A history of wood management
For almost as long as The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has been in existence, it has not only been bottling whisky taken from a single cask – it has been actively managing the whisky’s maturation
The SMWS may have started life in 1983 by bottling already mature whiskies straight from their casks. But it quickly became apparent to the Society’s first managing director, Anne Dana, that demand for this precious aged product was going to outstrip supply.
That prompted Anne to get the Society to start buying its own barrels, specifically to age new-make spirit in.
“I said, ‘Look, we have to start putting whisky down’,” she says. “A previous batch [of mature whisky] had sold out and I saw the need to start laying down our own whisky, and choosing the barrels that it would be put in.”
A tremendous resource
That early attention to wood quality in the 1980s continued into the next decade, along with the Society’s first forays into the world of additional maturation. Bottling lists from as early as 1991 describe “an experiment” with Cask No. 39.7 being decanted after 12 years in a second-fill fino cask into “a really good oloroso cask, where it has lain for two years”. The result was described as “a very good whisky indeed”.
That move into additional maturation gained further momentum in 1995, when then-managing director Richard Gordon (pictured below) enlisted Dr Jim Swan (pictured above) as an adviser for his expertise in wood purchasing and wood management.
“Jim’s work for Glenmorangie was ground-breaking at that time,” says Richard. “He then became a tremendous resource to the Society, where our main interest was in top quality wood for new fill. But we also used the opportunity, when buying in casks, to start finishing various aged and semi-aged whiskies, mainly in sherry and port.
“My goal at the time was for the Society to build its own stock profile from new fill to fully mature, rather than simply relying on buying mature whisky to bottle. As wood is such a major contributor to flavour and quality it made sense to invest heavily in quality casks.
“Most casks went to new fill, but plenty to ‘additional maturation’ as well. Using sherry and port casks allowed us to take young whiskies, from three to five years old, and then enhance their flavour profile over the subsequent years. We also used various port and sherry casks to give some older whiskies an additional one or two years of maturation. All of this gave added interest to members and resulted in some outstanding whiskies.”
The Glenmorangie years
When the Society was bought over by Glenmorangie in 2004, that brought the assistance of its own experts in wood management and additional maturation, such as master blender Rachel Barrie and head of distilling and whisky creation, Dr Bill Lumsden.
“Rachel would identify batches of casks for this and then select from a range of top-quality wood that Glenmorangie was buying for its own ‘extra matured range’,” says SMWS spirits director Kai Ivalo.
“In particular, when Glenmorangie was moving to its new purpose-built bottling plant in 2011, Rachel organised a batch of around 100 casks for re-racking. The Society also benefited from Bill’s involvement in selecting which casks would benefit from additional maturation and suggesting the right wood for them to be transferred to. He essentially trained us and then checked the progress of some of those casks.”
The Society’s established its own bonded warehouse in 2014 and, with its return to independent ownership in 2015, that’s where SMWS spirits manager Euan Campbell has control over the stock. This is where he monitors maturation, draws samples for presentation to the Tasting Panel, and decides what whisky could benefit from moving from one cask to another.
As well as taking delivery of spirit at the warehouse, there are regular shipments of empty casks. The Society has now established relationships with cooperages in Scotland, the United States, Portugal, Spain and France – all of the major sources of oak barrels – and has travelled to meet the people and get first-hand experience of the quality and variety they can provide.
Euan explains that, although spirit is being transferred between casks, its ‘single cask’ provenance is always preserved. “We finish one cask directly into the other cask,” he says. “Single cask is about the journey of that spirit; it’s always a single cask’s worth of spirit.”
Variety and complexity
Euan sees that period of additional maturation as allowing members to experience more variety and complexity in the Society’s bottlings.
“Variety is something we’re always striving for, so this is another layer of complexity that we can add,” he says. “If you have a batch of 100 casks, all in first-fill bourbon, we might decide to put some into Spanish oak Pedro Ximenez hogsheads, some in oloroso, some in madeira. Obviously, we’re not going to mature everything in a different cask, but we have the opportunities to do something a bit different, and ultimately members get more choice.
“You quickly get a sense of what works, and I think most whisky lovers can instinctively pick up on the characteristics that work well together. The trick is knowing how to achieve those characteristics through wood management. But at the same time as knowing what works, if you’ve got quality spirit and quality wood, it’s enthralling to experiment and produce something that’s nothing like what you’d expect.”
A certain maturity
Richard Gordon remembers with fondness a consignment of sherry gordas (700 litre-casks) from the 1990s that the Society used for both new-fill and additional maturation.
“We purchased these monster-sized casks with Dr Jim Swan’s help and distributed them around the industry for new fill and also finishing,” he says. “I recently saw a 21-year-old Society bottling from distillery 35 from one of these sherry gordas on an Outturn and couldn’t believe that it was one that I had filled. If a 21-year-old whisky is an old whisky, what does that make me?”
It clearly makes Richard a man of a certain maturity, and one who helped to build on the Society’s original vision of laying down stock and managing the maturation of its whisky for members. “As an independent organisation I felt that the Society’s own filling and additional maturation programme was strategically the most important thing that it could do, to build a stock profile for the future,” he says. “To make such a strategy work, you had to pay over the odds for the best casks around, but the price of the cask gets lost in the mists of time – and the quality and value of the subsequent whisky more than justified the expenditure.”