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The Scotch Malt Whisky Society came about through a series of coincidences that began when Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills went to visit some friends at their farm in the highlands of Scotland. During his time there, Pip was introduced to the wonders of single cask whisky by a neighbour who had purchased his own cask from Glenfarclas distillery.
Inspired by his experience, Pip rounded up some wealthy acquaintances and approached Glenfarclas to secure a cask of his own. Though the distillery rarely sold outwith a closed circle of long-term clients, Pip was able to snap up a cask left behind by a customer who had passed away. Soon the liquid had been bottled and shared among the investors. On the distillers’ insistence, the name of Glenfarclas was withheld from the label, thus giving rise to the Society’s unique coding system.
Casks followed from The Glenlivet, Bowmore, Highland Park, Auchentoshan… and word began to spread. It was decided to open membership to the public for a small annual fee, meaning a home for the business would have to be found. On a whim, Pip paid a visit to a building he had long admired in the historic port of Leith. As luck would have it, the current inhabitants were about to move on to new premises and were happy to sell the building, so the famous Vaults became the spiritual home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society forever more.
Since those early days, the Society has grown to include some 25,000 members worldwide, with partner bars in cities spanning the globe. September 2019 saw them celebrate with a series of events dubbed ‘The Gathering’. In Edinburgh this meant a week of festivities ranging from tastings and Sunday brunches to movie screenings and walking tours of Leith. The obvious standout of the program for me however was the Courtyard Party due to take place on Saturday 7th of September.
So I made my way for Edinburgh with a pair of comrades at my side. After enjoying a starter pint in the quaint Teuchter’s Landing pub we made for the Vaults to find the Courtyard housing a marquee, inside of which all sorts of whisky delights awaited.
I’m not sure what I expected from the event. A few tasty drams and a nice chat with friends old and new probably. I remember thinking that a running order of 12pm – 7pm seemed excessive and fully expected to stop by for a few hours before heading off elsewhere. As it happened, we arrived around 12:30, and left some eight hours later, with our bellies full of barbecue and the finest of malt whiskies. We were able to chat to the font of entertaining stories that is Society Ambassador John McCheyne and met with fellow members from as far afield as California. It was also a real pleasure to talk with founder Pip Hills himself who very kindly signed a copy of his new book ‘The Founder’s Tale’ (available now from all good book stores!).
I feel a word of praise is required for the pricing structure at the event. Drinks were bought with pre-paid tokens which came at two price points. Regular tokens were £5.50, whilst ‘Old & Rare’ tokens came in at £10.50. In short, there were some real bargains to be had. £10.50 for a dram of an 18 year old malt distilled in March 1978 at the now closed Brora distillery for example, is fantastic value, whilst few could complain at paying £5.50 for a 27 year old Glen Ord.
In the midst of the celebrations, the Society hosted an online ‘Virtual Tasting’ helmed by McCheyne himself. Since we were busy enjoying a tasting of our own in the Courtyard I was unable to take part but nevertheless I was delighted to be sent my own ‘Discovery Pack’ of five drams to enjoy at home.
Unfortunately none of the drams reviewed below are currently available to buy as a full 70cl bottle, but you can still snap up a Discovery Pack here.
*Full Disclosure: As part of an affiliate programme with the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, I can be paid commission should any of my readers choose to become members or purchase Society products from links in my reviews. That said, I will always strive to give a fair and balanced review.
Cask No. 33.137 – Campfire Marshmallows on Singed Sticks (Ardbeg)
Smell: Charcoal, ash and campfire smoke. Liquorice, tar and old rope. Vanilla. Lemon meringue and apple pie.
Taste: Sea salt, leather and damp wood. Vanilla, toffee and dark chocolate. Bonfire smoke and damp ash.
Thoughts: A special release that was only available by the dram at Gathering events, this single cask Ardbeg is nevertheless a very tempting proposition that almost makes the discovery pack a worthwhile buy on its own.
A bruiser of a dram that bursts onto the palate in an explosion of tar and smoke. A wonderful example of the spirit character that earned Islay its reputation in the first place.
Cask No. 35.239 – Sweet Seduction (Glen Moray)
Smell: Wonderfully fruity & delicate. Vanilla ice cream with whipped cream on top. Orange. Marzipan. Almond. Caramel & chocolate. White pepper. Cedarwood and oak.
Taste: Caramel toffee. Oak tannins. Dark chocolate and confectionary fruit. Vanilla. Orange creams and lemon sherbet. Pepper.
Thoughts: Another Gathering exclusive that hasn’t been given a full release. If you want to try it, you’ll have to buy the discovery pack.
It’s a special whisky that manages to successfully showcase the character of Glen Moray despite being 24 years in the cask. The lightness of the nose belies the relatively woody flavour, but the oak never completely overpowers. Instead, it is but one component of a wonderfully complex dram. Superb.
Cask no. 44.99 – A Real Cracker (Craigellachie)
Smell: A little meaty. Honeycomb and biscuit. Apple. Orange and lemon. Salted caramel and cinnamon. Salted peanuts.
Taste: Caramel. Toffee apples. Oatcakes. Sea salt and pepper. Apple and shortcrust pastry.
Thoughts: Craigellachie is a spirit full of character and this one is no different though perhaps lacks something a wee bit special to justify the £63 price tag.
A typical Craigellachie in many ways, with meaty spice complementing the more ‘traditional’ fruity Speyside character. A pleasant and solid dram, if a little unremarkable. Will satisfy, if not surprise.
Cask No. 64.108 – Something for the Weekend (Mannochmore)
Smell: Apples & pears. White wine. Olive oil and digestive biscuits. Apple crumble and heather honey. Pineapple juice.
Taste: Heather honey. Apple and cinnamon. Almost fizzy, like lemon sherbet. Oatcakes, butterscotch and apple juice. Strong barley notes on the finish.
Thoughts: A decent buy from a relatively unknown distillery. A good quality whisky for the reasonable price of £48.20 a bottle.
The ‘Light & Delicate’ tag rather undersells this one as there is a depth to the dram that comes as something of a surprise after the fruit & barley notes of the nose. Indeed, it seems to get tastier with each sip and develops into a wonderfully effervescent single malt experience.
Cask No. 107.16 – Truly a Fairy Tale (GlenAllachie)
Smell: Richly spiced nose with lots of nutmeg. Some perfumed sherry notes. Glacé cherries. Rum & raisin. Honey. Burnt toast and oak char.
Taste: Quite an explosion on the palate. Spicy. Nutmeg and cinnamon. Pepper. Brown sugar and walnut. Burnt caramel. Surprisingly woody for just seven years old.
Thoughts: Young and ferociously strong but at £48 a bottle there’s a lot of bang for your buck.
At 67% a little water was needed to settle this monster down. Once the woody spice was tamed however, it became a sumptuous treat. Maybe not the most complex, but what it does, it does very well.
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.