Double identity

Double identity

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is riding high again with a trendy new bolt-hole in central London. Margaret Rand takes a closer look at this revival in fortunes

Bars | 16 Oct 1999 | Issue 6 | By Margaret Rand

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Visit 19 Greville Street, in the heart of Hatton Garden – London’s diamond district, and you’d be forgiven for thinking you had come to the wrong place. If these are the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s new London rooms, where is the Victorian plush you might ask? Where are the leather armchairs? Where are the huge ceilings, and the roaring fires? And what are all these pale wood floors and contemporary pictures doing here?In fact only the wall-to-wall malts behind the bar – and possibly the warmth of the welcome – will tell you that you haven’t walked into a Conran restaurant. The SMWS may have gone contemporary for its first permanent presence in the South, but it knows exactly what it’s doing. And you’ll love it.The new London members’ rooms opened in July. They had been promised for a long time, but for various reasons never happened; and then in 1996 a member called Robert Wilson, who already ran The Bleeding Heart Restaurant in Holborn, where the Society had for some years been holding its London tastings, took over a building round the corner. “It had been used as diamond workshops,” says Anne Cooper, who manages the London rooms. “The floors all went downhill, and you bumped your head on the ceilings.” Before any of the pale wood and contemporary pictures could go in the building had to be gutted, reroofed and renovated. It was, as Cooper says, “a huge step. We had to take the Edinburgh ethos to London.”Hats off to Cooper for not choosing pastiche. The rooms are smaller in London than they are in Leith. Stuff them with Victoriana and they would look smaller still. As it is they seem to be filling up nicely with members – a far cry from the early days of The Vaults in Leith, when, as Cooper recalls, “there were 12 bottles, two sofas, three tables, and you never saw a member from one week to the next”. Members these days take a strongly proprietorial interest in the Society, if the two members who were there when I visited Greville Street were anything to go by. If they’d been hired by the hour and rehearsed in fine detail to join in with our conversation and enthuse, enthuse and enthuse some more about the Society they couldn’t have done a better job. Step forward, Mike Rumble and Rowan Brown. Rumble comes from Northampton, and was promptly co-opted by Cooper into helping her find somewhere suitable in Northampton to hold a tasting. And when he makes a suggestion – that the Society’s newsletter should identify individual tasters with their notes, so that members can follow a particular palate – it is taken on board.
There are 500 member-shareholders, each of whom stumped up at least £500 when the Society appealed for funds in 1996. The funds were intended both to build up stocks of whisky and to set up the London operation. The London rooms might well have been opened earlier, had circumstances been more propitious. As it was, according to managing director Richard Gordon who joined in 1994, the Society was “on the brink, with debts of £500,000.” Within two years, he says, it was making a trading profit. Now, with the opening of the new London members’ rooms, it’s in debt again. But this time, Gordon says with some relief, it is within normal limits.The SMWS is no stranger to ups and downs. Mention the name of its founder, Pip Hills, to Gordon and the temperature changes perceptibly, although he does volunteer that Hills had the vision and energy and ideas to get the thing off the ground. Hills is no longer involved and between the British Society and the American one of the same name there seems to exist something of an uneasy truce. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the US owns its name and buys whiskies from the SMWS. The US SMWS is now entirely owned by Alan Shayne, who set it up in 1993, and now says of the break: “It was more feasible to have an independent company here in the US. It was easier; responsibilities were more clearly defined. I don’t know why they wanted to sell. My guess is that they had gone into new markets like Japan and France at the same time as into the US. There were changes in personnel in Britain at the same time.” Bottling lists
The SMWS in Britain now claims around 14,500 members, with 5,000 in the US. Each new British member pays £30, or £75 if they want the introductory bottle that comes with it. Renewal costs £20 a year. For that you get a quarterly newsletter, six bottling lists, the use of the members’ rooms in Edinburgh and London, accommodation in modestly priced self-catering flats in Edinburgh, and the opportunity to buy tickets for the Society's tastings. US members pay $149 plus shipping for their first year of membership, and then renew for $25. These bottlings are, one would assume, the point of the Society and the reason why anyone would join. But the average annual purchase is only around two per member – and since Mike Rumble says he buys most of his whisky from the SMWS – that means several members must be buying nothing at all. If they belong just for the pleasure of belonging, it’s not surprising: the Society is highly knowledgeable, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its atmosphere is a mixture of the amateur (in the best, 18th century meaning of the word) with modern professionalism. Yet it has a slightly odd relationship with some parts of the whisky industry. First of all the list gives no distillery names (although some of the hints in the tasting notes are fairly broad), each whisky is identified by a distillery and bottling number, together with its alcoholic strength, age and cask number. Each bottling is from a single cask. Commercial cask-strength bottlings by the distilleries themselves are usually vattings of several casks, otherwise quantities would be too small. At one point the Society did print a list of which bottlings came from where, and the companies didn’t like it at all so the SMWS never did it again. “We’re not trying to piggyback on anyone’s marketing,” says Gordon, and one gets the feeling that this is a reassurance he has had to give many times before. Just two companies currently decline to sell casks to the Society. The casks from which the Society selects its bottlings might be offered by a distillery, or the Society might ring a distillery and ask if they have a cask of a particular year available, or casks might come via brokers. Some of the whiskies sold as investments in the past (see Whisky Magazine, Issue Two) are offered to it from time to time. “But,” says Gordon,“They were often filled into some pretty indifferent wood.” Of the samples tasted by the SMWS tasting panel, chaired by Whisky Magazine’s editor-at-large Charlie MacLean, about two-thirds are rejected. It may not always be a question of quality, keeping a balance of age, styles and prices is also important.Prices are higher than for commercial bottlings of single malts, and in the summer list range from £33 ($53)to £75 ($120) per bottle. It’s easy to think that by not naming the distillery the Society removes all points of comparison, and thus charges what it feels like. But the Society’s costs are many times higher. “We bottle in a year what they bottle in a couple of hours,” says Gordon. “We have to pay more for labels, everything. We’re paying for hand-finishing. Our costs are non-commercial. Our mark-up varies from bottling to bottling. A cask might prove half empty, yet we can’t necessarily pass that on. If it’s a 10-year-old whisky, we can’t charge £70 ($113) for it. Distilleries say our old whiskies are far too cheap.”If that’s the case, are they afraid that investors might spot an opportunity to make a killing? “We hope not,” Gordon replies. “Some things have come up at auction – a member may die, and the family might sell the whiskies – but they haven’t gone for stupid prices. Collectors go for distillery labels. Our labels don’t encourage collectors.”The SMWS’s other major investment is in its own stocks of whisky. It now has some 500 casks, the wood chosen and bought by the Society, maturing at various distilleries across Scotland. Some contain new fillings, some have older whiskies. They’ll be coming on stream in the next few years. Look out for them in the newsletter and in Edinburgh and London.
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