From experience, I’ve found that the stereotypical ‘Average person off the street, who believes they know all about whisky because they once spoke to someone in a shop when they bought a bottle of single malt for their dad at Christmas’ can often be found out when challenged on their knowledge of Independent Bottlers.

Understandable to a point, with the preconception that all elements of the creation of single malt up to and including bottling and branding are closely guarded secrets.

Even when prompted with the more well-known and established names such as Gordon & MacPhail, Berry Brothers and Rudd, Cadenhead’s, Douglas Laing, Hunter Laing etc, the idea that anyone can buy a cask of whisky and bottle it with their own branding can often result in the uninitiated reacting with a tilted head and furrowed brow reminiscent of a confused Labrador.  

Until you mention The Scotch Malt Whisky Society…

“Oh, them! That lot with the green bottles and members bar in Edinburgh. I’ve heard of them…. Obviously!”

The Society’s founder, Phillip Hills, first asked some friends if they would like to split the cost of buying a cask of Glenfarclas in the late ‘70s. The small group gradually snowballed, and membership was opened to the public – along with their first premises in Leith – in 1983. As we speak, the SMWS now has a worldwide membership and premises as far afield as Denmark, Australia, Canada, Germany, USA, India, Japan, Poland, South Africa, Taiwan and Austria to name just a few. Each has specific benefits for members, and obviously a huge collection of Society bottlings to indulge in. Not surprising that they are now arguably the most recognisable independent whisky bottlers on the planet.

So, three and a half decades later, and I find myself in the surroundings of Queen Street Gardens, a private garden opposite the Society’s Queen Street venue in Edinburgh, for their 35th Anniversary Garden Festival. This is just one of a whole range of events the SMWS are marking the occasion with.

This was a mini outdoor festival early in September, with a selection of recognised distilleries exhibiting, a barbeque, a beer van, a DJ and – most importantly – a chance to try not only the current out-turn of SMWS Bottlings chosen especially for the 35th Anniversary (a couple of which I’ll be reviewing on your behalf below), but some historical ones too!

And what a great day it was. Yes, there was room for the expected reminiscing of the Society stalwarts: SMWS Ambassador John McCheyne with tales of the Society’s evolution, recounting happy times had and stories of entertaining customers from near and far (I even managed to feature in one of them, mainly because I’m an idiot, but hey ho….).

John McCheyne in evangelical mode, telling everyone about that time Connas was a bit of an idiot. Pic from SMWS.

Charlie Maclean, meanwhile, was waxing lyrically on one-off whiskies that are now the stuff of legend. And we even had the ever entertaining “Favourite SMWS Bottling Name” discussion (“Whisky-Flavoured Condoms and Skunk Roadkill” for the win, if you ask me!).

There was also the opportunity for people relatively new to whisky to engage with knowledgeable faces like Julie Hamilton (of Glasgow’s Whisky Festival Fame) and Olaf Meier on hand to educate at request…

And when all was done, a relaxing chat over at SMWS Queen Street with staff and attendees alike ended the day nicely (Even the Geordie stag party was well behaved! Nothing to do with me).  All in all, I went home safe in the knowledge that whatever the future holds for The Society, the right people are looking after it.

Julie Hamilton offering someone outside. Pic from SMWS.

Congrats to Jan and his team in Edinburgh for hosting a great event! Here’s to Many More!

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Now for the tasting notes! In what I’d describe as my personal mission to share great whisky with as many people as possible (More accurately, what I’m saying is – “I got some, you didn’t! HAAAA HAAAA!”), I saved some samples to spread the good word to the masses (well, you lot anyway)! Here we go!

SMWS Cask No. 7.209 “Midnight Thought Machine” 14yo, 59.6% [Longmorn]

First Fill Bourbon

SOLD OUT! 

Nose: Waxy at first, packs a punch with alcohol (59.6%, obviously!), dessicated coconut fudge and herby menthol creaminess. Water promotes the green sweetness, mint, apples, coming close to tropical.

Palate: A big one! Slight smoke and dark cherry sweetness a hint of dark cocoa. Banana-y fizz lets go to even more subtle wood smoke and caramelised pineapple. A drop of Mother Nature’s finest brings a sharper edge to the deep flavours, citrus (lime?) comes to the fore initially, tempered by more subtle, savoury Chinese tea notes, closing with refreshing clementine.

Finish : Oil of Olbas under cinnamon and nutmeg, a gummy white fruitiness continues and fades. Water stifles the finish somewhat, but the refreshing clementine theme is still present, something that I should find more familiar but don’t – maybe lychee? – in the medium to long fade.

Overview: Great whisky that any SMWS member would be content with, both with and without water. I did find the dilution transition a tad odd to begin with, but it won me over in the end. Good bottle, from a dependable distillery.

SMWS Cask No. 63.49 “In The Dark Of The Abyss”, 11yo, 60.6% [Glentauchers]

Ex-Oloroso Sherry Butt

SOLD OUT! 

Nose: The darkness rises, as in chocolate, dry fruits and nuts, there’s a dankness in the background too. Your Grandad’s Sunday best brogues left in the spice cupboard after his traditional sherry at the 18th.

Palate: Wow! Tangy (in a good way)! Candied Seville orange marmalade (yes, with the bits in it) and a dusting of sweet dry spices: cinnamon, clove, anise may have all been poured into Grandad’s brogues to give him a lesson in appropriate storage! Traditional Christmas Cake-themed thick, sherried Speyside, they live! With all their flambéed orangey goodness!

Finish: It’s a stayer, that orange influence just hangs and hangs, mirroring the earlier spice journey and leaving a nut brittle roundness with the darkness of the sherry oak haze left on the palate.

Overview: For my palate, it’s easy for sherried whiskies to be overly sherried. This is right up my street. I like this. I like it a lot. I didn’t buy any when I had the chance. I am an idiot.

I can still taste it now. Grrrrrr…

That’s all for today, folks – more Connas Stunnas very soon!