Indie Spotlight: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS)
Location: Edinburgh, United Kingdom
Note: Our Indie Spotlight articles look into stories of individual independent bottlers (or "IBs"), the value they bring to the whisky community and features that make their products special. To learn how IBs are different from conventional distilleries, check out our Basics Series article on Independent Bottlers.
Independent Bottlers (or IBs as we call them), or as some call them, private bottlers, co-exist in the world of whisky alongside Original Bottlers (OBs). OBs are typically distilleries producing their own whisky, while IBs spend their time in search of casks of whiskies (produced by distilleries) for purchase.
In this post, we shall briefly look into the unique role played by IBs in the world of whisky. We discuss how IBs have the flexibility to deliver things that conventional OBs cannot. Then, we shall look into the story of a very successful IB - the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and learn about its exclusive club.
Not all distilleries are OBs
The most well-known distilleries are OBs. However, now not every distillery is an OB, mind you. Some distilleries simply exist to fulfil the needs of their parent company's blends, for example Strathmill and Linkwood for the Johnnie Walker blend, Miltonduff for the Chivas Regal blend, or Glenburgie for the Ballantine's blend.
Heard of em'? Didn't think so.
You know their names, but do you know their (component malts') story?? (Image Source: The Times)
After all a good blend requires a whole host of differently styled whiskies, much like an orchestra needs a variety of instrumentalists to produce a cohesive, complex masterpiece.
Yet, at the same time, not many would pay top dollar just to attend a trumpet recital for an hour and a half.
Consequently, many of these distilleries were/are deemed commercially unviable to be bottled on their own, and marketed and retailed as single malt. After all marketing budgets are scarce and must be allocated wisely.
Are these whiskies unworthy to be enjoyed on their own? Far from it!
Johnnie Walker Blue Label Ghost and Rare Port Ellen retails at $518 while the regular Johnnie Walker Blue Label retails at $188. (Image Source: Johnnie Walker)
Perhaps some redemption stories might inspire more optimism - the likes of Port Ellen, Brora, and even Laphroaig, were all once malts produced for the sole purpose of supporting blends. Something that if done today, would certainly double the blend's price tag, and in equal measure draw disapproval from fans.
Ironic isn't it? What used to be backup dancer has now become the headline act. (Image Source: The Office)
But alas, not all malts were as lucky to be redeemed, many of whom found their names falling wayside and have unfortunately been reduced to a "Glen-huh?" or a "Strath-what?", maybe even a "I've-never-heard-of-it-Mill".
Fast forward a few decades, the times and tides have changed and whisky has been in ever increasing vogue now. This has breathed revitalisation into the viability of re-exploring some of these old malts.
And of course, who would so kind as to do so? IBs of course!
A bottle of that "I've-never-heard-of-it-Mill" kindly brought to us by IB, Cadenhead's. (Image Source: Whiskey Blogger)
What is the role of IBs?
IBs provide a great service to the whisky community. Unbridled by brand guidelines or adhering to a distillery’s signature characteristics, they are able to bring to the spotlight distilleries that do not enjoy the limelight (or marketing budget from big brands), or bring to us whiskies that do not follow what we would conventionally expect from the distilleries that produce them.
A 27 year old Bowmore at one quarter the price? Not a problem!
Wanna try whisky from Littlemill, a mothballed distillery? We got you!
An Islay-cask bottling of Heaven Hill? All ready for your tastebuds!
The host of benefits they bring to us go on and on.
To name a few:
- More affordable than original bottlings (OBs)
- Wider range of age statements
- Cask finishes not associated with a specific distillery
- Access to closed distilleries or distilleries with few OB releases
- Single cask or cask strength bottlings
(Image Source: Whisky Intelligence)
While IBs are less visible to the public’s eye, dive deep enough into the world of whiskies, and sure enough, you’ll end up at the bottom of a bottle of one of these IBs.
There are a great number of IBs, some of the most recognizable of whom have been family-run for generations, such as Douglas Laing or Gordon & MacPhail, others started out as importers and distributors, such as Intertrade, Moon Import and Samaroli, and a small group even owning their own distilleries, such as Cadenhead’s (which owns Springbank Distillery) and Adelphi (which owns new distillery Ardnamurchan).
And we haven't even scratched the surface of indies in Asia and how they provide a vital service of bringing whiskies from Scotland and distribute them across Asia. But we'll keep that for another day.
They come in all shapes and sizes. (Image Source: Whisky Lady)
Yet the modus operandi across them is fairly similar, get your hands on casks, add value to them in some of the ways listed above, bottle them for sale. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. The playbook is a tale as old as time.
One of these IBs is not like the others. It certainly stands out for its inclusion of the public into their ranks, and that is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS).
SMWS: The Snapple of Whiskies
You may have noticed their distinctive green bottles whose shape is itself synonymous with the bottler, a tall rectangular body with a fairly long neck, with every bottle sporting some sort of numeric code and beautifully penned prose.
I’ve certainly come to enjoy reading these little stories, some of whom carry titles such as “Tired vampire gets a massage” or “Riding a duck bareback up Mount Etna”. I don’t know what Mount Etna looks like but I certainly have yet to include riding a duck, much less bareback, to my experiential bucketlist.
In a sea of whisky bottles, not a small number of which feature some interesting labels, SMWS has certainly nailed the whole art of standing out. Their labels are simply so classic yet on brand, you never find yourself getting tired of them, yet each of them conjures the mind's eye.
We weren't kidding. If you're curious what tired vampires getting a massage tastes like, head over to Whisky Saga. (Image Source: Whisky Saga)
This certainly gives us an opportunity to almost humanise each bottle and capture our imaginations.
Almost like how you’ve come to almost unconsciously turn up every Snapple bottle cap to read the fact, as if your body was taken over by some fact-obsessed spirit.
In the whisky world, we’ve come to the same spirit when it comes to SMWS.
Some brief history: It All Started With Pip
It all started with a Mr Phillip Hills, or as his friends called him, “Pip”.
Pip carrying a vintage SMWS bottling. The Society has certainly come a long way.
Now Pip was by no means anything less than a colourful character himself. The man had attended Edinburgh University to be a doctor but was too distracted by mountaineering, which eventually led to a severe accident that hospitalized him for months.
Not to be deterred, upon his recovery, Pip would change courses to instead study philosophy whilst supporting himself by working various heavy industrials jobs from being a docker, to a tunneller, and then a truck driver, amongst others.
He eventually did a number of other loosely connected things, from participating in local activism, to helping conduct one of Scotland’s first underwater surveys of a fortified loch, and then eventually entering civil service and then running his own tax accounting service.
You can read more about Pip's adventures in his book "The Founder's Tale".
On one of his visits to a friend, his friend had introduced him to a farmer who would once a year, get in a Landrover and drive up to the Glenfarclas distillery where he would purchase a quarter cask of aged malt whisky. He would place this next to his farmhouse and draw from it whenever, call it backup whisky.
Now when Pip’s friend was gifted a bottle of this whisky from the farmer, he had given some to Pip to try, and according to Pip, he had never tasted anything this good.
Pip starts a club
This inspired Pip to go back to his hometown in Edinburgh and gather some of his friends to propose the idea of pooling some funds to purchase a cask of whisky from Glenfarclas. This obviously went very well.
Pip then proceeded to call up John Grant, whose family owned Glenfarclas distillery, and after some negotiations, Pip was able to purchase his own quarter cask of the whisky. This was in 1978.
As word got out of this enviable whisky syndicate, requests flooded in with members of the public keen to join this network. Eventually Pip was able to open the club to these new members and get his hands on two more casks from Glenfarclas.
The Society's first venue at Leith.
Eventually as business started to boom, Pip decided that the best way for the collective to grow sustainably was to incorporate under the name “The Scotch Malt Whisky Society” and open its doors to the public.
And that he did in 1983, a year that was itself fraught with hardship for the whisky world, known as the Whisky Recession, as now-legendary distilleries such as Port Ellen and Brora began to shutter. While things seemed bleak, Pip recognized the opportunity, and saw that this created a glut of high quality casks lying in bond which he could acquire.
Society membership explodes
As the years went by, membership grew and the Society itself had bottled whiskies from a wide range of distilleries far eclipsing Pip’s initial imagination. This eventually led to the Society purchasing their first property, The Vault, in Leith, where they could store these casks of whiskies and provided a home for the Society’s members.
Members have access to SMWS venues where they can sample different SMWS bottlings, meet other members and find themselves a second home.
The success of the Society did not go unnoticed and it wasn’t long before potential suitors came knocking, which led to the Society’s sale to Glenmorangie in 2004, yes Glenmorangie the distillery.
Ownership of the Society was later transferred to a group of private investors in 2015, marking the end of Glenmorangie’s partnership with the Society.
(Image Source: London Stock Exchange Group)
In 2021, Artisanal Spirits Company (ASC) which oversees the Society further opened itself to the public through an IPO on the London Stock Exchange (in specific AIM board), allowing the Society to take in greater investment to boost its whisky stocks, invest in cask wood and the refurnishing of existing members’ venues and the opening of new venues.
The Golden Question - How Do I Join?
Well it is the people’s bottler, and as such anyone is welcome to join.
You simply have to sign up here: https://smws.com/whisky-club-membership
(We’re not sponsored, if only!)
Membership entitles you to purchase SMWS’ exclusive bottlings.
It works by paying a basic membership fee, which comes with the following benefits:
- Exclusive access to SMWS bottlings
- Member-only SMWS events
- Member rates at selected bar partners globally
- Access to member venues
- Free subscription to their magazine, Unfiltered
- Expert advice and whisky concierge
- Membership card and lapel badge
Now as we mentioned earlier, each bottle of SMWS is always recognizable by a strange numerical (sometimes alpha-numerical) code on each bottle. You’ll spot a “11.64-something” or a “98.11-another thing”.
Well the code isn’t some codex to a secret organization ruling the world (unfortunately).
Each code is read with the digits before the “.”, and the digits after.
The digits before are matched against specific distilleries, while the digits after represent the Society’s cask number from that distillery.
It should be read: “Distillery . Cask Number”
Simple enough right?