Originally published in Unfiltered #89.
Words: Duncan Gorman
The Society’s flavour journey began when our founder Pip Hills first experienced the wonders of single cask, cask strength whisky, an epiphany which sparked 40 incredible years of flavour trailblazing. As Duncan Gorman reports, Pip’s discovery of whisky in its purest form has informed everything that the Society is about, creating a whole ecosystem of flavour expertise to bring members an endless variety of sensational whiskies
Things were very different back in the early 1980s. Blended whiskies ruled the roost, single malts were just beginning to get some attention, but the secrets of the single cask remained very much untold. Whisky was still predominantly drunk with ice or soda, and certainly no one had thought to taste it or treat it as you would wine — until The Scotch Malt Whisky Society came along. While the industry based its success on consistency, Pip Hills set about transforming the landscape by exploring as many unique expressions of single cask whisky as possible.
That approach is still integral to the Society’s success today, according to long-standing SMWS ambassador Olaf Meier. “Flavour means everything, that’s what it’s all about,” he says. “It’s about experiencing what can be very, very different flavours. If you’re looking at normal whiskies, blended or single malt whisky, these are always about consistency. These guys want to have the same flavour year in, year out, and we’re the opposite. We want different flavours. We want to surprise people. We want to appreciate flavour in a different way.
“I think flavour was vital to the Society’s success. It was very important. It was really telling people, telling members and potential members, that there’s a world out there of whisky flavours that need to be discovered. And most people looked at us saying, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about’, but we tried to draw them in to see that every cask is different and every whisky is different. I think the success was literally built on flavour.”
Not only did Pip show that the true wonders of flavour are found in whisky’s purest form — undiluted and unchillfiltered — but he also drew attention to the world of endless discovery within the limitless offerings from the world of single casks. Here the Society’s Tasting Panel was
born, to distinguish the unique nature of each individual bottle through creative and descriptive tasting notes. Olaf, who is also a chairperson of the Tasting Panel, says: “Right from the beginning we had tasting notes. And tasting notes in 1983, I mean, everyone just laughed. ‘That’s just for wine people but not for whisky’ they’d say.
Every single bottle released by the Society to this day has been rigorously checked for quality and flavour by the Tasting Panel, as spirits coordinator Julien Willems explains: “The Tasting Panel reflects the quality of the Society. Everything is about flavour. It’s the be-all and end-all of everything. If something is not good, it won’t be bottled. No, not everything is to everyone’s palate, but this is how rich the Society is, that it’s aiming to satisfy the widest number of members across different cultures and around the world with the widest number of flavours.”
Flavour has been at the core of everything the Society has grown into today, where members can expand their experience and knowledge of flavour. There is an abundance of tastings at our Members’ Rooms, experimenting with various whisky pairings including chocolate, charcuterie, seafood, steak — and even insects from time to time.
Or, if you’d prefer to delve into the intricacies of how each cask came to develop its own unique characteristics, then why not enjoy our monthly Outturn podcast, discussing the most interesting bottles released with industry experts. There is of course also an abundance of whisky knowledge within our members magazine, Unfiltered, or you can increase your knowledge by enjoying a tasting led by distillers and master blenders from across the whisky world.
A personal experience
Although we happen to be the flavour experts, your own experience and enjoyment of each whisky is by far the most important aspect of all, according to Olaf. “It’s not about the expert, it’s about the flavours you’re getting,” he says. “Every country’s experience will be different because flavour is all about memory. It’s about memories and your childhood memory. I’m a German national, so my memories of flavours from there are going to be very different to someone in China or someone in America.
“It’s about enabling members to make their own decisions and make their own stories in a way. And then we are there just to inform them as well, to give them a hand. But it’s always coming from the enjoyment side first and then the information, and I think that’s critical. And at the end of the day, we all want to have some fun.”
“Can I guarantee you that people in, say, Germany, Sweden, China and Japan will like the same types of whisky? No, and this is why you find such a wealth of different flavours. This is what the Society has been doing from the get-go, and this is what we’re sticking to right now.”
Flavour is an integral part of what makes the Society so special. From that first epiphany to a growing world of knowledge and expertise, it is in the foundation of everything we do. However you’d like to embark on your journey of endless discovery, SMWS has the perfect area of flavour expertise for you.
Unfiltered Magazine is The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s premium whisky knowledge magazine delivering quality content exclusively to members in an immersive multimedia format monthly. To view Unfiltered #89 in its entirety (as well as all back issues), log in and access the members’ portal or join The SMWS today — the world’s most colourful whisky club.