In the world of fine spirits, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) stands as a symbol of a rich history, a commitment to exceptional taste, and the pioneering spirit that has shaped the Scotch whisky industry. This year, the SMWS celebrates its 40th anniversary, marking four decades of remarkable contributions to the world of whisky enthusiasts. From humble beginnings in a friend's kitchen to a global whisky phenomenon, the SMWS's journey is a testament to the enduring appeal of Scotch whisky.
A Humble Beginning
In the late 1970s, the SMWS had its origins in a small group of friends who embarked on whisky adventures, visiting distilleries, and returning with casks lashed to the roof of their car. Founder Pip Hills saw the potential in these adventures and the shared love for Scottish whisky, leading to the formal establishment of the SMWS in 1983. At that time, a cask would find its home in Pip Hills' kitchen, and friends would gather to fill their empty Irn Bru bottles with the precious spirit.
The SMWS embarked on its mission to select and source fine spirits from 180 distilleries, both in Scotland and worldwide. Almost all of their output from the beginning consisted of single cask single malts, setting the stage for the thriving market of single malts we see today.
A Whisky Oasis in the Port of Leith
One pivotal moment in the SMWS's history was the acquisition of an 18th-century warehouse in the Port of Leith. This historical building, with vaulted cellars dating back to the 12th century, became a sanctuary where the SMWS could purchase, age, and bottle the finest whiskies. Although it was purchased in a state of disrepair for approximately £40,000, it has since been revitalized along with its surrounding neighborhood.
The warehouse, known as the SMWS Vaults, now hosts a shop, apartments, a tasting room for private dinners, and a members' bar. This bar features an extensive collection of whiskies and a ceiling adorned with whimsical cartoons. As the Society expanded, additional venues were acquired for the benefit of its members, including a Georgian townhouse on Edinburgh's Queen Street and an Edwardian house in Hatton Gardens, London. These venues offer unique experiences, expert whisky pairings, and access to more than 500 exclusive single malts.
An Extraordinary Array of Whiskies
The SMWS is renowned for releasing nearly 1,000 different bottlings each year, including rare single casks, single malt whiskies, exclusive blends referred to as 'heresies,' and various other single cask spirits. With branches in 28 countries and almost 40,000 members worldwide, the SMWS has become a global community of whisky enthusiasts.
A Special 40th Anniversary Release
To conclude their 40th-anniversary celebrations, the SMWS has unveiled one of their most exceptional releases to date. This release, Society Cask Number 12.79, represents a 40-year-old single malt Scotch whisky drawn from their last remaining cask of 1983 whisky. With only 130 bottles available, it is exclusively offered to members, ensuring a rare and coveted experience.
This exceptional whisky was initially matured in an ex-Bourbon barrel, starting in April 1983, the same year the Society was established. In anticipation of their 40th-anniversary celebrations, the Society's expert Spirits Team selected the cask and transferred the whisky to a refill Spanish oak sherry hogshead in 2018. This secondary maturation added complexity and character to the already exquisite spirit.
Euan Campbell, the Society's Head of Whisky Creation, described the journey of this special whisky, noting, "We’ve been monitoring this one very closely for a number of years. We knew this was the right time to bottle it and share it with people to enjoy this 40-year-old whisky in our 40th year." The refill Spanish oak cask used had 12 years of prior use, which contributed to the whisky's delicate fruitiness, exotic sandalwood notes, and the unique influence of the world of whisky.
The 40-year-old single malt offers an intricate balance of orchard fruits and spices, evoking images of a delectable apple crumble. Euan, however, encourages deeper contemplation, saying, "I sat for about three hours with a dram of this, and it just changes constantly. There’s 40 years of flavor in there, but it’s still elegant."
A Bottle as Unique as the Whisky It Holds
Differing from the Society's regular releases, which are adorned with detailed tasting notes and quirky names, this special 40th-anniversary release embraces simplicity. There are no paper labels; instead, information is printed directly onto the glass. The upper third of the bottle is hand-dipped in dark green wax, paying homage to the Society's iconic green bottles. To ensure this remarkable whisky takes center stage, it comes with a handcrafted walnut plinth and a museum-quality clear case for those who wish to display it in their collection.
Rebecca Hamilton, the Society's Chief Marketing and Experience Officer, emphasizes the importance of keeping the exceptionally aged and flavor-curated bottling true to the Society's origins. She notes that it was treated like a piece of art, a collaborative effort involving artists and designers. This bottle not only represents the Society's history but also its growth from a small enthusiast club to a global single cask whisky community.
Society Cask Number 12.79, the SMWS's 40th Anniversary release, will be available in the UK, Europe, the US, China, Japan, Australia, and Taiwan, with a retail price of £3,000. This remarkable whisky is a testament to the Society's dedication to preserving the essence of whisky and its unwavering commitment to delivering unique and exceptional spirits to its members. As the SMWS toasts to its 40th year, it continues to be a pioneer in the world of fine spirits and a haven for whisky enthusiasts worldwide.