The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) is a membership organization which bottles and sells exclusive whisky to its members. In 1983 founder Pip Hill started independently bottling single cask, cask strength whisky before it became trendy. Currently SMWS has branches all over the world including the USA (headquartered in Florida). I got the opportunity to talk to Lauren and Gabby who oversee operations for SMWS USA. As with most interviews, I’ve split the conversation into two posts. Below is part one of two.
What is aim and mission behind SMWS?
Gabby: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society was founded in 1983 by a gentleman named Pip Hill, long before single malt whisky was fashionable even in Scotland. Pip drove north from Edinburgh to purchase a cask of single malt Scotch whisky directly from a distillery. The cask was transported back to Edinburgh in the back of his Lagonda to share with his friends. It wasn’t long before Pip and his friends set up the Society to share their passion for single cask whisky.
The goal of the Society has always been to bottle the finest hand selected cask strength, single cask, single malt Scotch whisky. SMWS does not manipulate the whisky we offer in any shape or form (we do not chill filter or dilute the spirit). Our mission is to entertain, intrigue, indulge and delight our members.
What’s the process of selecting casks to import to the US market? How much say do you get in terms of selecting casks? Who selects the casks to be bottled by SMWS worldwide?
G: The Society scours distilleries to unearth casks and has a special Tasting Panel that selects whisky based on its quality and how interesting it will be for its members. The Tasting Panel meets regularly to taste samples and only those whiskies which intrigue, entertain and delight the nose and palate are chosen for bottling. Many samples fail to meet our strict standards – only the very best are approved for bottling, ensuring there will always be something new and interesting. SMWS UK acquires the casks and then offers the international branches bottles to offer their members.
What do you base your selection on? Do you tailor the whisky to the US palate?
G: We look for offerings that we know our members will enjoy. We rarely pass up the chance to bring over designer casks and whisky from closed distilleries. Also, we will never pass up the opportunity to offer our members whiskies from Islay since it happens to be the most desired region amongst our USA members. Working for the Society for a combined 16 years, Lauren and I have grown to know which distilleries our members favor more than others. For example we know our members tend to favor whisky from distilleries like Glenlivet, Macallan, Ardbeg and Laphroaig. Since launching the Society in the USA, we have always sold out every offering.
Lauren: We are very aware of what the other companies do as well. There are a number of independent bottlers that offer cask strength, single malt Scotch whisky. For us, it’s all about the character and that no two whiskies are the same or will develop the same way. We celebrate these differences and strive to provide an ever-changing sensory adventure for our members.
What is involved with the day-to-day operations of the SMWS USA?
G: Lauren and I both manage the day-to-day operations. Although we each have different roles, we oversee the entire operation of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America, Ltd. and Spirit Imports, Inc., our import company. I oversee more of the communications side of the business which includes choosing the whiskies we import, organizing our Outturn and Unfiltered mailing schedule, maintaining our website, establishing specials and promotions, running our e-mail communications program, etc. I also assist in planning our Extravaganza events, member’s tastings and special events. Lauren is the principal of Spirit Imports, Inc. She focuses on importing and distributing our brands throughout the country which includes working closely with the TTB and BATF. As well, she maintains our relationships with our suppliers overseas and the distributors we work with across the United States. Lauren handles majority of our private events that are hosted through the Society and as well, she travels on the Extravaganza tour.
L: A big part of my job has recently been working on the Society’s new initiatives that we’ve started in honor of the 30th anniversary. For the first time in our history we have partnered with venues across the USA to sell Society whisky to their consumers by the dram. We call these ‘Society Spots’. Since January, we have launched three ‘Society Spots’, Jack Rose in Washington, DC, Drumbar in Chicago and El Gaucho in Seattle. Each venue is unique and offers exposure of Society whisky to members and non-members alike.
Have you heard of the Flatiron Room in New York? When will ‘Society Spots’ be established here?
L: Of course we have. One of our colleagues Heather Greene runs the whiskey school at The Flatiron Room. Heather started her career at SMWS UK. She’s a wonderful friend and we’re very proud of all her accomplishments.
G: Our global brand ambassador, Georgina Bell is going to be in New York in a few weeks to prospect potential partner bars in New York City, one of which is The Flatiron Room. Due to the liquor laws within the state, the partner bar program will likely begin mid-2014 when all regulatory issues are finalized. Our goal is to partner with about ten venues in New York next year.
Could you help break down the SMWS’ unique naming scheme? (e.g. Cask No. 121.55 – Highland) Are you legally not allowed to put the name of the distillery on the label?
L: An odd thing about the Society bottle is that it doesn’t mention the distillery the whisky is from. Because the curious nature of single cask whisky means tastes are often not characteristic of the region or distillery it comes from, the best way to enjoy the whisky is to focus on what it tastes like and not where it is from.
Each bottle is given a curious name which is based on its essential flavors and characteristics. Each bottle also carries its own unique tasting note, an entertaining and enticing description which captures imagination as you delve into the magical malt. Each bottle of Society whisky carries a bottling code. The first number represents the distillery the whisky comes from; the second represents the number of single casks that have been bottled from that distillery. So Cask No. 121.55 means it’s bottled from the 121st distillery that the Society has purchased whisky from and the 55th cask we have purchased from that particular distillery.
With Japanese whiskies trending are there any plans for SMWS to bottle a Japanese whisky in the future?
G: SMWS UK has been purchasing casks from Japanese distilleries for many years and these offerings have been made available for SMWS UK members and other branches. As the USA law stands right now, you cannot import a whisky that was produced in one country and bottled in another. What SMWS UK does is it acquire casks from Japan then bottle them in their bottling plant in Scotland. Thus, we cannot import those bottles into the USA and sell them to our members. It’s illegal. We do not offer Japanese whisky to SMWSA members however; we hope one day we will have the opportunity to offer our members some fine Japanese casks!
Check out part two here!