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High society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has slowly but surely been evolving and growing. We look at its progress
By Rob Allanson
What does the Scotch Malt Whisky Society mean to you? If you think of the impressive Vaults, a bastion of style and tradition in the heart of Edinburgh’s revamped and gentrified port of Leith, or of the modern and stylish members’ club rooms in the city’s Queen Street, chances are you live in Scotland’s capital or visit it regularly.

If it means high quality, exciting and challenging cask strength malts, then as likely as not you’re a whisky drinker that has been fortunate enough to run across a Society bottling or two.

And if it means a quarterly mailing, the occasional indulgence purchase of a special bottle based on extravagant but entertaining tasting notes, or the once in a blue moon Society tasting in your home town then you’re one of the scores of members that now live across the world.

The Society is a broad church, but its toughest task has been maintaining a balance between its many diverse and conflicting components.

Getting that balance right hasn’t come easily to an organisation that sells premium malt at a premium price and occupies two of the most exclusive sites Edinburgh can offer, a whisky world that is more Alexander McCall Smith than Wilbur.

So how do you evolve and grow without sacrificing everything you stand for? When Paul Miles joined the Society as managing director two and a half years ago, that was the task that faced him. So he sat down with his team to look at what the Society had originally stood for and what it stood for in 2007.

“We identified it had originally stood for two things,” he says. “It was committed to being a members’ club as a way of getting very rare or unique single cask, single malt whisky to its members. Membership, because if you’ve only got 250 bottles of a malt, how do you share this out?

“And it was committed to being the world’s biggest and best supplier of single cask, single malt whisky. It wasn’t about vatted whisky, or blended whisky.

“So we have reaffirmed our commitment to doing that over the last two years. We are about membership so we had to look at how we could provide value to members.

“We want to evolve the membership,” says Miles. “We have continued to recruit the sort of person you’d expect us too – the older, more experienced and predominantly male whisky lover wanting to experience something new and different and to extend their tastes. But we now get an increasing number of younger members who do not come from a traditional whisky background but are intrigued by what they have seen.

“Female membership has shot up in the last two years. 20 per cent of all new members are women.”

The Society’s approach has been to keep sight of its two fundamental commitments but to revamp what it offers its membership. Everything from the whisky bottles to the way the Society communicates with its members has come under the spotlight.

“We have moved from an indistinguishable bottle to a unique one. We can put tasting notes on the front of the bottle for each of between 50 and 200 bottles. That was just not possible in the past.

“We have an up to date website and changed the membership pack so now when you join you get four 10cl bottles to encourage people to try different styles. Our quarterly newsletter is now a proper magazine.”

At the heart of everything is the whisky. There were concerns that the purchase of the Society by Glenmorangie a few years ago would compromise the Society’s independence and might seriously restrict its ability to source a diverse range of quality casks, Miles says the opposite has happened.

“We have not only been able to keep standards high but we have been able to raise them,” he says. “We have been able to source far more casks than we did before, and we have bottled more whiskies this year than any other year.”

The new bottlings are released monthly on what has become something of an event, known as First Friday. Preview tastings are held in the days leading up to the release date, creating an excitement and expectation about the new bottles, before they finally go on sale at the start of each month.

Casks are selected by a tasting panel made up of a broad selection of whisky experts from various backgrounds. It meets weekly to taste six or seven cask samples. They are under no pressure to accept any of them, and could in theory turn away every sample, though that doesn’t happen.

“If it did then we wouldn’t force the panel to put something through. If the panel puts through six then we would consider that a success because it indicates we have selected well for the panel. The most important thing about all of this, though, is that the quality remains high.”

It would seem there’s plenty more to come from the Society, too. It’s quite happy to consider malt whisky from across the world, for instance, is not above using humour and irreverence to promote its whiskies, and is quite prepared to strip away all conformity and promote its whisky in an explosion of colour and verbal extravagance.

These are all signs that Miles and his team are having fun.