This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. The group which began with some friends in Edinburgh driving off to visit distilleries, and coming back with a cask lashed to the roof of their car, is now the world’s leading membership organisation for lovers of Scottish whisky.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has come a long way since the late 1970s, when a cask would be deposited in founder Pip Hills’ kitchen, and his friends would come around to fill their empty Irn Bru bottles. Members now enjoy exclusive access to spirits selected by the Society’s expert Tasting Panel, and sourced from 180 distilleries, in Scotland and around the world. From the beginning, almost all of the Society’s output has been single cask single malts. Consequently, the Society, which was formally established in 1983, has had a profound effect on the whisky industry as a whole – demonstrating a demand for, and catalysing the development of the now thriving market in single malts.
The purchase of an 18th century warehouse in the Port of Leith, with vaulted cellars that date back as far as the 12th century, provided a base from which the Society could purchase whiskies from distilleries, age, and then bottle them. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Vaults were bought in a state of disrepair, for around £40,000, but it has gentrified along with the neighbourhood. The imposing grey stone structure sits incongruously opposite the ‘Banana building’; a brutalist block of council flats immortalised in the film Trainspotting.
The scale of the Society’s operations means that there are now separate warehouses and a commercial bottling line. The Vaults have been refurbished, so alongside a shop, apartments, and a room for tastings and private dinners, there is a members’ bar with a dazzling assortment of whiskies, and a ceiling decorated with cartoons.
Further venues have been purchased for the benefit of Society members, including a Georgian townhouse on Edinburgh’s Queen Street, where staff expertly pair whiskies with exquisite food, and London-based members can visit a similar establishment in Hatton Gardens, where an Edwardian house has been converted into a club, with more than 500 exclusive single malts.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society releases nearly 1,000 different bottlings a year, including rare single casks, single malt whiskies, exclusive blends (which are referred to internally as ‘heresies’), and a range of other single cask spirits. It also now has a global reach, with branches in 28 countries, and almost 40,000 members worldwide.
The Society is closing out its ruby anniversary year in style. Earlier this month, The Only Drop, their donation to the Distillers One of One charity auction, saw fiercely competitive bidding. It achieved a final sale price of £18,750, well above the estimate of £5,000-10,000. This one-of-a-kind whisky, produced by a Speyside distillery in 1989, came in a uniquely designed bottle, featuring a pulped-paper sculpture, with a droplet-shaped portal affording a glimpse of the spirit within.
But now they are pushing the boat out further, with one of their oldest releases ever. It is, inevitably, a 40-year-old single malt Scotch whisky, drawn from their last remaining cask of 1983 whisky, and with a yield of just 130 bottles, it will only be available for purchase by members. However, to ensure that the Society’s milestone birthday will be toasted around the world, 40 randomly selected members will receive a complimentary dram of this celebratory expression.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s 40th Anniversary release, Society Cask Number 12.79, was first laid down in an ex-bourbon barrel in April 1983, as the Society was making its first tentative steps. In anticipation of celebrations in 2023, the Society’s expert Spirits Team selected the cask, and in 2018, they transferred it into a refill Spanish oak sherry hogshead, then carefully monitored the effects on the whisky’s high-age secondary maturation.
Euan Campbell, the Society’s Head of Whisky Creation said, “It seemed only appropriate that we chose it for the 40th anniversary celebrations. We’ve been monitoring this one very closely for a number of years. We knew this was the right time to bottle it and share it with people to enjoy this 40-year-old whisky in our 40th year. After so many years of maturing in an ex-bourbon barrel, we decided to take the flavour in a different direction and moved the whisky into a refill Spanish oak, Oloroso hogshead.”
Although things were a little more haphazard in the early years, the Society now exercises a rigorous wood management policy, maintaining detailed records of their casks. As Euan explains, “The refill Spanish oak cask that was used for the last five years was first filled in 2006. So, it was still fairly active. It had 12 years of use before we put this into it, but I think that’s quite nice, because the spirit’s very delicate and very fruity. Then you’ve got quite a respectful sherried influence in there, and it’s not too tannic. The balance between the fruity esters – lots of pears and apples – is balanced with exotic sandalwood, and dunnage floors, and all the things that you only get from the world of whisky.”
The combination of orchard fruits and spice in the 40-year-old immediately calls to mind an apple crumble, but Euan believes that it warrants deeper consideration: “I sat for about three hours with a dram of this, and it just changes constantly, and you think it’s quite delicate at the beginning, but then you just realise the finish is very long. The empty glass still smells of it the next day. There’s 40 years of flavour in there, but it’s still elegant.”
Unlike the Society’s regular releases, which include labels with detailed tasting notes, and names that range from the descriptive (‘Clotted cream on a nectarine’) to the absurd (‘Riding a duck bareback up Mount Etna’), this special release embraces a back-to-basics simplicity. No paper labels have been used, and instead words are printed directly on glass, ensuring that the whisky is given the opportunity to shine. The top third of the bottle has been hand-dipped in dark green wax, in homage to the Society’s famous green bottles, and it comes with a handcrafted walnut plinth and museum-quality clear case, for member’s who want to display it in their collection.
The Society’s Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, Rebecca Hamilton, says, “We have kept this exceptionally aged, cask matured and flavour curated bottling true to our origins with a nostalgic nod to our celebrated past throughout the creation process. We have treated this bottle as we would create a piece of art, with craftspeople working together to do justice to the years in cask. This bottle has been a passionate collaboration of artists and designers and is also a reflection of how The Society began – from that ‘wow’ epiphany moment to the global single cask whisky fan club we are now. I know that members will cherish this spectacular piece for years to come.”
This special bottling will be available in the UK, Europe, US, China, Japan, Australia and Taiwan. In the UK it will retail for £3,000.
• For more information about membership, or to make a purchase, visit: smws.com