The Scotch Malt Whisky Society: A Ticket To Understanding Scotland's Whisky - The Whiskey Wash

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society: A Ticket To Understanding Scotland’s Whisky

By Amanda Schuster / December 21, 2016

“It’s a new time for whisky,” says Amanda Victoria, the Communications Director of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS). “We’re living in an era when an emphasis on education has opened the category up to a wider audience, and taken the intimidation factor down.”

That growing trend in whisky appreciation has breathed new life into the SMWS, an organization that has existed for decades, but has been relatively unknown outside of its native U.K. until recently. In fact, when Victoria was approached for the job a few months ago, she wasn’t yet familiar with it.

However, as soon as she looked into what the organization was and what they were about, she knew it was the right gig. She recognized their brand message as the perfect combination of invitational and educational, introducing a fan base to whisky in an approachable, educational way that still preserved a sense of discovery.

Scotch Malt Whisky Society

image via Gabi Porter

What is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society?

Foremost, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is an accessible, member’s-only club that’s open to an international base. It’s are also an independent bottler that purchases single casks of malt from different distilleries throughout Scotland and other countries, and releases them to members for purchase, as well as serves them in one of its three physical club locations: two in the city of Edinburgh, and one in London.

Additionally, the whiskies can be enjoyed in partner bars found in eight countries and in the U.S., which offer cask selections to members and non-members during regular hours and at special events. The idea is to provide people with a unique experience through whisky, and teach new ways of enjoying it through guided tastings, food pairings, and even, in some cases, as an ingredient added to cuisine.

What is the whisky? 

Each bottle is a cask-strength malt taken from a single cask from a different distillery, making each one unique and usually limited to around 225 bottles. While many of the distilleries are well-known, the SMWS believes that to best represent the individual whiskies and celebrate the uniqueness of each selection, the actual name and location of the distillery is not revealed on the bottle.

This is because traits may vary within each distillery and region, including some experimental releases that are not typical of the house or regional style. Instead, each one is labeled according to its flavor profile, which is broken down into 12 variations: Young & Sprightly, Fruity & Mellow, Old & Dignified, Oily & Coastal, Heavily Peated, among others.

What the bottles do indicate is the age of the whisky, cask type, ABV, a bottle number, a code representing the distillery number, and the number of casks that distillery has issued to the SMWS, along with tasting notes. The name of the whisky is a cute all-lowercase reference to its character, i.e. “an apothecary shop on the corner” or “new carpet in a sweetie shop.”

The idea is to communicate that the provenance of a whisky is far less important than what it feels like to drink it, that its enjoyment should not be based solely on those details. In essence, each whisky is like blind tasting a unique distillery release and letting its character speak for itself.

How did this come about? 

SMWS began in the late 1970s when an enthusiast named Pip Hills purchased his own cask of whisky for private enjoyment. It was such a hit with his friends that they banded together to buy more, and eventually, in 1983, the Society was officially established with a club location in Edinburgh as a means of sharing a passion for malt whisky.

Many high profile people in the whisky world have begun their careers working and being mentored at the Society, including author and educator Heather Greene. The Society has now expanded to include over 25,000 members in 19 countries.

Present day

With more exposure in the U.S. and other countries through special events and its partner bars, SMWS is gaining more traction through people who appreciate the nuances of single cask whiskies and share a common devotion of unique drams. Says Victoria, “The entire culture of a country is represented through a single [style of] spirit. It’s the perfect educational landscape.”

The cask selections open up more discussions about what makes whisky taste a certain way and what gives it certain character traits, not just from a sense of terroir, but other factors. After all, the best way to learn about whisky is to keep tasting and discussing it with people who share your interest.