The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
"The origins of the Society lie in Phillip "Pip" Hills' travels around the Scottish Highlands in the late 1970s, during which he sampled several whiskies drawn straight from the cask.
Hills was so affected by what he tasted that, in 1978, he persuaded several acquaintances to share in the cost of a cask from the Glenfarclas distillery. Over time, the group of friends expanded to become a small syndicate and more casks were purchased, bottled and distributed to subscribing members.
Coinciding with the decision to open membership to the wider public in 1983, the Society purchased its first property, The Vaults, in Leith; a building, whose vaulted wine cellars reputedly stretch back to the 12th century.
The Society created a set of members' rooms there.
In 1996, the Society launched a share scheme for its members, the proceeds from which were invested in the purchase of a London venue.
2004 saw the Society open a second venue in Edinburgh – a Georgian townhouse on Queen Street. In the same year, the Society was acquired by Glenmorangie PLC.
To mark the 25th anniversary of its foundation, the Society redesigned its bottles, to include more information and a full tasting note on the front of the bottle.
In 2015 the Society was sold back to private investors from Glenmorangie PLC."
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society - SMWS
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
A Members Perspective
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, officially founded in 1983 in Edinburgh, Scotland. The Society was initially formed by a group of friends, after one of them, Phillip Hills was inspired by the taste of single cask whisky he tasted on his tour of Scotland in the 1970’s
Hill persuaded his friends to invest in purchasing their first cask from Glenfarclas Distillery in 1978. Over time the group of friends expanded to become a syndicate, purchasing new casks, bottling them and distributed amongst the members.
It was in 1983 the syndicate opened their membership to the wider public and purchased their first property, the Vaults in Leith, a property with vaulted wine cellars reputed to date back the 12th Century.
Today the Society has ‘Chapters’ in the USA, Australia and Far East locations such as Japan and the Philippines, as well as elsewhere around the world.
Membership starts at £65 and there are options to purchase a selected bottle at the time of signing up. Gift memberships can be purchased.
Membership lasts 12 months. As a member you have access to the exclusive members bars located in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and those dotted around the world.
Your also have access to the limited number of single cask bottlings released in each months ‘Outturn’ anywhere between 24 and upward single cask bottles are released each month, usually the first Friday of the month. A couple of days before the outturn, the official outturn preview is published. The preview is a catalog of each bottle to be released. A bottle is identified with a code, for example 1.220, the first number relates to the distillery and the second sequential cask release from that distillery. Each bottle has a unique name, usually based on a saying with a humorous connotation or a brief description of the overall flavour of the whisky. They also where possible, detail the date the spirit was distilled, the age of the spirit when bottled, the cask that the spirit was matured in, any additional maturation or finishing and the assigned flavour profile allocated to the style of spirit. The strength of the whisky in % Average by Volume. And finally the number of bottles yielded by the cask.
In the example of 1.220, the whisky in this case, was called ‘Sugary espresso and pink wafers’, Distilled 06/04/2011, Aged 8 Years, Matured in 1st Fill Bourbon Barrel, 57.6% ABV, with 246 Bottles produced. Juicy Oak and Vanilla.
Now in the example, we didn’t state which distillery the whisky is from, this is because the SMWS like for its members to experience whiskies from each style, in the example Juicy Oak and Vanilla, and each type of cask maturation, and to not focus on the specific distillery. This is because each cask is ‘Off Style’ for the distillery and don’t necessarily release bottling’s that match that distillery. Furthermore, some distilleries don’t like their name or brand appearing on independent bottles, SMWS after all are an independent bottler, this is an important fact to remember for later. The SMWS devised a number system to identify their bottles. However, a quick search of the internet reveals many available sources to help identify the distillery. If you remember at the start of this post, we mentioned the first cask to that the friends purchased was from Glenfarclas Distillery, you have probably already guessed, but in our example, 1.220 the ‘1’ relates to Glenfarclas.
There are currently 246 numbered distilleries that SMWS currently have bottlings for. This takes us neatly into our first ‘Rant’ about the SMWS.
The 246 distilleries include Distilleries from Outside of Scotland.
To quote a few notable ones from the list;
43 Port Ellen
112 Loch Lomond (Inchmurrin)
116 Yoichi (Japan)
117 Cooley/Connermara (Ireland)
122 Loch Lomond (Croftengea)
128 Penderyn (Wales)
134 Paul John
140 Balcones (USA)
144 High Coast (Sweden)
They then also have a separate coding system for Grain Whisky,
G1 North British
G9 Loch Lomond
G11 Nikka Coffey Grain (Japan)
Its seems appropriate at this point to remind ourselves what abbreviation SMWS means: Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Lets break that down with reference to what the current Society practice is:
Scotch? As seen by the distillery codes, they have casks from around the world, so it not all Scotch.
But that’s Ok because the next word is Malt, well no! You see they also have grain whisky as we have seen by the separate distillery codes for grain distilleries.
But that OK, Grain is still Whisky, so that is still OK.
Well actually no, you see they also have a separate list for Gin Distilleries. In fact they also outturn, Rum, Cognac and Brandy, as well as Gin and American Whiskey.
How about the final word Society? Well we will come to that later.
But the SMWS and their manifesto since their foundation has changed, but the name hasn’t. Should it change to reflect a different way they operate? For a more modern and connected world? Maybe. But is the name important? They are after all known as SMWS and not Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
So we have had a hurried look at the basics of the society. But what is it like to be a member? You are looking to join or want to buy membership as a gift?
We have been a member for about 9 months, since June of 2020.
Our membership started great. We haven’t kept it secret that we are fans of Glenfarclas. Our first purchase and our second purchase were Glenfarclas bottles. Both of them, ex-bourbon maturation, which aren’t too common.
The bottles on the first pour were OK, different to the sherried profile from the distillery, there is that ‘Off Profile’ we mentioned. But that’s what we wanted.
After a while tasting the bottles over the few weeks since getting them, we loved them, they were getting better and better with each pour. We have shared the whisky with our friends. Its all good.
However, there is always a BUT isn’t there.
Things quickly didn’t seem right. Previously we mentioned that the outturn would be made on the first Friday of the month. However, paying attention to social posts on whisky groups, facebook and Twitter, we were seeing mentions of bottles appearing hear and there.
A quick look at the store and sure enough, there were other whisky bottles listed, albeit showing out of stock.
Not mentioned in any of the ‘Initiation’ or ‘Orientation’ material sent to new members, but it would appear, ‘Additional’ bottles would be randomly dropped into the store. At the time for a new member, it appeared as if additional new bottles were released in some sequence only existing long serving members would be aware about. While we still suspect additional new bottles were dropped, it became apparent that sometimes, the society would re-release previous outturn bottles back onto the store, this kept the store from being filled with hundreds of ‘the odd bottle’.
Today the society release maybe four bottles from the upcoming outturn a week before they were due to drop, as a teaser of things to come.
These additional bottles from previous outturns however, were never just the unpopular distilleries, after all, all whiskies have fans and their own following and will eventually sell out, just maybe not as fast as some of the more desirable ones. No, what were being dropped we often sought after bottles, however, they would sell out incredibly fast. Still to this day, we suspect that maybe there is some inner circle that know when bottles are released and what they are in advance.
Now lets go back and focus on ‘Society’, in the context of the SMWS this refers to
‘an organization or club formed for a particular purpose or activity.’ This would have been in the founding members minds. However, one of the terms of being a member of the society is that bottles are to be purchased by you for your own consumption or to be shared with friends and family, you can even gift one, however, you must not sell them, and selling them at auction as soon as you receive them is prohibited, doing so could lead to your membership being cancelled.
By accepting these terms and conditions you agree that the products you purchase via this web site are exclusively for your personal use or a gift to someone and are not for resale (unless otherwise authorised by us in writing).
We reserve the right to refuse to fulfil any orders or terminate any Contract without liability to the Buyer, where we know or have reason to believe that the Buyer has sold (or intends to sell) the Goods directly or indirectly to any third party. No resale or third-party selling is permitted.’
Wow so these guys take it seriously. So much so, they have tried to stop ‘Flipping’ they surveyed the membership in June 2020 asking for feedback to stop flipping and suggestions around how to better manage the outturn
You see, being a member of SMWS isn’t a walk in the park.
You don’t brows the outturn preview, find a bottle that you want. Wait for Friday and buy the bottle. No, there is no other way to describe the experience than sheer panic and frustration.
When we first joined. The outturn email would state when the new bottles would be released, 9am on the 1st Friday of the month. You would get your phone or laptop logged into the site before 9am ready. A 9 am, you would click buy and then as quick as you can try and check out. If you were quick you would succeed. However, this is OK if you have high speed broadband, a modern computer and quick reflexes. What happens if and I apologies for the generalization here, you live in Cumbria, have a 10 plus year old Windows XP computer, have arthritis and are aged 76? How well do you suppose you will do in securing that important bottle?
The SMWS do have an option to ring and order a bottle over the phone, however, from what we understand, there are only a handful of bottles available for telephone ordering, the remaining allocation are for web orders, the society bars and for other chapters not in the UK or Europe. So an outturn of 240 bottles, in reality maybe only 80 to 180 will be web available.
The society were aware of the problem with their store and the fact that you had to be quick on the draw to secure your bottle. So they set about with the survey of members and made some changes.
Now when we joined, you could have a bottle in your basket, go through checkout and find that you were mugged at the very last moment and you would be alerted to ‘Out of Stock’. This is a plague with many online stores, it happened to us the other day trying to by a Limited Goose Island Beer.
The society however, fixed this, they gave a 15 minute window to check out, all the while the bottle in the basket was secure, Hallelujah! Not quite.
You see around September/October time the SMWS began to upgrade the website and crucially the webstore. As part of the update to the site, they introduced a queue system. This would allow everyone to be on an equal footing in a manner of speaking. How it would work is at approx 15 minutes before the outturn or preview bottles, the whole website would go offline and anyone visiting the site would be informed that a queue would begin at the designated launch time. However, the queue was and is random, if you were an hour early, it didn’t mean you were at the front of the queue, you could turn up at 8.59 and be placed first in the queue. So random. However, the queue system would inform you where in the wait you were with an estimated place and time to gain access. Also known as the ‘Great the bottle will be sold out and what is the point’ queue.
Inevitably you would be placed 927, have a 15 minute wait and the most saught after bottles would be sold out when you finally get access.
In one instance we waited over 45 minutes to get access to the store.
More recently, an update has been added to the wait page informing you of stock levels of the more desirable bottles, great! I have been waiting 20 minutes now and there are 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, all sold out….
Selfishly I preferred the fastest finger way of doing things, but that doesn’t work for everyone.
However, there are lots of ‘howevers’ going on here. The Flippers, they are tech savvy, they know how to bypass a queue system, in fact, there was one instance of an outturn in late 2020, the society had to delay the outturn for a few hours, because bottles had been sold before they were due to be on sale!
The society stated afterward those transactions were cancelled and the bottles made available later that day.
But still there are ways around accessing the store without a queue.
Test the process. Switch on Privacy or Incognito mode in your web browser and disable cookies.
You will, in this example be be logged out of the site, but you will be able to browse the site and more importantly the webstore, during the queue process.
IF you know how to do it, you can enable and modify just the correct settings to remain logged in and browse and have the ability to purchase.
For those who aren’t as tech savvy, you can even be logged in on multiple computers, your phone, tablet, laptop and see which device is in the best queue position. So I ask you, is this an equal playing field? The Flippers and can still buy the desirable bottles and then list them on auction soon after. Like a recent bottle of Bruichladdich which cost £335 from the Society but was listed for £1000 a few days later, by a repeated offended, you can see the listings on Whiskybase Marketplace.
But aren’t the SMWS actively trying to prevent and remove flippers?
Maybe they are, behind the scenes, but when you can make £665 profit from one sale, what is loosing £65 in a membership when they can just create a new one under another name.
So what are the Society actively doing? This question takes us back to the member survey of June 2020. The changes that have been introduced, in the scale of flipping have been very modest.
The first change the Society announced were Ballots, since being a member there have only been two ballots, they were for cask 1 release from newly added distilleries. A ballot is a very fair way of giving access to sought after bottles, everyone is on a level playing field with a ballot. But are they? Flippers are very clever and have every tool at their disposal, including, as we suspect multiple memberships, they pay their membership they get 1 vote per member, so they are entitled to have a vote for each membership, however, it takes for just one of their accounts to be successful in the ballot for them to be rewarded with a bottle they can flip, for many times its value and remember, they are constantly having access to sought after bottles that are not balloted. The system pays for itself.
But we agree, more ballots should take place and it should include those sought after bottles released in regular outturns.
The second change we have touched on, the queue system, which as we have seen is not foolproof.
The third was to remind members ‘flipping is against the rules’. Lets move on.
The fourth, discovery packs, they consist of samples of usually 25ml, of some of the sought after bottles from an outturn. This is an interesting approach, it gives everyone a chance to at least taste a limited bottle, but sometimes you want more than just a taste. And yes, you have guessed it, the discovery packs also appear on auction sites.
The fifth was to evaluate limiting bottles at the outturn to 1 or 2 per member for the sought after releases. This limit does prevent a flipper grabbing more then 1 or 2 bottles from the sought after collection. However, it does very little when a flipper can have multiple memberships.
You know our response to the changes, however, what about those changes that were maybe talked about that haven’t materialized?
Bottle labeling. The bottle number doesn’t appear on the label? Really? Why? Of independent bottlers, with less capital, identify bottle numbers. This would be a short-term fix, after all a label can be faked, a bottle number potentially changed.
Bottle engraving. Many online retailers, such as The Whisky Exchange offer an engraving process to personalise bottles. The SMWS could easily engrave each bottle with the member account number. Removing an engraving is more of a challenge.
Bottle size, a standard UK 700ml bottle or the occasional 25ml discovery sample. What about providing 100ml or 200ml or other smaller than standard bottle sizes. We would be more than happy to but multiple bottles each at 200ml, in placed of one or two 700mo bottles. After all we want to experience different whiskies from different distilleries and maturation or finish types. Yes the bottles would be more expensive at the smaller size, but so long as we aren’t eye gouged by high prices, it is expected.
Embargo, this is a sensitive topic. What we mean is, if a member bought a Bunnahabhain last outturn, then they are then unable to buy another Bunnahabhain at the next outturn or series of outturns. As a paying member, how can you remove this entitlement, the society already do this by balloting specific bottles, although it becomes a game of luck.
Finally, analysis of buying habits of its members. It would not take much work for the society to look at those members who have managed to secure the sought after bottles at each successive outturn and do some investigation. Would it not strike as odd, that the same member is able to purchase difficult to get bottles with success every time? The clever flipping member, would rotate the accounts used, but even this pattern could be identified if the analysis was done correctly.
So far, grabbing that desirable bottle is proving a real challenge to the honest member, who may want it for sentimental reasons or for the name. If you are happy grabbing any bottle, then great, you can ignore the stress of the outturn launch and buy at your own convenience later in the day.
We are nearly finished, some things to mention first
Communication. The SMWS, for all they put out a lot of emails and posts on social media, their communication is terrible. In fact the way they organise their releases and communication around the releases is terrible.
Preview bottles are launched at different times. It could be 9 am one month, 12 pm the next, then 2pm the following, there is no pattern, this makes it inconvenient if you happen to work and are unable to control your own timetable. The outturn itself, isn’t always at 9am either. Then at the last minute the outturn or preview time is changed. And they don’t always tell you when the new bottles are going to be release, thatreally helps you plan.
Then there are members who, for all they have contacted SMWS about the issue, still don’t receive any of the society emails. Since the new website, communication appears to be an even bigger issue.
Before they changed the website, you could search for past bottlings, maybe for research etc, but with the new site, there is no history. And your account only shows orders from after the update. It keeps reminding you how many days left before your membership is due to expire, however, members are reporting receiving letters telling them their membership expired even though they renewed a month or more prior.
More recently there have been quality control issues with some of the bottles. One recent release was about 18ml low on the standard 700ml and another bottle had quality control issue and was recalled.
Finally, yes we said it, we return to the fact that SMWS are another Independent bottler. You pay the society £65 for the privilege of buying a bottle from them, that bottle may not even be the one that you want, it mightn’t even be the 2nd, 3rd or 4thchoice. Yes the SMWS do have some well priced offerings, but the majority, 20 out of 24, 24 out of 28 will be some form of ex-bourbon cask, the sherry or wine finished casks are the remainder and usually desired by members.
You can get really good quality independent bottles at an equally great price from the likes of Bartels, The Whisky Broker, Single Cask or Caidenheads to name a few.
The real advantage of being a member of SMWS to access the exclusive member only bars, which unfortunately, due to the shitshow that has been the past 12 months have been closed for most of that time. The society have tried to adapt to give members more of an experience at home, fine dining, discovery packs, online tastings and live zooms. But it still doesn’t make up for the experience of visiting one of their venues and having a large choice of unique single cask bottles to choose from.
In summary, the whisky tastes good, but being a member of the society leaves a bitter taste in our mouths.
Are the SMWS relevant in the 2021 and beyond?
We fear that the society will go further with their bottle pricing, making the sought after bottles more expensive, essentially following Macallan in a pricing approach to deter flippers. Membership fees may become tiered, giving members the ability to buy only one bottle unless hey upgrade their tier and be able to buy more bottles the higher the tier they go. But none of this really matters. After all the SMWS is a private company, who charge you to be able to buy from them!
If you hadn’t already guessed, we won’t be renewing our membership when it is due for renewal. Like a great many other members we have asked. There will of course be a stream of new signups to replace those who leave.