Whisky & Culture

The SMWS

A whisky club like no other
By Hans Offringa
Nowadays we can't imagine this, but in the late 1970s Scotch single malt whisky was not fashionable, even in Scotland. Pip Hills, a Scotch whisky aficionado and author decided to drive north and purchase a cask of single malt from a certain distillery. He returned with it to Edinburgh and introduced the contents of the cask to some of his friends. They were so enthusiastic that they got together and purchased another cask, and another, and another…

In 1983 the group of friends was formalised into The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) and offered a membership to all interested in single cask whiskies from various distilleries in Scotland. In the following decades the SMWS grew and changed hands a couple of times. In 2015 then owner LVMH sold the SMWS to 30 private individuals among whom were a couple of the original founding members.

All bottlings launched are undiluted, at cask strength and non chill-filtered to retain the full flavour of the whisky. Each bottle has a unique tasting note, often very funny, and written by a member of the professional Tasting Panel that reviews all cask samples. Only whiskies approved by them will be bottled. You will find no distillery name on the bottle, but a number, like 19.56. The first digits refer to the distillery and those after the period indicate which cask; in this case (see photograph on page 54) the 214th cask bottled from the 29th distillery from which the SMWS purchased a cask. The average outturn of a single cask is approximately 225 bottles. In 2016 the SMWS bottled casks from 56 different distilleries plus three different cognacs, one Bourbon, one rye whiskey and even one Welsh malt. Multiple new single cask whiskies are released and presented at special member 'Outturn' meetings around the world every month. Some releases, such as the one depicted, are bottled as an exclusive for a particular country or occasion.

The SMWS focuses on flavour profiles, regardless of the whisky's origins. That makes it extra special and it's always fun to guess from where the whiskies come. The 12 flavour profiles are colour-coded and described as follows:

1. Young & Spritely

2. Sweet, Fruity & Mellow

3. Spicy & Sweet

4. Spicy & Dry

5. Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits

6. Old & Dignified

7. Light & Delicate

8. Juicy, Oak & Vanilla

9. Oily & Coastal

10. Lightly Peated

11. Peated

12. Heavily Peated

The recently updated label design and bottle emphasise these profiles, using the different colours to distinguish one profile from the other.

Under its new ownership, new and exciting additional services have been put in place. One of them is a free subscription for those whisky lovers who want to try the product before deciding to become a full member. This is called a Sample Subscription, which can easily be obtained via SMWS.com. Sample subscribers have access to a limited amount of bottlings and pay 30 per cent premium in comparison with full members, but no subscription fee. They do not have access to its Members' Rooms.

A full membership costs £62 annually. Pioneer membership costs £122 and comes with a pack containing the official SMWS lapel badge, a booklet with historical information, three 10cl sample bottles of different distilleries and a discount voucher for the first online purchase.

To create even more visibility to whisky aficionados worldwide, the SMWS has been appointing Partner Bars in various parts of the world. There, anyone who wants to try a sample can order a dram at the bar, and may choose from one of the 12 bespoke flavour profiles. The bars are recognisable by a special SMWS Partner Bar logo on the window or at the entrance. The Partner Bars also serve as locations for the monthly outturn tastings of new bottlings and a meeting place for SMWS members who cannot travel to Edinburgh or London. Sample Subscribers can purchase tickets online too, subject to availability.

When in Edinburgh, members can visit one of the two SMWS clubs. The first and oldest one is located at The Vaults, 87 Giles Street in Leith (the old Edinburgh harbour), where the SMWS was originally founded in 1983. The second one is at 28 Queen Street and harbours the Kaleidoscope Whisky Bar and Shop. This is the only place in the world where customers can actually buy a bottle of SMWS whisky on the premises. All other sales are fully web-driven. In London the SMWS club is located at 19 Greville Street. All three premises have excellent food and create whisky and food pairings at a very high standard. The Dining Room restaurant at 28 Queen Street in Edinburgh is also open to non-members.

Today the SMWS is an open, inviting international whisky society with more than 25,000 members worldwide and is officially represented in 19 countries by local SMWS ambassadors. All share a passion for special single malts bottled by the SMWS exclusively for its members.

Partner Bars can be found in the following countries: Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, The Netherlands, New Zealand, Switzerland, Taiwan, UK and the US.



29.214 Dance of Dove & Dram at De Librije



"The nose is a perfectly balanced musical synthesis - peat-smoke bass notes, a sweet (coconut ice-cream) melody on strings, fruity brass section blasts of pineapple and orange and interweaving woodwind strains of herbs and spices (cinnamon, quinine, Barolo Chinato). The palate repeats the structure, but with the volume up high - powerful smoke, maple syrup, honey and custard sweetness, rum-soaked dark fruits and Cranachan, with the herbal note shifting more towards the sea-shore. With a drop of water, the mouth experience is as balanced as a ballet dancer, a rhapsody in booze - all it needs is the right food to turn it into a dance - a table-top tango, a culinary conga - a Chattanooga chew-chew and a cha-cha-cha."

Robin Laing, the whisky bard