Review: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
It’s easy to forget given the attention the latter grabs, that it is in fact blended Scotch whisky that by far outsells its single malt cousin. Whilst the likes of Lagavulin, Macallan, Dalmore and co might attract most of the press attention, there are a whole bunch more distilleries quietly producing whisky for the mass market. As a result, you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the big names that produce the good stuff and that’s where you should put your money. Nonsense say the SMWS.
Founded in 1978, the society now boasts some 28,000 members worldwide, three bars in the UK (Leith, Edinburgh and London), and numerous ‘partner’ bars worldwide where members can enjoy a dram or two of their bottlings. The concept of the society is that members gain access to purchase bottles of single cask whisky available nowhere else. Each bottle is labelled simply a number, 72.65 for example. The first part of the number denotes the distillery from which the whisky came from, and the second the cask (in ascending order) from which it was taken. Aside from that, you get information on abv (all are cask-strength), region, and age; the distillery itself is nowhere to be found (although there are unofficial lists available online). The point is that with single-cash whisky, each cask is different and thus differences are noted that might make any individual bottle vary from the ‘signature’ flavour of the distillery. Many of course come from distilleries which few people will have ever heard from, and thus the number system enables each whisky to be judged on its own merits. Such a democratic approach is to be applauded; this puts whisky centre-stage, not the clever marketing people who would have you think that their particular brand is clearly superior to their competitors.
The society purchases its whisky both ‘en primeur’ (i.e. before it has been aged) and ‘ready-to-drink’ casks. The former being somewhat of a gamble as they claim that 50% of these casks turn out not to have produced whisky suitable for single-cask bottling. These will be sold onto other organisations who will make use of it either as a blend or as part of a brand’s standard range. Approximately 16 casks per month are bottled and so far whisky has been purchased from 132 different distilleries. Only members can purchase whisky, and at £122 per year plus bottles which range from £40 to £400 each, more than a passing interest is required, although purchases are made whenever the member pleases.
The bar in London, round the corner from Hatton garden is an unassuming affair with its entrance tucked away round the corner of a pub for those with less discerning tastes. Bijou in size and with a light, contemporary style about it, even the male-only patronage on my visit ensured it didn’t feel too ‘old boys club’. The bewildering array of green numbered bottles on the back bar is perhaps daunting to a newbie but there is something to suit every palate, and the variety of even within regions is phenomenal. Many consider Speyside, which accounts for approximately half of all malt distilleries in Scotland to be the whisky producing region of the country, and its fine spirits are often considered to be fruity, light and sweet. Un-peated they may be, but all the same they are not. From brine and marzipan on the Northern cost of the region, through to plum pudding and diesel on the South courtesy of bottling 7.87, the range on offer at the SMWS is plenty to keep the most intrepid of explorers content. Of course all regions and styles are represented, from the luscious and oily beeswax-soaked dates of bottling 73.60 through to the lightly honeyed yet slightly bitter curiosity that is bottling 52.180. One thing stands out, and that is the purity of aroma and flavour. Perhaps it’s because I know these are all single cask whiskies, or perhaps it’s because they are single cask whiskies, who knows. Recently, and not without a murmuring of discontent, the Society has branches out into other non-malt spirits. Bottling G4.5 is a grain whisky with an underwhelming nose, but a delightful palate up there with the best of American corn-heavy whiskies. Sweet vanilla butterscotch with a hint of ginger is a winning combination and I’m sure the protesters will soon pipe down. It’s 34 years old and sells for a touch of £80, I’d take a case. This is however, a vote of confidence utterly outshone by the amount I’d buy of the final spirit. This one (R2.2) is a rum hailing from Guyana and aged for 21yrs. The nose would have you believe that it’s a funky ester-heavy Jamaican rum with an almost overbearing molasses character. The palate however is a most extraordinarily complex and lengthy dark fruit, toffee, Christmas spice, cacao, and cigar medley a man could ask for.
The SMWS is a real spirit-lover’s organisation. They have done away with all the fuss that surrounds certain brands, stripping back to what whisky drinking should be about, enjoying the liquid for what it actually is. Cheap it is not, but I’m guessing that compared with what you’d pay for similar branded drams, some of these whiskies are real bargains.