gavin smith

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High Society

by Gavin D Smith, 03/07

This year the Scotch Malt Whisky Society celebrates its 25th anniversary. The brash, young upstart that cocked a snook at the Scotch whisky establishment and its fixation with big brands back in the early 1980s has become a respectable citizen, albeit a citizen who still has a certain welcome edginess about him.

The Society was founded by accountant Phillip 'Pip' Hills in 1983, to spread the word about the virtues of single cask, cask-strength malt whisky at a time when the overall choice of malts available was comparatively limited. From Hill's original syndicate of like-minded friends the Society has now grown to boast an international membership of some 28,000.


The Society boasts a vigorous bottling programme, and central to its social activities are two Edinburgh venues, namely the historic, 18th century Vaults building in Leith and a Georgian townhouse in the New Town's Queen Street. However, the Society also has members' rooms in London and several other countries around the world, offering a relaxing atmosphere for drinking, dining, tutored tasting sessions and a variety of special events. Additionally, the tasting sessions are regularly taken out 'on the road,' so that members in a wide range of geographical locations may experience the Society's hospitality.

Membership comprises a great cross-section of society, but one notable development in recent years has been the increasing number of women attracted to the Society's ranks. During the last three years, women have accounted for 25 per cent of all new members, whereas the figure had previously been no higher than one in ten.

   According to the Society's venue director, Anne Griffiths, "We have worked hard to create the right atmosphere at our venues," while managing director Paul Miles describes the growing number of female members as "A fabulous fact!"

Miles also notes that "We offer the world's widest range of single cask, cask strength malt whiskies, bottling in excess of 200 casks per year."

The Society prides itself on providing members with entertaining, richly descriptive and sometimes downright quirky tasting notes of the whiskies on offer, written as a result of the weekly deliberations of an eclectic mix of panellists, who meet to sample six or seven whiskies that may be destined for bottling.

Behind the Society's ability to provide such a large range of high quality single cask expressions at a time when many independent bottlers struggle to find really good whisky lies the fact that since 2004 the organisation has been owned by Glenmorangie Ltd, which boasts significant strength in depth of maturing whisky stocks.

Paul Miles declares that "The Glenmorangie link up is absolutely key to what we do. At no point in the Society's history have we had access to the range of casks we have now."

The proof of the pudding is, of course, in the drinking here, and the Society's whisky manager Simon Downs has kindly selected two releases from the Summer 2008 (issue 137) Society Bottlings list for to assess:


Scotch Malt Whisky Society 97.11
56.0%ABV - 18-year-old. The Society's policy of allocating bottling numbers rather than distillery names to their whiskies means that broad hints as to their provenance are given in the tasting notes. Thus, it is not too difficult to work out that "…the little (sic) distillery that closed in 1994 in Dunbartonshire" is in fact Littlemill. Initally citrus fruits, especially orange, wood varnish and a whiff of honey on the nose, then cinnamon and marshmallows reveal themselves in time. The palate is notably sweet and quite gentle, with apricots, oranges and honey, plus Bourbon barrel vanilla. The fruity sweetness and vanilla continue in a spicy, medium-length finish. star6_10 (1K)
[Distilled March 1990, 233 bottles, £65.00, members only]

Scotch Malt Whisky Society 64.15
57.1%ABV - 15-year-old. Perhaps a little more detective work is required here in order to identify "the distillery behind the infamous Loch Dhu" as Mannochmore, located a few miles south of Elgin, and added alongside the Victorian Glenlossie complex in 1971. For anyone who can't remember Loch Dhu, or who has managed to forget it, this was a densely black version of Mannochmore, launched in the mid-1990s by owners United Distillers. After being reviled by most consumers, it has now become a collectors' item! Happily, this offering of Mannochmore has more of a ginger hue to it, and after some initial reticence, the nose yields a soft honey and fudge character, while the addition of water releases chocolate orange creams and almonds. Full-bodied and spicy on the palate, with golden syrup and ginger cake. The finish is long, quite dry and pleasantly oaky, with persistent ginger spice. star7_10 (1K)
[Distilled June 1992, 288 bottles, £46.00, members only]

For further details of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society visit


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