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A Visit to Leith
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was founded in 1983 by Pip Hills. Whilst staying with friends in the highlands of Scotland, Pip was introduced to the delights of single cask Scotch whisky when a neighbour popped round with a bottle from his own personal supply of Glenfarclas.
So enamoured was Mr. Hills with the spirit, he resolved to purchase a cask of his own and quickly pulled together a group of friends and acquaintances with whom to invest. Naturally one cask led to another and word of the movement soon began to spread. The group continued to grow until a decision was taken to open membership to the public, creating what would go on to become the biggest whisky club of its kind anywhere in the world.
Seeking a base for his new company, Hills took a chance and dropped into an historic building he had long admired on Giles St in Leith. Built over medieval wine vaults, the 18th century building housed the offices of shipbuilding company J & G Thomson at the time, but as luck would have it, they were preparing to relocate to another site.
The Society was able to purchase the premises for just £50,000 though it would go on to cost siginificantly more in repairs and maintenance. Paying a visit to the site today however, one can’t help but feel that it was worth it. Entering the courtyard, you’re immediately struck by the grandness of the building, making it a home befitting of this most unique of whisky clubs.
I first became acquainted with the Society through their annual stall at Glasgow’s Whisky Festival. A regular visitor each year, I had long been impressed with the consistency of quality they were able to present and I soon began to consider becoming a member myself. After much dithering I finally took the plunge early last year and have since been able to enjoy some truly wonderful single cask drams as a result of my membership.
As well as granting access to the Society’s monthly out-turn of bottlings, a membership card gains the holder entry to the members rooms, including of course, the Vaults. Indeed, just last month I found myself visiting Leith with some friends and naturally I insisted we drop in to Giles St for a spot of lunch and a few drams (shout out to Willie, a friend of many, many years who missed the first half of the Scottish Cup Final so that we could stay a bit longer!).
After enjoying a platter of small dishes consisting of Olives and Bread, Black Pudding Sausage Rolls and a cup of Haggis, I began to peruse the vast selection of bottles on offer. Based partly on the excellent advice I was given by the bar staff and partly on the recommendations I sought out from Society Ambassador and all-round good guy John McCheyne, I was soon working my way through a varied set of whiskies. First up was cask number 93.105, a 7 year old Glen Scotia matured in first fill Bourbon, named ‘Tea leaves and seaweed’. Then came 55.52 ‘Sicilian citrus liqueur’, a 12 year old refill matured Royal Brackla. Next was 13.69 ‘An antique cocktail book’ which had been distilled at Dalmore and matured in a refill bourbon barrel. The undoubted highlight of the afternoon however was 23.75 ‘Whisky of a bygone era’, a 27 year old Bruichladdich released to mark the occasion of the 2019 Islay Festival.
In all honesty, it is a struggle to think of a more pleasurable way to spend a Saturday afternoon. The hearty food was delicious and well presented. The service prompt and efficient. The surroundings magnificent yet comfortable, even cosy.
Of course, any whisky bar lives or dies by the success of its staff and this is especially true for a Society that shuns traditional brand names in favour of flavour categories and playful tasting notes. Fortunately, the Vaults is well equipped with knowleadgable, passionate professionals who are more than capable of guiding their customers to their perfect dram. Though it does rather seem like their job is made easier by the quality of product they are able to offer.
Indeed, the only problem I encountered during my time there was in deciding what to buy. In the end I settled on two bottles. 10.170 ‘Cooking for Hades’ is a 10 year old Bunnahabhain released for the Islay Festival which I will be reviewing very soon and SC135 is a 35cl bottle hand-filled from a Rum-seasoned quarter cask that perched on the Vaults’ bar. Distilled at Loch Lomond, ‘Surgery in a tanning shed’ is 7 years old and bottled at 57.9% abv.
*Full Disclosure: As an affiliate of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I can be paid commission should any of my readers choose to become members. That said, I paid for this bottle with my own money and will always strive to remain impartial in my reviews.
Smell: Earthy Smoke mingles with Buttery Rum amidst the Fiery heat of Youth. With time in the glass, Vanilla, Foam Bananas, Liquorice and warming Winter Spices come through.
Taste: Warm sumptuous Rum and Spicy Pepper with Vanilla, Cinnamon & Nutmeg leading to a Malty, Smoky finish.
Thoughts: Comes in a 35cl ‘half bottle’ that the customer fills from the cask themselves. At £35 it is both an excellent dram and a fun souvenir of your visit to the Vaults.
The nose was a little chemical-y and slightly off-putting at first but soon settled down to present something much more appealing and the robust flavour on the palate easily soothed any initial fears. A delightfully bonkers dram that could only come from an independent bottler like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is a unique members only whisky club which releases an array of new single cask bottlings each month. Members not only gain access to this monthly out-turn, but also to the purpose built members rooms in Society venues in Edinburgh and London.
For more information on joining the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, click here.
For more on the Vaults click here.