Casks and community: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society at 40

Casks and community: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society at 40

From a local cask syndicate to a remarkable global membership, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society has witnessed total transformation. On the eve of its 40th anniversary, we explore its past, present and future

Whisky & Culture | 14 Mar 2023 | Issue 189 | By Kristiane Sherry

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Time travel is a curious thing. And flickers of it exist outside the realm of science fiction – one such instance is walking up to The Vaults in Leith, the spiritual home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). Pace across the cobbles or up the stone stairs to the handsome door, and you’re transported back in time. Once a bonded warehouse, the noble building dates back to 1787, but it was nearly two centuries before it became the space so loved by Society members.

“The Vaults was the first thing that was acquired, even before the casks,” remarks David Ridley, managing director at publicly listed Artisanal Spirits Company. He considers himself a “sort of custodian, a guardian” of what was created from the outset. The business bought SMWS from Glenmorangie in 2015, with Ridley in his role from March 2017. It was back in 1983 that Pip Hills and a group of friends founded the Society, initially as a collective – these pals bought casks to share, occasionally drawing liquid from them. The very first, labelled 1.1, was a 1975 Glenfarclas sherry cask. Word spread and membership grew. In 1995, members rallied round and through a private share scheme bought a second venue: 19 Greville Street in London.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Members" Room in Queen Street, Edinburgh

“It’s not just about the whisky, because it would be very easy to focus on that,” Ridley continues. “It is about people, and then people’s enjoyment and sharing of that whisky.” The importance of bringing people together has consistently run through the business. Glenmorangie’s stewardship – which started in 2004 – came the same year as the next venue, Queen Street in Edinburgh. Today there’s a fourth in Glasgow, and more than 100 partner bars around the world.

And let’s not forget the whisky. With more than 150 Scotch distilleries bottled, as well as grains, blended malts, and world expressions (and then there’s Cognac, Armagnac, rum, and even gin), there’s a plethora of flavour within the SMWS portfolio.

“We are all whisky geeks, and we’re curious whisky geeks,” spirits director Kai Ivalo chimes in. “And open-minded ones as well.” I’m speaking with Ridley face-to-face in London; Ivalo has joined by remote video. It’s a complementary double act. Ridley previously worked with Glenmorangie and its parent company Moët Hennessy. Ivalo joined back in 2004 and has witnessed much of the change first-hand.

“Glenmorangie was significant,” Ivalo continues. “I think of challenging access to casks in the early 2000s, through to being part of Glenmorangie. Then we suddenly got more access, we got support in terms of all of the resources.”

Kai Ivalo, spirits director at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

He is glowing about working with the team within the business. “We were very fortunate to have the ear and minds of people like Rachel Barrie, and Bill Lumsden.” Their expertise helped shape the Society as it is today. “We tend not to use the word ‘finishing’. We refer to ‘additional maturation’, because when we do it, we tend to go in for a period of years rather than months,” he outlines. “But really, that whole programme was developed by working with those guys and learning from them. I think it was pivotal.”

For both Ivalo and Ridley, the last seven years have only built on that grounding. “When we were acquired out of Glenmorangie, we had about 2,500 casks,” Ridley outlines. “Today we’ve got 16,000.”

With membership numbers climbing 24 per cent year-on-year, the business is internationalising too. When Artisanal Spirits Company took over, 70 per cent of members lived in the UK. Now the majority are international – major markets include Japan, France and Germany. Ridley reckons part of the global upswing was the result of moving from a franchise model to being directly involved. There are more monthly events, and a renewed appreciation that bringing together a network of whisky lovers is powerful.

“It’s the ability to share information as well, that you’re growing your own knowledge through talking to other members,” Ridley attests. “It’s quite, quite important.”

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society Greville Street, London Members" Room

I asked whisky lovers in my own network how they felt about the Society’s evolution over the years. Some looked back with nostalgia that when the network was smaller it was easier to acquire certain bottles. Another said they joined recently after accompanying a friend to an event. “I couldn’t walk away without a membership!” There were tales of regular tastings, informal meet-ups, and even ‘bottle kill’ parties. Whatever the sentiment, it seems the community is as vital a part as the whisky itself.

“First and foremost, we see ourselves as agnostic among Scotch,” Ridley states emphatically. And it makes sense: SMWS bottles widely. “We very much believe that the rising tide floats all boats, so the more we can promote Scotch whisky, the better.”

Ivalo agrees. “Each time it’s just about exploration and flavour. It doesn’t matter if it’s a blended malt or a single malt. It’s always about, how do we get there? What did we do in the creative process?” The flavour-forward philosophy is echoed on the bottles themselves, where alongside distillery code and cask number (remember that 1.1 Glenfarclas earlier? Simply distillery 1, cask 1) are detailed tasting notes discerned by a panel. It’s a design choice that also informs customers.

David Ridley, managing director of Artisanal Spirits Company

In terms of upcoming releases, Ridley confirms that they have all the stock needed to cover forecasts through to 2028, and 75 per cent through to 2033. But there is a shift in strategy afoot. “What we were starting to do, from 2015 onwards, is acquire essentially mature stocks that were close to ready to be released. And that helped with our initial strategy. But ultimately where we’re moving to is buying newly made spirit and putting it into the casks we want from day one.” Not only does this give a financial boost as the maturing whisky appreciates in value, but it offers more options for creativity, too. “The future is looking like we will get to a point where we’re exclusively buying new make, or certainly young whisky.”

For Ivalo, the key point is variety. “The generally held view with single casks is that they can be quite different, even if they’re from the same spirit run. We’re looking at developing that further in terms of wood, where appropriate.” In practical terms, this means extending the work they’re already doing with suppliers, bodegas and cooperages in Jerez – and indeed beyond. “We can tell the stories a bit more. Not just the attention to detail and quality of those casks, but just the variety.”

In practice, this will involve communicating where the oak for the cask came from, where the cask was made, what it was seasoned with – an extension of the distillery codes and tasting notes displayed on the bottles now. The practicalities of communicating such a volume of information in a small space are still being figured out (a QR code is mooted) but transparency is at the heart of the development.

“It’s probably a bit of excessive geekiness. But there’s always a few of us out there that like doing things like that,” Ivalo states.

Serving a cocktail at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Bath Street Members" Room

And the use of sherries and fortified wines as an example was very intentional. “I think in the next couple of years, a third of the bottles released will be sherry cask or similar in profile,” he continues. “That’s a deliberate strategy that we’ve taken over the last few years because we know it’s a very popular style of whisky.” He’s quick to add that he’s also buying from cooperages around the world, too. “We’re just having a bit of fun in terms of exploring flavour development and what we can do,” he adds. “Because firstly, we’re still quite small. And secondly, we’re not chasing a set product range – it’s constantly changing. That gives us tremendous freedom.”

The cask programme isn’t the only innovation on the horizon. There’s a shiny new supply chain facility – think warehousing, cask disgorgement, and bottling – built to the south-east of Glasgow. It’s set to be commissioned soon, representing a £2 million investment. And there are developments from parent firm Artisanal Spirits Company, too. Following the launch of J.G. Thomson in November 2021 (a collection of Scotch, gin and rum, named after a merchant who signed a lease for The Vaults back in the late 1700s), there’s another brand on the horizon.

“As far as American whiskey is concerned, we see an opportunity to have a specific proposition along a not dissimilar line to SMWS, but in the American market,” Ridley hints. “Kai has for years been spending at least one or two trips a year buying American whiskey that has been going into the SMWS proposition. So we know the American industry well, and we believe that we’ve got the knowledge to make sure that we’re credible.” Artisanal Spirits Company investor decks suggest an announcement in early 2023.

Whiskies ready for tasting at the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Queen Street Members" Room

And then, of course, there’s the small matter of a 40th anniversary to celebrate. Both Ridley and Ivalo become animated, and it’s clear 2023 will be an important year for them both. “It’s going to start from January and it’s going to go for a full 12 months,” Ridley says, of the SMWS festivities. “You’re going to see lots of surprise and delight, and things we haven’t done before.” September, the designated “gathering month”, is set to be a focal point. “I think you’re going to see a lot of people that have been connected with the Society in the past reacquainted over the course of the gathering.”

Of course, there’s some celebratory liquid in the pipeline, but not until December or “maybe slightly before”. “We’re essentially going to repeat a mistake,” Ivalo says, laughing.

While growth is obviously the priority – both in terms of sales and memberships – with community and whisky front of mind, it certainly feels like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is in safe hands. “We don’t want to let the members down by being fixated on other numbers,” Ridley asserts. Instead, it’s about spirits creativity and those all-important connections. The Vaults in Leith have stood for more than 200 years. Time-travel forward two centuries, and my whisky is on SMWS still being in thriving residence.
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