Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

A letter flopped down onto my doormat last week (probably - I didn’t actually see it happen). It was the renewal notice for membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Already my first 12 months are nearly up and this letter has caused me to reflect on being a member of the society and whether I should renew for another year.

Where to start. I don’t want to regurgitate the history and the ethos of the SMWS, you can get all that from their website so I won't bother repeating it. In it's most basic terms they are independent bottlers. They get single malt whisky direct from distilleries, buying up individual casks and bottling them directly at that strength (about 50-60%).

What’s interesting is that they don’t name the distillery on the bottle, instead relying only on a numbering system and tasting notes (plus the details of the region, age and finish). I like this a lot. When you are looking to try a dram or a buy a bottle it encourages you to try a whisky based on its description (OK, and price), rather than looking for a familiar handle. Which is just as well because often these whiskies can differ greatly from the established 'taste' of a distillery (e.g. casks of unpeated Islay or unusual finishes).
Of course once you're actually drinking the stuff you can’t help but wonder where it's from. And with smartphones and the internet being things that exist you can find out what the distillery numbers mean right there and then. But the crucial thing is that I like to find out afterwards. As such I’ve tried some gems from distilleries I wouldn’t have thought of trying otherwise (or even heard of) Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Benrinnies. I've never had a bad whisky from SMWS and there is always something new to taste because the bottles don't stick around too long (a cask might only provide 200 bottles).
A quick word on the descriptions. All the whiskies go by a number and a description, these are quite esoteric ('BBQ on the Beach', 'Magic Carpet Ride' - that sort of thing) – they're quite amusing, although personally I find it becomes a borderline cutesy after a while. Not that I’d want to see that changed, it's fair enough - that's their thing. Even if they are a bit 'wacky' they're preferable to dry tasting notes or – god forbid - a score.
But generally I love their approach to whisky. It is there to be drunk. That might sounds obvious but there are no special edition bottlings or presentation cases here. Bottles that might cost £60 look exactly the same as those at £300. And although they turn up some rarities or unusual casks the emphasis is always on enjoying them. I find that helps to get over the mental hurdle of holding on to whisky too long because it's too special or precious to be drunk. And when there are so few bottles in the first place there’s almost no point getting too precious about it.

So that's the whisky but I have to talk about the tasting rooms. I think that’s the main value I get out of being a member. I’m lucky enough to live in Edinburgh and there are two venues here. One on Queen St. near the city centre. It's nice, spread over several floors in a traditional grand Edinburgh building. It has great views into Queen St gardens, down towards the shore and over the Firth of Forth and into Fife.
But it’s the Vaults down in Leith that truly wins out. It’s this venue that makes it feel like a club. It has wood-panelling, leather sofas and chairs, open fires (well, convincing gas versions). It feels… exclusive, but thankfully neither the venue or the staff take itself too seriously so you can enjoy the rarefied surroundings without it feeling at all stuffy. This is a wonderful place to bring friends and family. Nice and lively on a weekend, serenely peaceful at other times. Visiting either of the venues adds a little joy to any day. Either popping into George St on a Saturday afternoon to avoid the shoppers. Or topping and tailing a night in one of Leith's many fine restaurants with a visit to the Vaults. 

So what are the drawbacks? Well, there's the cost. There’s no getting away the fact that this is a luxury. The initial joining fee was relatively steep – over £100. This comes with a 4x10cl bottle taster pack plus some other knick-knacks. I have to say this fiduciary blow was soften immensely by a ‘free’ bottle on offer for new members, but I don’t know how often such promotions are run.
Of the 4 taster bottles there was a great selection. One of the bottles was an amazing 20yo Rosebank – old and rare so that had to be worth a few quid. And tasting it was something that has prompted me to find out more about this defunct distillery and other lowland whiskies in general. It was one of the finest whiskies I've had and it came out of nowhere in terms of where my interests lay. A new discovery which is what the SMWS is all about really.

I still don’t know whether it’s a cost effective way to buy whisky. You’ll struggle to find a bottle for less than £50. Most seem to be £50-70 with no upper limit. It puts me off picking up a bottle for casual supping. But then again it is single cask which tends to be more expensive even when it’s a distillery bottling. But you could also argue that the extra cost is the expertise required to taste and track down the whisky in the first place.

The venues aren’t too cheap either - most of the dram prices are about £5 and going up to £25. Everything else (wine, beer, food) is slightly uplifted from normal pub prices. So there's that.

Another drawback - much as I’ve espoused the virtues I’ve still only made it to the venues 7 or 8 times in 12 months. Other friends that are members regularly lament the fact that they don't get down to the venues more often. Which isn't a reflection on the SMWS but it just illustrates the fact that it often feels like a luxury.

But, as I look again at the renewal notice (well not literally, it's in the other room) I can't help but think I have to renew. I'm still in the thrall of the SMWS, I still love the venues, I still love trying the whiskies, I love the quarterly magazine, I get excited even just reading the monthly outturn offers - even when I know I won't be buying bottle this month.

So, I’ll will be renewing once more.
Update in 12 months time.

1 comment:

  1. In the US the membership fee is roughly equivalent to GBP 160, there is no free bottle offer for new members, the selection of available bottles at any given time is typically much smaller (and the prices higher, especially after taxes and shipping charges are added), and obviously there are no tasting rooms to visit. Personally I'd say the SMWS membership terms for UK residents are very favorable, comparatively speaking.