The Society ‘Finishing’ School

//The Society ‘Finishing’ School

The Society ‘Finishing’ School

From scrubbing dishes at The Vaults to becoming a global brand ambassador, or starting up your own distillery – The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has proved a great place to launch a career in the whisky world over the past 35 years

Since we started up in 1983, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has provided a launchpad for many eager young employees looking to soak up knowledge and develop their careers in the wider whisky world. To mark our anniversary, we caught up with several of the Society’s ‘alumni’ to find out more about how they started out and where their experiences with the SMWS led them.

Then: bartender at The Vaults
Now: project implementation manager for [the new] Port Ellen distillery

Georgie Crawford, project implementation manager for Port Ellen distillery.

I started working at the bar in The Vaults in 2002. I wasn’t even a whisky drinker at the time – in all honesty I applied for the job because the bar closed at 11pm, which was relatively early in comparison to other bars I had worked in. I’m sure writing that I came from Islay on my CV helped me get an interview!

During my time with the SMWS I was promoted to assistant venue manager, working alongside Doug MacFarlane. I left in late 2005 to move to Speyside and run the Dufftown Whisky Shop, before joining Diageo in 2007, initially at Talisker distillery on Skye.

I’m now the project implementation manager for the rebuild of Port Ellen distillery on Islay. I left my role as manager of Lagavulin distillery in June this year after seven and a half years, to be part of the team bringing the distillery in my home village back to life – something I am immensely proud of and excited about.

The job at the SMWS was the first step on this amazing journey I am still enjoying, and without starting there I wouldn’t have got here. I remember distinctly the first dram I had where I eventually got it, and fully understood what it was the members loved about whisky. It was a 32-year-old bottling from distillery 38 and it blew me away with the complexity of the flavours, its delicacy yet richness. I still have a bottle of it in my collection – 38.11, the whisky that started my appreciation of this amazing Scottish product.

The SMWS has been a great launchpad for so many people in the industry and I’m lucky to still call many of those I worked with back then my friends today. In fact, someone I worked with at the SMWS popped in to see me here on Islay recently, with the whole crew of his new gin distillery in tow! The SMWS is a place that nurtures people and grows their passion. This is true of both their members and the staff, and makes it an amazing people to get together a celebrate the beautiful complexity of whisky.

David Blackmore
Then: pot washer/bartender at The Vaults
Now: global brand ambassador at the Glenmorangie Company

David Blackmore, global brand ambassador at the Glenmorangie Company

I started at the SMWS in Leith with a few (highly supervised) shifts behind the bar and a lot of pot washing duties in the kitchen. Once I’d learned a bit about the Society malts I was eventually given more shifts on the bar and also worked with Annabel Meikle on the initial plans to open the new Members’ Rooms at 28 Queen Street.

I moved to London to cover for a sudden vacancy around Christmas 2003, a role that was meant to be for only three weeks and ended up being almost two years. During that time, I became assistant venue manager at 19 Greville Street, while presenting most of the Society’s tastings across the south of England. I also successfully restarted the London-based Tasting Panel and chaired it from mid-2004 until I left in the summer of 2005.

Now I’m based in the US as the global brand ambassador for the Glenmorangie Company, representing both Ardbeg and Glenmorangie single malts. I primarily cover North America, with a secondary focus on Asia Pacific. I’m also a junior member of the Glenmorangie whisky creation team, working with Dr Bill Lumsden on specific new product development projects.

I’ll always be a huge supporter of the SMWS. It gave me the opportunity to get into the whisky industry, first as a member and then from the bottom rung, cleaning dishes in the kitchen! I love the diversity of whiskies on offer and the diversity of members that I meet all over the world. The SMWS should be declared a Scottish national treasure!

As whisky from around the world becomes increasingly popular with drinkers everywhere, I really hope that all distillers across Scotland value the SMWS and the crucial ambassadorial role it serves for all of us. It’s important that those that sell the Society casks continue to do so, and those companies that might not currently do so see the light.

I love what the Society has been doing to remain relevant and exciting – with the addition of single malts from the US, a really interesting blended Scotch, and other spirits for us to explore and enjoy, while keeping the focus on your amazing single cask bottlings that are often quirky and so different from anything available elsewhere.

Joe McGirr
Then: restaurant manager, 28 Queen Street
Now: founder and CEO at the Boatyard Distillery, Northern Ireland

Joe McGirr, founder and CEO at the Boatyard Distillery, Northern Ireland.

I started at the SMWS in 2004 as restaurant manager at 28 Queen Street, responsible for bringing the first fine dining element into an SMWS venue. I distinctly remember opening night, when there was still wet paint and scaffolding being dismantled. It was a hectic first day getting everything ready on time, but an amazing achievement to be part of the team that helped return that Georgian building into the beautiful condition it had once been in.

When I left the SMWS in 2014 I was venue manager at 19 Greville Street in London, where I met a completely new set of whisky members with a different perspective and outlook on the whisky industry. I also had the privilege to chair some of the London-based Tasting Panels – what an amazing experience that was.

Currently I’m the founder and owner at the Boatyard Distillery in Northern Ireland. It’s a small and beautiful craft distillery on the banks of Lough Erne, producing farm to bottle spirits – not only whisky but vodka, gin and other spirits. This is our second year of production and we will produce 25,000 cases of Boatyard spirits this year. We have only just started our whisky production. We have a historic recipe from the 1800s and we’re really excited about where the next five to 10 years of maturation will take it.

My decade at the SMWS gave me a huge wealth of knowledge, but more importantly passion. I dare say that the Boatyard Distillery wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for my time at SMWS.

I very much keep an eye on the monthly Outturn and love to dabble in the weird and wonderful world of single casks, which throws the rule book out of the window for what you might expect to nose and taste.

Mark Thomson
Then: SMWS ambassador
Now: Ambassador to Scotland for Glenfiddich

Mark Thomson, ambassador to Scotland for Glenfiddich.

I started out as an ambassador for the Society, covering many of the member events and tastings as the Society grew. I was based mostly at 19 Greville Street in London, but also travelled a fair bit for private events. I also had my own business during my time there, offering masterclasses for the SMWS, and training the Society’s staff on how to present and host events.

I am currently the ambassador to Scotland for Glenfiddich, a role I’ve been in for four years. I was the national ambassador, but moved back to Edinburgh a year ago to focus on the Scottish market.

My time with the SMWS gave me a superb opportunity to explore a much wider range of whiskies than I could have experienced myself, and allowed more conversation and contact with like-minded whisky lovers. I made some great, long lasting friends in my time with the Society.

The SMWS has been a success due to its forward-thinking approach to whisky. I’m a massive advocate of flavour first, without regionality, age or the distillery’s name being introduced. The Society was ahead of its time, but the whisky consumer of today is desperate for a simpler way of approaching a complex subject.

Laura Hay
Then: waitress at 28 Queen Street
Now: roving whisky ambassador, Australia

Laura Hay, roving whisky ambassador, Australia.

I was working at Glenlivet distillery but always wanted a role at the SMWS, so initially took a job as a waitress at 28 Queen Street. It wasn’t my strong point and I only lasted a week, but thankfully I was offered the position of bar assistant and within a month I was hosting my first members tasting. Nick Malcolm and I became the first whisky specialists at 28 Queen Street.

My role developed and I became an ambassador, working at 28 Queen Street, hosting tastings and events there and around the UK. For a while I was working at a distillery, hosting tastings for the SMWS and sitting on Tasting Panels in my spare time. I absolutely loved it. I finally moved back to The Vaults in 2010, to dedicate myself to the SMWS, then left in 2011 to go travelling in Australia for around six months – seven years later I’m still here!

In Sydney I’ve worked as an ambassador for Diageo and at the World of Whisky shop, before becoming brand ambassador for Chivas Brothers and then William Grant & Sons.

But my time at the SMWS meant everything to me – along with all my other colleagues at the time, we pretty much lived at 28 Queen Street and gave it our all!

I’ve always loved the Society and it was my dream to work there. To be around whisky enthusiasts and such wonderful unique whisky bottlings, I was in heaven, especially when sitting on the Tasting Panels at The Vaults. I remember my first Panel in 2005, sitting there with my whisky mentors, such as Robin Laing and Charlie MacLean, chatting away and thinking: “I’ve made it”. I went on to do hundreds more Panels and now I’m lucky enough to call these lovely people friends.

Thank you for letting me be part of the SMWS – you’ll always have a big place in my heart.


About the Author:

Matt Bailey is the National Ambassador and Development Manager for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Australia. He's tirelessly trying to meet every member and share a dram with you all.

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