September Outturn 2023 Article
As with many great adventures, it began with a pint at the airport.
Unlike the journey from some countries, the pilgrimage from Australia to Edinburgh is a marathon, but 30 hours later and wheels hit the runway. Fortunately for me, there was a tasting being held at Queen Street on the night I arrived, so I pushed through after a quick check-in and went straight for some quality drams. Unfortunately for me, I had failed to adjust for the effect of jetlag on normal alcohol tolerance, and so as the eyelids grew increasing heavy it was an early night for me, but not before some very intriguing whiskies presented by the affable Francesco Ramella. I then had one clear day to myself, which I used to sit at the Vaults and read old Society newsletters with great banter from the character that is Society ambassador Dean Marinello. While we could have caught up all night, it was off for a sleep in anticipation of the main event.
Day one — selection of the Australian cask
The next day was the start of the important mission: selecting the Gathering cask for Australia along with my fellow members from all over the globe to commemorate 40 years of the Society. Quite deliberately, we had not been given much information on the process that was to follow, but knew that there were essentially three components: first, there would be a sensory analysis component to help us understand the Society approach to flavour profiles; second, the cask selection process would choose a whole cask to be available for our home countries; and third, there would be an insight into the panel process and tasting note drafting to complete the full process from cask to bottle. Ready for the arduous task ahead, we all met in the lobby of our hotel and headed to the Vaults.
We were introduced to the core SMWS team, and the three people that would be most critical to our task was Julien Willems of the Spirits team, Richard Goslan of the Communications team, and Chair of the Tasting Panel, Olaf Meier. Before the briefing commenced, who strolled through the door of the Members Room but Mr Phillip Hills himself. For those who have not had the pleasure of meeting Pip, he is truly one of those renaissance personalities that has a unique and interesting story for all occasions that he tells with such gravitas and engagement. It was long time coming and will be a lifelong memory spending time with him. With the instructional elements complete, and a healthy dose of inspiration from the words of our Founder, it was time to begin.
The training begins
The first sessions were much like being back at university. It began with sensory nosing training, identifying key aromas and compounds. Then perhaps in hindsight the most challenging of all the exercises, identifying the Society flavour profile by nose alone. Swirling around the opaque blue glass, it brought into focus how difficult the granular detail of a whisky is without all the senses. The difference between Young & Spritely and Light & Delicate is difficult without being able to detect astringency on the palate. Similarly, the difference between Spicy & Sweet and Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits can be subtle without the depth of flavour and level of viscosity to assist. I will confess to only getting half correct, and edged over into a pass mark when Olaf gave me credit for guessing a Lightly Peated when it was Peated profile.
The afternoon was the main event in terms of selection, and none of us knew exactly what to expect. I think most would have anticipated that a couple of samples would be put in front of us, and we would pick our favourite. Certainly the set up that greeted us in the Members Room suggested that as we all took our assigned seats, and I was next to some stalwart Swiss members and the delegate from Sweden. Looking around the room, most of us had two small sample bottles (with the exception of the Chinese and USA branches, who had five apiece, as they were selecting multiple casks), and generally one appeared like a bourbon cask and the other with more of a fortified hue. We went through a full sensory process with each cask, making detailed aroma and flavour notes, and finally scoring them for the purpose of determining our favourite.
After telling Olaf our preference, the rejected cask was returned, and up to this point it was a standard choice of two options. On the basis of my assessment, the lighter dram was a clean and pleasant ex-bourbon cask Speyside, nice orchard fruit and quite heavy oak influence, but was clearly overtaken by the other sample. The darker dram, which I picked as either a refill sherry or a particularly fruity HTMC or re-charred cask, was full of burnt caramels, tarte tatin and creamy vanilla bean. It had enough winter spice and malt character to give the overall feel of a dessert dram and land squarely in the Spicy & Sweet profile, despite pushing firmly against the Deep, Rich & Dried Fruits qualities. For members in Australia and for my personal palate, it was the winner.
Next began an exercise in quick decisions and second guessing. Once the selection was locked, all rejected samples from all countries went up on the bar and were available for further sampling. This was the only speed element of the otherwise leisurely tasting, as many of us wanted the inside scoop on which samples to try first and particular if there were any peated samples available, so that they could be swapped out for the first option and locked away if they were preferred. Until a more favoured cask was discovered the original choice remained reserved for the chosen country. I am happy to report that I tried all of the available casks for the full gamut of selections, but nothing beat the original cask so my choice never made it back to the bar.
Members in Australia will soon get the chance to see if the choice was a good one.
Dinner (and a big night for some!)
Once everyone had confirmed their decisions, the flurry of the day was quickly offset by dinner at Queen Street with our Founder, to debrief over some great food and curated drams thanks to Society ambassador Logan Shaw. It was fascinating to hear about the personal experiences and whisky origin stories of the global members, as we had been so focused on the day’s work earlier that most of the conversation had been about the whiskies in front of us. Some of the cohorts that were only in Edinburgh for a few days made use of the time and went out afterwards, which made for a few dusty breakfast attendees the next morning, but their recovery for what followed was impressive (not naming any names, Belgian branch).
Day two — details and a masterclass
The second day was all about the details, and it began with a masterclass in tasting panel notes and how the panel process works in general. I have always been a fan of tasting notes that tell a story, and are littered with clever references and portmanteaus, so I took this part of the process very seriously, meaning I was also the last to finish by some way. First, I did a new set of blind tasting notes without referencing my notes from the previous day. Second, I compared the two sets (gratifyingly they were significantly similar) and then took the major overlapping notes as the primary compounds to reference. Third, I re-tasted the dram and decided what order those key aromas and flavours appeared, then wrote them down in order, and started to add the secondary notes to the story. From this final narrative, the short bottle notes are formed (which don’t factor into these bottles due to the special labels) and then the name follows last. Some members did this differently, with a name immediately coming to mind, and there is no right way to create the narrative.
Finally, as we knew we would soon be saying farewell, the cohort all handed around their chosen samples to see what they were missing, and shared our notes and views on the other bottlings. Again, I am happy to report that the chosen cask for Australia remained one of my favourites of all the options. There was a lovely Oily & Coastal from Distillery 26 chosen by the French branch and a Peated dram from Distillery 53 chosen by the USA branch that would have been in my top three, but as these were also first choice selections and never entered the pool it was a solid result for Australia among close to 40 possibilities. This was also a popular opinion as Australia’s selection was the envy of a few countries, the Chinese branch in particular saying that it would be very successful with their members.
A lovely element to the Gathering casks is that each nation did notes and names in their home languages, which meant that when we were exchanging tasting notes there was a lot of translation help needed. It was in this final sharing session, after the formal selection had already occurred, that the truly global nature of the Society became very evident to everyone. After saying goodbye to my good friends from the French branch over a few drams, I stayed on in the Vaults with the lovely team from Austria talking all things Society and taking advantage of the hospitality of the wonderful Gregor Forbes.
I have long said that there is something beautifully equalising about the SMWS, and Society codes are the real universal language. The palpable excitement of everyone in meeting Pip and the team showed that we are all united by this shared passion. However, at the same time, the few days I spent with these members from around the world emphasised the importance of global element, as we excitedly described national dishes and different backgrounds that were perfect for summarising our tasting notes. From the humble beginnings of a small group of old friends enjoying good spirit in 1983, to a widespread group of new friends enjoying good spirit 40 years later, some things change but some things never do.
Slainte to all members from around the world, and particularly to Australian members, I hope you enjoy Cask 94.43.
This article is featured in September 2023 Outturn — bottles will be available to purchase on Friday the 1st of September at midday AEST exclusively to members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Not a member? Click here to learn more about the world’s most colourful whisky club.