SMWS bottlings with different colours for different flavour profiles.
SMWS bottlings with different colours for different flavour profiles.
Image: Suppllied

The code is, by nature, a conundrum. If ignored, it gnaws, scratching at your subconscious, demanding attention, threatening to unleash that most unfavourable foe: Fomo. Respond to the code’s cryptic allure, and you’re at the entrance of the rabbit hole, unsure of what lies beyond. To shed light on this darkness you need to get cracking. And here’s where the fun begins, as evidenced by the curious case of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), an atypical institution established in Edinburgh in 1983.

This sneaky little secret has tantalised local dram lovers for years. Most know the distinct bottle and its imposing emblem. Few have tasted. Even fewer own a few. However, it’s been years since there was a South African branch, making it something of a whispered whisky — the kind you hear of late at night, when talk turns to bygone distilleries and better days.

All that has changed. SMWS officially re-launched in mid-February, sending a collective buzz across my whisky WhatsApp groups. But for every exclamation came a question. “What is it? Why join? Where, when, how?” These are fair queries, given that the brand operates from behind a cloak of carefully construed signals and maverick messaging. Expressions are packaged with various brightly coloured accents, and even more colourful names such as Canapés on The Death Star, Uncle Monty Goes Burgling, There’s Something About Enya, and Starch Of The Penguins. There’s undoubtedly a tale here, and it all sounds rather enticing but, like a padlocked diary or a principled politician, not much is leaked.

As it turns out, if all you’re reading is the bottle, then you’re not getting the full story. “Our purpose is to be the world’s most entertaining whisky club,” says Neil Aitken, international commercial director for SMWS. “We want to deliver fun and knowledge.” So, even though it’s the largest independent bottler on the planet — with single malts from 145 distilleries — the society’s focus is social. Community comes first. “Yes, we bottle whiskies,” continues Aitken. “But we also bring them to life in different markets around the world.”

What this means for roughly 26,000 global members is a vast array of exclusive offerings, from tasting events and festivals to a quarterly magazine, Unfiltered, packed with unique insights and observations. Sign up and you’ll be warmly welcomed at four members’ rooms in Edinburgh, Glasgow, and London, and be able to purchase specially selected single-cask expressions, released regularly at cask strength.

SMWS membership card and bottle.
SMWS membership card and bottle.
Image: Supplied

WhiskyBrother&Co holds the franchise for the South African branch of SMWS, and co-owner Marc Pendlebury believes it’s an opportunity for all types of whisky lovers to engage in a snob-free environment. “Not only do you gain access to a wealth of knowledge,” he explains, “but you also get to taste, share and experiment with incredible whisky.” He’s planning some online tastings and is excited that the first batch of bottles, or outturn, is now available. With 14 expressions from 12 distilleries, there are 10 flavour profiles, ensuring something for everyone.

Each of these bottles is labelled with a distinct coding. At first, it seems random, but there’s a nuance to the numbers and purpose in the palette. For instance, bottle 53.340, with its deep red highlights, is in fact a very old Caol Ila. The codes — available online — follow a standardised system that’s easy to understand, if impossible to memorise. The naming, in this case Loud Raves The Torrent An’ The Rain, is a more personal affair, chosen by members of the secretive SMWS tasting panel. Aitken tells me it’s a motley crew, comprised of singers, aficionados, and writers — exactly the kind of people I want naming my whisky.

As I see it, the purest whisky experience — an unsullied blind tasting — is all about decoding. Free from the deceptive distractions of brand names and price tags, the senses collect more clues and figure it out on their own. In the absence of info, a raw truth emerges. So see the code as a blank slate, and even if you don’t crack it, you’re in for a cracking good time with a cracker dram in hand. 

SOMETHING SPECIAL

There are daily drams, and then there are wondrous whiskies. Here’s a selection for that special someone, somewhere, or situation.

Glenfiddich Grande Couronne, The Macallan Double Cask 18 Years Old, and Three Ships Master’s Collection 11 Year Old Shiraz Cask Finish.
Glenfiddich Grande Couronne, The Macallan Double Cask 18 Years Old, and Three Ships Master’s Collection 11 Year Old Shiraz Cask Finish.
Image: Supplied

1. Glenfiddich Grande Couronne

If you’re going to crown the occasion, do it with this luxurious beauty. The latest addition to Glenfiddich’s Grand Series, the whisky in this opulently packaged bottle has spent 26 years maturing, up to two of those in meticulously sourced French Cognac casks. It’s like a heavenly patisserie — all velvety smooth and spicy — a sumptuous something for those majestic moments.

2. The Macallan Double Cask 18 Years Old

For a perfectly balanced whisky, look no further. A highly crafted combination, this big-character dram has slept in both European and American sherry-seasoned oak casks. You’ll taste delicate vanilla and subtle spices, as well as dried fruits, ginger, and toffee. But more importantly, you’ll savour an expression that’s so very Macallan, and so unlike anything else.

3. Three Ships Master’s Collection 11 Year Old Shiraz Cask Finish

A limited release, this juicy delight was finished in seasoned shiraz oak casks for three years. The result is an onslaught of cherries, roasted nuts, fruit cake, and orange, with the subtlest of smoky undertones. It’s a must-have, proudly South African dram, made all the more desirable by master distiller Andy Watts’ recent induction into Whisky Magazine’s Hall of Fame.

 From the April edition of Wanted, 2021.

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