The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

ferguson 003In 1978, Phillip “Pip” Hills was given a cask of whisky by the owners of the Glenfarclas Distillery by way of compensation for some work he’d done for them. The cask was hauled back to Edinburgh in the boot of his car and promptly shared with friends. The single malt was straight from the cask, bottled unfiltered, undiluted, at cask strength and without any artificial colouring. It was like nothing they’d ever tasted before; far more characterful than the standard distillery bottlings they were used to. The decision was soon made to acquire another cask, and then another…

As interest grew, a syndicate was formed to purchase casks and distribute them among the subscribers. By 1983, the syndicate was growing and Pip Hills’ wife was tired of the casks being bottled in her kitchen. The group purchased its first property in Leith, a district of Edinburgh called the Vaults for its stone wine cellars which are reputed to date from the 12th century. In 1983, the decision was also made to open a membership and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was born. In 2013, the Society celebrates its 30th anniversary. It is now the world’s largest whisky club with more than 27,000 members and branches in 17 countries including the UK, Canada and the United States.

More than just a whisky club, the Society is also one of the most respected independent bottlers in the world. The group selects and bottles around 400 casks annually from a broader range of distilleries than any other independent bottler. To date, they have bottled single malts from 129 different single malt distilleries and from 10 grain distilleries. They have also bottled casks of Japanese single malt whisky as well as Rum, Cognac, Armagnac and Bourbon. Bottlings are always single casks, bottled at cask strength without colouring or chilfiltering.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s standards are high, with only those whiskies that are very good or interesting selected for bottling. Cask samples are reviewed weekly by the Tasting Panel, which consists of Society staff, whisky industry members and others with well-respected palates. Their job is not only to select whiskies but also to contribute to the whiskies’ whimsical tasting note and name.

Unlike other independent bottlers, the Society doesn’t name the distillery of origin. Society whiskies are identified by a two-part number and a name derived from their tasting note. The Society wants their members to purchase whiskies based on tasting notes, not brand loyalty. Each distillery has been given a number corresponding with the order in which the whisky was bottled by the Society. As Glenfarclas was the first distillery the Society bottled, it has the honour of being distillery number 1. The second number denotes the number of casks bottled by that distillery. By way of example, a whisky numbered 1.160 is the 160th cask of Glenfarclas bottled by the Society. 1.160 was bottled a few years ago with the name Sunny Spiced Apples and Vanilla Cream, a reference to its flavour profile.

The Society has bottled nearly 5,000 whiskies over the last 30 years, but their edge and sense of whimsy is undiminished. In the past couple of years, we’ve seen whiskies bottled with names like Jar Jar Binks in Trouble Again (a Star Wars reference), Wild West Cowgirl Dressed in Leather, Cigar Smoking Dragon and Explosion in a Honey Factory. The Society’s bottles are reserved for members, but membership is open to all and is valid worldwide. The Society has two venues in Edinburgh, including the Vaults which is still the Society’s spiritual home, and one in London where members can have a dram and enjoy a meal. There are also partner bars and hotels around the world where their curious whiskies can also be found. I recently visited Bar High Society in Tokyo which is one of the Society’s Japanese partner bars.

The first year of Society membership includes a membership kit with four sample bottles, a tasting note book, a membership book and pin. Members also receive the quarterly, award-winning whisky magazine, Unfiltered, and monthly bottling lists called Outturns. Visit (UK), (Canada) and (US). ~ By Andrew Ferguson