What I love to do with my life is to experience things: I love food, travel and the finer things in life. I don’t have too much money, but the money I do have, I like to spend it on ‘an experience’.
This is why I renewed my membership with the Malt Scotch Whisky Society (SMWS for short). It was originally gifted to me on my birthday when my partner tried to get me something other than a bottle of whisky – so this was an ‘outside the box’ gift idea.
While in general, I love the Society, I have one or two gripes, some advice for potential subscribers and would like to share my experience in detail. If you’re interested at all in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society Subscription then have a quick read before going ahead.
What is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS)
In my modern mind, the Malt Scotch Whisky Society is a subscription service dedicated to whisky. I am partially incorrect because the Society is so much more than that.
The SmWS was formed in 1983 by ‘unconventional whisky experts’ who spotted a flaw in the way whisky was sold in the 1970’s. Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills, the Society Founder, ‘stumbled upon’ the overlooked undiluted and unadulterated whisky which could be drawn straight from the cask. Back in the 1970’s, this whisky was considered problematic (maybe too much for the 70’s pallette) and therefore, it was left to evaporate in warehouses across Scotland. Pip persuaded some friends to share the costs of a cast from the Glenfarclas distillery – this eventually grew to a network where many more casks were purchased, bottled and shared: it was their mission to share this whisky of complex and (sometimes) challenging flavours in bottles using curious names.
The SMWS started in ‘The Vault’ in Leith which, in 1983, was a dilapidated old shipping storage facility for alcohol from the Edinburgh Leith docks. It has now been beautifully restored (personally can attest to that) and is the monogram of the Society’s logo which can be found on almost every bottle.
These days the society has spread far and wide- there are two venues in Edinburgh (SMWS Queen Street & The Vault) and a venue in Glasgow’s city centre. Not to mention venues in London’s Farrington District, Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden, Switzerland Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore and the US.
And to bring the SMWS to the modern-day; they have a website where you can enjoy your membership from home via a huge library of videos, articles, newsletters and, since covid, virtual tasting sessions.
Who Owns the SMWS?
It doesn’t seem as though the SMWS has been owned by one particular person. While Phillip Hills is the founder there, is no clear information about who owned the society after its inception. After many years of growth (expanding to London in 1996, and the second venue in Edinburgh 2004) the society was purchased by Glenmorangie PLC.
In 2015, the society was sold back into private ownership to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (Moët Champagne), and then in June 2021 the private owners floated the holding company (The Artisanal Spritys Company PLC) on the London Stock Exchange. The ASC own the Scotch Malt Whisky Society today.
How Many Members Does the Society have?
If you’re wondering whether you’d be part of a small exclusive group of whisky lovers then you’d be surprised. The SMWS says that there are now 27,000 members around the world. Many of which can be found on the Facebook chat forums, attending events at the venues and joining discussions online.
How the SMWS Subscription Works
Before we delve into my experiences, I think it is worthwhile to detail how the SMWS subscription works. When you first get in, it seems a little bit overwhelming.
Firstly, you can either purchase the subscription for yourself or as a gift to another person. You can add some extras with the subscription at a discount – I personally got a box with my badge, membership card, a journal and 3 small 50ml bottles of whisky.
Once you have joined, you now are able to access website’s full range of limited edition/ small batch whisky – their newsletter, the ‘members rooms’ in the venues around the world (which also includes exclusive members events such as tasting sessions and food pairing sessions) and access to the member’s magazine.
The way the SMWS online shop works is based on limited batches of exclusive whisky – some whiskies are listed with only 100 bottles available, and others much more. It ensures that these whiskies are somewhat of a collectors items: some collectors owning bottles from the very first batch.
The SMWS drop a range of whisky every 2 – 3 months via their newsletter and it is first come, first serve. Sometimes, even if you’re as quick as lightning, you can miss out on one of the more exclusive ranges. In short – it is a race to the best. bBefore any launch, the website and newsletters are very informative and they offer detailed descriptions about the themes surrounding the next batch of whiskies. You can research everything before buying.
This was my very favourite aspect of my SMWS membership: I love the considerable detail taken in describing the flavours and experience of each whisky. It is unlike me, but I would (for entertainment) go on a read each bottle’s flavourprofile to see what was coming next. This was very bad for my bank account and liver, but fantastic for my happiness.
Thankfully, I was gifted my membership a few months before the pandemic so I made the most of going to the venue in Leith and SMWS Queen Street. Otherwise, the membership only really gives you access to purchase the whisky on the SMWS online shop. While the whisky is spectacular, and sometimes very rare, there are no real meaningful membership discounts, or special offers. To make the very most of the subscription, you should either research your closest venue, or research the online events before joining.
In summary: simply sign up, get your membership card & online shop login, and enjoy!
The SMWS Whisky
Over the last year or so, of my SMWS membership, I have tried a number of whiskies; each very different from the next. I bought them as gifts, to take to a fancy dinner with friends and to enjoy all by my self. My personal tastes lean towards the peated, smokey flavours of the Islands and like my whisky to be punget, complex with some surprising sweetness. To give content I love a whisky like Taliskar 10 (original) or the Bowmore 12.
WARNING: for anybody reading this this is something to consider before trying the SMWS wiskey- You WILL ruin supermarket malt whisky for yourself. There is no going back.
I tried a number of them- including Pickle Rick, Stary Night, Moroccan Afternoon Tea, Pining of fruit Crumble and many more; the names of which I have not recorded. I personally did not purchase a bad whisky – or at least a whisky I didn’t like.
Every single malt was very interesting – with extremely identifiable flavours, interesting combinations of flavours with a really clean alcohol content which lead to a very smooth experience. Each whisky was very easy to drink and they are unlike any whisky I had tried previously. Even directly from the source on a trip to Aberfeldy.
Although I am picky with whisky, I thoroughly enjoyed exploring, experimenting and reading about flavour combinations that I would have previously stuck my nose up to. Overall, the SMWS has to be the very best whisky I have tried – on multiple occasions. So I would honest recommend any lover of whisky to join.
In terms of the service & delivery: I was a tiny bit disappointed. The welcome kit, information online and the website made me feel very special. It felt great to be a member of this exclusive society, and to be able to purchase an exclusive limited whisky I could share with friends. To add to this, the experience in the Leith venue was also made us feel very exclusive.
For my first order I received a free t-shirt which I still wear today. I had spent over £200 (for Christmas gifts etc..) so the added gift was a very welcome sight. The next times multiple times, I received a box with the bottles in a bubble wrapping – while this was fine for the 2nd and 3rd order, I was feeling like the experience was getting a bit stale. Even though the whisky had been superb, I had paid for membership, paid multiple hundreds of pounds on each order and yet I was feeling much less ‘exclusive’, and the experience was tailing off.
To add to my wee gripe, the shipping on every occasion had taken more than a week. I didn’t grumble at the time but in hindsight, it is a fairly long time to wait for something these days. 2-3 days should really be the maximum when you’re spending hundreds of pounds with a company.
I may sound spoiled here but I truly believe that the little things make a huge difference; and the personal experience at the beginning, was no longer feeling personal. If I were to offer some helpful feedback, I’d say that it would be wise for the SMWS to step their game up for their current membership orders. I didn’t mind paying a membership to buy the whisky at full price, but a little more in the way of a personal service to each customer would go down a treat. I believe it would add that tiny bit extra to a customers experience which will ensure longer membership values, more online orders and would provide great marketing opportunities from previous customers.
The Vault & SMWS Queen Street – Venues in Edinburgh
First, I went to ‘The Vault’ in Leith, one of the ‘only members’ venues. I need to be honest here, it was a mixed experience.
I had been told before we went that we should go there and ‘act as if you belong there’. I was, at first, puzzled by this comment but the reasoning became apparent as soon as I stepped foot into The Vault.
The lady at the desk was very welcoming and polite, she asked for my membership card, and we signed in. The air of the place was steaped in history, experience and knowledge. It was decorated with books, vintage wooden dacore and our path lead us across ancient creeky floorboards. Upon entering the members room we could feel the warmth of the roaring open fire, and the smell of wood burning and the whisky bring drunk. It was magical. Ideal for the winters day we had walked through to get there.
Upon entering, the bar was on our left and the room was furnished with huge old comfy chairs and sofas. There were a few people there, one of whom was reading a newspaper spread right across him so we could only see his brown battered leather shoes and suit trousers. It was a little bit like walking into a dickens novel. A blast from the past.
Myself and my partner are fairly ‘rough and ready people’ so it did feel like we were in a place where we should mind our manors, and tidy up our hair.
We got settled and ordered some lunch – which was salmon crackers and some soup. Both delicious and very reasonably prices. Then we went for some whisky. Annoyingly, my resounding memory of our first time was how stuck up all of the bar tenders seemed to be.
It must have been clear that this was our first time. The general attitude towards us was as if we were a nucence for asking where the toilets were, or enquiring about the various whisky on offer. In hindsight, the fact that we had been warned about this, tells me that we aren’t the only ones with this experience. For a members venue that accepts people all over the world, I would have hopped for a more accepting attitude.
Obviously – this could be 2 or 3 individuals who overshadow everybody else who works there.
Scotch Malt Whisky Society Queen Street – Edinburgh
The SMWS on Queen Street in Edinburgh was a very different experience to The Vault. While the venue in Leith is for members only, the venue on Queen Street is largely open to passers by. In contrast to the quiet, warm rustic feeling of the vault, the queen street venue has high ceilings, is bright, clean and open.
We went upstairs to the members lougue where we had lunch, a couple of drinks and a moment’s rest from our walk. It was certainly busier than The Vault, but the staff were significantly more friendly and the atmosphere was much more boyant. While the Vault is ideal for a quiet afternoon of reading, SMWS Queen Street is much more atuned to these who wish to chat with friends.
The food, just as in Leith, was superb. We had a three course tasting lunch the first time (I can’t remember for sure what I had) but I can tell you that we have been many times after. Personally, out of the two venues, I much prefer the Queen Street venue as a whole.
Is the Scotch Malt Whiksy Society Subsription worth it?
This is a complex one to answer; on one hand the answer is yes, and on the other, I am not so sure.
When the pademic hit we no longer could visit the venues and relied on the online services. I did purchase a lot of whisky but it was sold at full price and the shipping took up to a week almost every time. I was left feeling a little disappointed that the package came without the personal touches that made the welcome so brilliant. For a company that offers an ‘exclusive membership’ I felt at some points the service edged into corperateness, or complacency.
However, while there are many things I feel need to be tweaked, I still renewed my membership. Why? The whisky. I believe that the Whisky I drank here are the best I have ever had, and will likely have. I love how fleating the experiences are and how after you’ve finished the bottle, you’re unlikely to have those flavours again. It really heightened the appreciation for what I was drinking and gave me a new enthusiasm for whiksy.
I gave not yet managed to be part of one of the society gatherings, or events, but that is something I plan to do in the future.