety. The whisky itself was very sweet- we tasted orange jam, juicy lemon, honey, toffee and chocolate. The finish was long, and had the familiar nut and oak, with a dash of white pepper on top. This 15-year-old Royal Brackla was very enjoyable.
29.201 (Peat smoked candied Angelica) – $380: This was unmistakable as a Laphroaig from the get-go. The trademark medicinal aroma practically walloped us in the face- but was somehow more gentle than the ten-year version. There were grain, nuts and brine hiding underneath the fire. Coal fired cornbread, as it were. The flavour is pretty much brine, peat and medicine. It was a 17-year-old Laphroag, and the only one of the four where we would shy from paying the retail price- way too expensive for what it is, but the quality is there.
On the whole, these are good, high quality whiskies. We’re quite satisfied with the panel’s ability to pick whiskies (though of course, they will have to continue to prove their mettle on each and every bottle). The descriptions are quite bang on.
What you actually get
Joining the SMWS isn’t a free pass to all the whisky you like. What it does give you is the following:
Basic Membership ($140/year):
- Exclusive access to purchase whisky and spirits from SMWS.sg
- Members rates for all SMWS events
- Members rates at all partner bars across Singapore, UK & Europe (in Singapore, these are The Wall and The Single Cask)
- Advanced access to all new whiskies
- Exclusive access to member venues (which are bars/restaurants run by SMWS in the UK)
- Free subscription to the SMWS magazine Unfiltered
- Membership Card
If you’re feeling generous, then a Pioneer membership ($320 for the first year, renewals at $140/year) gives you everything the basic does, plus:
- 3 limited release SMWS 10cl bottles
- SMWS journal
- Club lapel badge
You’ll notice that these give you access to buy the exclusive whiskies, but you’ll still have to shell out cash for them. It’s fair, in our opinion, provided you haunt the partner bars or buy at least four bottles per year, at least, which changes the cost to ~$35 extra per bottle.
What it also does not say is that Singaporean members do not get access to the same selection as the members in other countries- they have their own list, which means they have access to whiskies that others don’t, and vice versa. You can check the list here.
Summing it all up
While we like the package that the Scotch Malt Whisky Society offers, you’ll have to judge for yourself if it’s worth joining the SMWS.
The benefits for the true whisky obsessive are extensive. You get access to a trove of curated, exceptional and rare whisky that others can only dream of. This alone might be worth price of admission, but you get a few added benefits as well.
If you only intend to drink occasionally, however, then it’s a fairly large initial outlay for sparse use. Of course, you might be inspired to explore Scotch whisky further, but we’ll just have to see.
If you’re interested in joining, or simply want more information, you can check out their website here.