THE SCOTCH MALT WHISKY SOCIETY The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Private members’ club and independent bottler of whiskies and spirits.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) is a private members’ club and one of the oldest of Scotland’s ‘modern’ independent bottlers and an influential whisky institution that has played a significant role in the promotion and expansion of enthusiasm for single malt whiskies, both in the UK and abroad.
It was one of the key companies to promote the bottling of whiskies at cask strength and the idea of ‘single casks’. Its whiskies are notable for their uniform presentation and the coding system by which the different bottlings are denoted. The SMWS has also bottled Cognac, Armagnac, rum, Bourbon, other American whiskies and even Somerset cider brandy.
Annual membership includes access to the society’s numerous venues around the world, as well as to its bottlings which are exclusively for members only.
The SMWS was founded in 1983 by a group of friends including tax accountant Philip ‘Pip’ Hills, actor Russel Hunter, contractor David Alison, writer W Gordon Smith and architect Ben Tindall.
Hills was already an avid whisky enthusiast and travelled around Scotland visiting distilleries. The group of friends purchased a cask of Glenfarlcas, from which they would occasionally draw bottles and share. In 1983 part of the Vaults buildings in Leith became available as previous occupants J G Thomson had been re-located to Glasgow by owner Tennent Caledonian Breweries.
A membership society was established and the cask of Glenfarclas owned by Hills and his cohorts – a 1975 Sherry cask – was released as the first SMWS bottling – labelled 1.1 – in August 1983. Further bottlings were released monthly thereafter until the Society started to grow in size.
In 1995 Hills resigned as a director and it continued as a private company without him. The following year the SMWS offered its members a private share scheme, and the money raised was re-invested into the acquisition of a second members’ club at Greville Street in London.
In 2004 the SMWS opened its third venue at 28 Queen Street in Edinburgh, and was sold later the same year to Glenmorangie.
In 2008, to mark its 25th anniversary, the SMWS updated its livery quite dramatically for the first time in its history with a change to the bottle shape and slight alterations to the label to include a more extensive tasting note. The bottlers were updated again in 2017 to better highlight the whisky styles.
The SMWS was sold to a private consortium of investors in 2015.
SCOTCH MALT WHISKY SOCIETY’S .1 SERIES
The coded numerical system that features on the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s (SMWS) bottlings was originally created in order to collaborate with distilleries. But the range serves today as a time capsule of a pivotal period in the history of Scotch whisky, as Angus MacRaild discovers.
Line of .1 bottlings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Mystery malts: The SMWS created the coding system to conceal the names of distilleries on labels
Much like the grander arc of Scotch whisky itself, the history of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) is populated with happy accidents, perhaps none more so than the very early decision to utilise a simple numbering system, one that managed to cloak and simultaneously identify the various distilleries and their associated single cask bottlings.
From the perspective of hindsight it seems like an obviously terrific idea, one that taps into the raw geekiness of whisky and overlays the entire SMWS output with a satisfying numerical order and aesthetic. Its origins, however, were rooted in the commercial realpolitik of the early 1980s whisky industry, and born out of pragmatic necessity.
The idea was that of the SMWS founder, Pip Hills. It began with Hills developing a penchant for darkly Sherried, cask strength Glenfarclas, of a kind that was still sold by the Grant family direct to certain private customers in quarter Sherry casks; the kind of casks that delivered unctuous, rancio-slathered young malts of tar-like viscosity.
It would be exactly that kind of cask which ended up being bottled as the very first SMWS release: 1.1. The Grants were – as they remain today – not overly fond of their distillery’s name appearing on third-party bottlings. As today’s spirits director at the SMWS, Kai Ivalo, notes: ‘His [Hills’] original reasoning was to secure supply without infringing on trademarks. It’s interesting the industry was insisting on that even at that time.’
Had Hills approached another company with a less restrictive style, the SMWS bottlings might have been of a different nature entirely. However, that early exposure to industry protectiveness led to the notion of simply putting a numerical code to the bottlings in place of any overt brand or distillery names. It was a decision which would play a pivotal role in the growth and sustainability of the SMWS in the years ahead.
Rising tide: Prices for some .1 bottlings, such as 33.1 (Ardbeg), keep on increasing
Today’s SMWS staff are keenly aware of the importance of the coding system. As Ivalo says: ‘It’s become more useful over the years – even though some distilleries would want their name on the label. Many we would never have got without the numbering system.’
The most obvious iconography of the system lies in the .1s. For example, on today’s secondary market you can find a reasonable number of late-1970s vintage bottlings of North Port from a variety of bottlers, usually around the £300-500 range. SMWS North Port 1978 74.1, bottled in 1989, recently sold at Whisky Auctioneer for £825.
It’s a typical illustration of the premium commanded by almost every bottling in this series. For bottlings from more iconic distilleries, such as Ardbeg 33.1, the prices are never static, hitting ever more dizzying heights with each scarce appearance.
However, while it is easy to view this series through the lens of collectability, rarity and value, its meaning runs deeper. Most of the .1 series are young whiskies. Many were bottled when the SMWS was in its infancy. Funds were tight and the price of bonded whisky was often dictated purely by age; very few distilleries were considered ‘names’ in the way we would categorise them today. The Glenfarclas, Port Ellen and Glenfiddich .1s are all eight years old – Laphroaig 29.1 a mere six years old.
These bottlings represent a liquid archive of Scotland’s malts captured in youth, usually at indestructibly high-octane natural strengths. For drinkers, they are an unrivalled library of distillates in flux, of an industry in change; held in bottle to be discovered and dissected by Scotch enthusiasts decades later. There are few other bottlings like them in that respect.
Whisky chronicles: MacRaild finds the .1 bottlings act as an archive of Scotch history
While the Gordon & MacPhail or Cadenhead stocks bottled for Italy at the time were generally from the 1960s and earlier, the SMWS .1s by and large formed a fledgling fingerprint of Scotland’s whisky industry in the modernising upheaval of the 1970s. At the same time, they played a key role in establishing and popularising the ideology of ‘single cask’ and ‘cask strength’ in the minds of UK aficionados.
On top of their immediate collectability and their inherent appeal to drinkers, there are also iconic gems scattered throughout their ranks. Clynelish 26.1 is a whisky distilled in 1965 and bottled in 1986, one of only a handful of independent 1960s Clynelish single malts from the original distillery, and a bottle in countless enthusiasts’ ‘dream bottles’ list.
The first bottling of Brora as a single malt was done by the SMWS as 61.1; it’s a beautiful, peat-soaked 1976 bottled in 1989 that commands a mighty reputation today. The SMWS also remains the sole bottler of the Lomond single malt from Inverleven distillery, with two casks bottled as 98.1 and 98.2.
Perhaps most alluringly for whisky lovers, though, is that there are many bottlings in the series that no one seems to know anything about. There are many .1s that very few people in today’s whisky community, if any, have tasted.
Bottlings such as Springbank 1970 27.1, that many of us would dream to taste, simply never show up – at least, not in the modern online auction era. This is due to the fact that the membership in those early years was largely Scotland- and UK-based, and the culture was one of consumption and enjoyment. Few were kept or collected.
In-demand drams: The .1 bottlings are popular with collectors and enthusiasts alike
‘Collectors are the minority in our experience,’ Ivalo says. ‘It certainly wasn’t a part of what was intended or designed.’ Perhaps not, but the SMWS bottlings are undeniably collectable. The numbering system means they intersect multiple angles of desire among enthusiasts. Some collect one distillery, some collect only .2s, for example.
Couple this reality with the giddy destructiveness of enjoyment that characterised the early SMWS era and you can see how the .1s (and much of the early SMWS output) series is cast in the twin glares of curious fascination and hungry desire. Most of the .1s possess an elusiveness that only compounds the iconography and allure of this series.
When Ivalo talks about the .1s today, he retains an edge of cautious philosophy about the numbering system. ‘Like so many things about the SMWS, I think it’s a double-edged sword. Some people see it as elitist. To the uninitiated, it can be a barrier. To a lot of people, they feel a bit overwhelmed by it.
‘But I guess on the flipside it means you have to invest a bit of time and effort into the society, and the members end up with a common language about the bottlings.’
Perhaps one of the underlying lessons of the SMWS – as you can quickly glean from Facebook grumblings any time a new bottling is disagreed with – is that you can’t please everyone, every time.
Today’s SMWS bottlings present a funny, knife-edge balancing act between kooky and sleek, colourful and muted. The early bottlings, by contrast, offered a uniform, line-drawn greenery, punctuated by the red-lettered boldness of raw information leaping out in beautiful simplicity.
Both are equally representative in their style and substance of the nature of their times. Perhaps more than any other institution, the SMWS reflects the broader cultural landscape of whisky passion, from the innocence of the 1980s to the colourful cultural mosh pit of today.
Dream bottle: Some SMWS .1 bottlings, such as Clynelish, have acquired legendary status
The .1s are a mixture of incredible liquid, rare, young examples of lost distillates, precise and beautiful aesthetics, historic iconography and – maybe most powerful of all – nostalgia.
As a series, it is notable for the fact that it has no end in sight. There will continue to be .1 bottlings into the future, as the SMWS unlocks new distilleries from around the world. It means that any collection of these bottlings can only ever be temporarily complete. Indeed, the only remaining complete collection known to exist is the SMWS’s own one on display at the Vaults.
Just how much potential some of these new .1 releases have to match many of the more hallowed early examples is dubious. What’s certain, however, is that their existence and continued power to fascinate also help to drive the SMWS towards the future.
They are its constant narrative, latched at the Society’s foundation and documenting its path as a company within the context of the wider whisky landscape. It is a story that is always being extended. For, as vital as whisky’s past is, it must also be equally interested in its own futur
PIP HILLS, SCOTCH MALT WHISKY SOCIETY
A chance encounter with an Aberdeenshire farmer in the early 1980s gave Pip Hills an idea that would create the most successful whisky club in the world: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Phillip ‘Pip’ Francis Logan Hills was born into a steadfastly working class family in Bo’ness on the southern side of the Firth of Forth in 1940. His father was a Grangemouth docker, his mother a housewife, and by the standards of the day Hills considered that as a family they were ‘tolerably well off’. In those days, if whisky was drunk, the chances are it was Haig.
Hills attended Edinburgh University as a medical student at the age of 17, but mountaineering distracted him to the point that he made the first free ascent of the Scott Monument in the late 1950s. He then suffered a serious climbing accident which hospitalised him for months. Following his recovery he changed courses and attended both Edinburgh and Glasgow universities studying philosophy, ‘supporting myself by working at various heavy industrial jobs in the vacations… docker, tunneller, truck driver and so on’.
After graduating in the late 1960s with an MA from Glasgow and an MLitt from Edinburgh, both in philosophy, he got involved in local Labour Party politics in Edinburgh in the fight to prevent the proposed Inner Ring Road, which was successful.
Hills had taken up scuba diving with his friend, Duncan McArdle, and suggested they attempt the first underwater survey of a crannog – fortified loch-dwellings which existed during Scotland’s Iron Age. The survey was eventually initiated in 1973 by McArdle and Dr Ian Morrison of Edinburgh University’s geography department.
The Civil Service followed for a period of four-and-a-half years, during which he married Leslie MacDougall, an emerging influencer in the visual and dramatic arts scene in Edinburgh. Hills then helped raise £7.5 million to bid for the Scottish Television franchise, which, Hills recalls, ‘to my relief, we didn’t get’.
He then moved into tax accountancy and ran a business for 10 years. During this period he frequently visited McArdle who lived on the Howe of Alford in Aberdeenshire. He introduced Hills to a local farmer called Stan who, once a year, would get in his ancient Landrover and go over the Cabrach to Glenfarclas distillery, where he purchased a quarter cask of aged malt whisky. He would place it next to the hearth in his farmhouse and draw from it whenever he wanted.
One day, Stan brought McArdle a lemonade bottle full of the cratur. When stopping by on one of his visits, Hills sampled it and realised he had never tasted anything as good in his life. It was a defining moment for Hills.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has now grown to over 26,000 members worldwide
Back in his home in the New Town district of Edinburgh, Hills gathered some like-minded, largely middle-class professionals involved in the arts and media who all enjoyed a dram, such as actor Russell Hunter. He proposed that they fund the purchase of a similar cask from Glenfarclas, assuming John Grant would allow it. Hills duly contacted Grant and, after explaining the episode with Stan, asked the question. The response was that a quarter cask of 10-year-old was available following the death of a client, so Hills headed north with £2,500 and duly dispensed the purchase to his syndicate in the lobby of his home.
Soon word got out and more and more requests came from a network of people keen to get in on the act. The original supplies soon ran low and Hills asked the original members that if he could get more casks, would they consider enlarging the syndicate? They agreed and Hills persuaded the Grants to sell him another two casks.
Eventually Hills asked himself the inevitable question: why was single cask malt whisky not being sold directly to the public? He began to ponder the possibility of creating a commercial entity that could take on the mantle of the syndicate and expand into a society with paid membership. But how to do it? A climbing friend, John Ferguson, suggested that Russell Sharp, a former brewer and head chemist at Chivas Bros., would be the person to bring on board.
After a meeting in Glasgow’s famous Horseshoe Bar, Sharp agreed to become a consultant and from that point the concept of creating a society began. Sharp warned Hills that the trade would make it difficult, and that on no account could the distillery names be revealed as these were all trademarked. This resulted in the numbering system being employed from the start, with the first cask of Glenfarclas labelled 1.1, with the next from the distillery 1.2, and so on. Glenlivet followed as bottling number two and Bowmore was three.
Hills managed, not without a struggle, to register the name ‘The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’, which was duly incorporated in May 1983. From the outset Hills insisted that publicity would be generated by word of mouth and free press coverage, and not a penny was to be wasted on paid advertising, although some board members disagreed. That board was initially comprised of syndicate members, such as interior designer Anne Dana, who rapidly became managing director while Hills served as company secretary. Sharp also became a director of SMWS, and remained on the board until 1993.
Membership grew rapidly and eventually share offers were made to help capitalise the business, which had started out in the old J&G Thomson vaults in Giles Street, Leith. The syndicate acquired the old vaults for £50,000, but they required extensive renovations. It proved an expensive lesson as the refurbishment and repairs were almost continual
The Society began in a year that saw many distillery closures, such as Port Ellen and Brora, both then part of The Distillers Company. Yet sourcing stock was not a problem as there was a glut of good quality casks lying in bond that the accountants were delighted to convert into hard cash. Hills recalls finding a batch of seven Dallas Dhu casks, four in first-fill ex-Sherry butts and three in second-fills in the Bond Number 9 warehouses in Leith: ‘It was 25 years old and it was wonderful,’ he says. ‘We took the lot and all we paid for was the alcohol. You paid only so much per litre of pure alcohol per year, that’s all. There was no premium for the nature of the cask or the quality of the product… it was all one price.’
Ructions on the board were not uncommon and as the membership grew, board directors came and went, some of whom frustrated Hills by demanding that the Society sell blended whisky. ‘For my entire tenure the board was a battleground, a constant fight to maintain the core ethos of the Society. It was supposed to be a bit of fun, and I did not want the Society to lose sight of that,’ he says.
Despite the infighting, Hills’ masterstroke in the first year was to bring the Society free PR. First he persuaded wine writer Jancis Robinson to cover the SMWS in The Sunday Times Magazine. Hills then used his vintage diesel 1937 Lagonda to take author and journalist Paul Levy on a tour of Speyside distilleries, which resulted in exposure in The Wall Street Journal. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer David Mamet then chipped in with five pages of coverage in Playboy magazine.
The effect was immediate and membership soared past the 10,000 mark. As the ‘80s passed the Society expanded overseas, but costs rocketed and Hills accepted that more fiscally astute management was required. Richard Gordon was brought in as managing director in March 1995, and as Hills took more of a back seat he recognised that his time had passed. In August that year he resigned, admitting that he had become bored by the way things had developed.
In his latter years at the Society Hills was gifted an old illicit still by Sir Kenneth Alexander, chairman of the Highlands and Island Development Board based in Inverness, who had in turn been given it by a former illicit distiller from Glenlivet. Customs and Excise required that holes be drilled in the bottom of the still, but Alexander persuaded them to leave it intact.
Eventually the still disappeared from the tenure of the Society and its whereabouts are unknown. However, after Hills had retired he had another sma’ still made by the Glenmorangie coppersmith as a model of one of its spirit stills, which he then used for distilling demonstrations to interested parties he knew. He managed to get HMRC to grant him a licence, which he reckons was the first private distiller’s licence since the 1780s. Hills and his friend Tim Steward used it occasionally for a few years. Macallan supplied small quantities of low wines but the resulting spirit ‘tasted horrible’.
In retirement Hills is currently working on two writing projects, the first of which is a book of stories loosely connected with the establishment of the SMWS. ‘I got up to a lot of high jinks in the decade after I set up the Society,’ Hills jokes. His first book is due to be published by Birlinn in 2019.
The second book is a more serious work: a history of the Stirling engine over the last 200 years, from its inception in Kilmarnock in 1816 to its incarnation at NASA as a power source for starships. According to Hills, ‘it is an astonishing story which, perhaps more astonishingly, has never been told in its entirety.’