Wednesday, 13 March 2013

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

A letter flopped down onto my doormat last week (probably - I didn’t actually see it happen). It was the renewal notice for membership of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Already my first 12 months are nearly up and this letter has caused me to reflect on being a member of the society and whether I should renew for another year.

Where to start. I don’t want to regurgitate the history and the ethos of the SMWS, you can get all that from their website so I won't bother repeating it. In it's most basic terms they are independent bottlers. They get single malt whisky direct from distilleries, buying up individual casks and bottling them directly at that strength (about 50-60%).

What’s interesting is that they don’t name the distillery on the bottle, instead relying only on a numbering system and tasting notes (plus the details of the region, age and finish). I like this a lot. When you are looking to try a dram or a buy a bottle it encourages you to try a whisky based on its description (OK, and price), rather than looking for a familiar handle. Which is just as well because often these whiskies can differ greatly from the established 'taste' of a distillery (e.g. casks of unpeated Islay or unusual finishes).
Of course once you're actually drinking the stuff you can’t help but wonder where it's from. And with smartphones and the internet being things that exist you can find out what the distillery numbers mean right there and then. But the crucial thing is that I like to find out afterwards. As such I’ve tried some gems from distilleries I wouldn’t have thought of trying otherwise (or even heard of) Glenburgie, Miltonduff, Benrinnies. I've never had a bad whisky from SMWS and there is always something new to taste because the bottles don't stick around too long (a cask might only provide 200 bottles).
A quick word on the descriptions. All the whiskies go by a number and a description, these are quite esoteric ('BBQ on the Beach', 'Magic Carpet Ride' - that sort of thing) – they're quite amusing, although personally I find it becomes a borderline cutesy after a while. Not that I’d want to see that changed, it's fair enough - that's their thing. Even if they are a bit 'wacky' they're preferable to dry tasting notes or – god forbid - a score.
But generally I love their approach to whisky. It is there to be drunk. That might sounds obvious but there are no special edition bottlings or presentation cases here. Bottles that might cost £60 look exactly the same as those at £300. And although they turn up some rarities or unusual casks the emphasis is always on enjoying them. I find that helps to get over the mental hurdle of holding on to whisky too long because it's too special or precious to be drunk. And when there are so few bottles in the first place there’s almost no point getting too precious about it.

So that's the whisky but I have to talk about the tasting rooms. I think that’s the main value I get out of being a member. I’m lucky enough to live in Edinburgh and there are two venues here. One on Queen St. near the city centre. It's nice, spread over several floors in a traditional grand Edinburgh building. It has great views into Queen St gardens, down towards the shore and over the Firth of Forth and into Fife.
But it’s the Vaults down in Leith that truly wins out. It’s this venue that makes it feel like a club. It has wood-panelling, leather sofas and chairs, open fires (well, convincing gas versions). It feels… exclusive, but thankfully neither the venue or the staff take itself too seriously so you can enjoy the rarefied surroundings without it feeling at all stuffy. This is a wonderful place to bring friends and family. Nice and lively on a weekend, serenely peaceful at other times. Visiting either of the venues adds a little joy to any day. Either popping into George St on a Saturday afternoon to avoid the shoppers. Or topping and tailing a night in one of Leith's many fine restaurants with a visit to the Vaults. 

So what are the drawbacks? Well, there's the cost. There’s no getting away the fact that this is a luxury. The initial joining fee was relatively steep – over £100. This comes with a 4x10cl bottle taster pack plus some other knick-knacks. I have to say this fiduciary blow was soften immensely by a ‘free’ bottle on offer for new members, but I don’t know how often such promotions are run.
Of the 4 taster bottles there was a great selection. One of the bottles was an amazing 20yo Rosebank – old and rare so that had to be worth a few quid. And tasting it was something that has prompted me to find out more about this defunct distillery and other lowland whiskies in general. It was one of the finest whiskies I've had and it came out of nowhere in terms of where my interests lay. A new discovery which is what the SMWS is all about really.

I still don’t know whether it’s a cost effective way to buy whisky. You’ll struggle to find a bottle for less than £50. Most seem to be £50-70 with no upper limit. It puts me off picking up a bottle for casual supping. But then again it is single cask which tends to be more expensive even when it’s a distillery bottling. But you could also argue that the extra cost is the expertise required to taste and track down the whisky in the first place.

The venues aren’t too cheap either - most of the dram prices are about £5 and going up to £25. Everything else (wine, beer, food) is slightly uplifted from normal pub prices. So there's that.

Another drawback - much as I’ve espoused the virtues I’ve still only made it to the venues 7 or 8 times in 12 months. Other friends that are members regularly lament the fact that they don't get down to the venues more often. Which isn't a reflection on the SMWS but it just illustrates the fact that it often feels like a luxury.

But, as I look again at the renewal notice (well not literally, it's in the other room) I can't help but think I have to renew. I'm still in the thrall of the SMWS, I still love the venues, I still love trying the whiskies, I love the quarterly magazine, I get excited even just reading the monthly outturn offers - even when I know I won't be buying bottle this month.

So, I’ll will be renewing once more.
Update in 12 months time.

Friday, 1 March 2013

Marks and Spencer Islay Single Malt

So then, supermarket own-brand 12yo Islay single malt whisky...
OK, so this is not just any supermarket own brand 12yo Islay Single Malt, this is Marks and Spencer etc etc… But still, what’s going on here?

In my experience, supermarket own-brand whisky is usually just cheap (and nasty) blends. Stuff that meets the bare minimum requirement to be called whisky and then is served up in plain label bottles that look as if they have been issued by a totalitarian state of a dystopian future. Having tried Sainsburys value whisky once (and never again) I assumed they buy up spirit from a range of distilleries, mix it together and put it out without any real concern for taste, consistency or reputation.

But recently I’ve noticed a number of own brand single-malt whiskies cropping up. The main supermarket chains seem to be doing them, typically offering ranges split geographically (Islay, Speyside, Highland etc). And they all seem to be over 10 years old too.  In theory it should be good stuff.

The thing that intrigues me the most is that the distilleries are anonymous – it’s not like supermarkets are acting like independent bottlers such as Gordon and McPhail. And obviously they aren’t building their own distilleries.  But on this M&S bottle there is no indication of which distillery it has come from. In order for it to be classed as Single Malt what’s in the bottle must be just from one distillery (although it can be from a variety of casks of the stated age or older). So it’s an interesting one. OK interesting might be pushing it but it's intriguing to consider that distilleries, usually very keen to protect their brand are also anonymously putting these on to the market.
Anyway, what’s it like? I can only talk about this one from Marks and Spencer but I’ve said previously that seemingly there’s no such thing as bad single malt and that still seems to hold true here. It’s got a nice dark colour and a sweet, ash smell to it. It’s quite smooth and smoky. Not the longest finish in the world. It reminded me of a darker coloured Benromach (it’s not – that’s a Speyside albeit a peaty one). It’s certainly drinkable and I don’t know if I’d be able to pick it out as the poor cousin in a line-up. It’s decent, it’s solid, I have no complaints.

Would I buy it? To be honest I’m not sure. It’s relatively cheap at £29 and it’s a decent quality so I’d have no problem enjoying a dram of it. I’m not sure I could bring myself to proudly serve it to guest though – pure snobbery I’m sure, but as a whole it’s lacking a bit of love. I want to try out whisky from different distilleries not a generic Highland or Islay malt bought up by the big supermarket chains on the lowest margin possible.

You could argue that the whisky should speak for itself, but I’d counter the own brand stuff  probably has less character as it tries for wider appeal – and surely it can’t be the best stuff the distilleries flog off to the likes of Tesco can it?

Maybe if you worked out which distillery it was (which I suppose wouldn’t be too difficult given the small number on Islay) and this was  few pounds cheaper than their standard bottling you could console yourself with the thought you were getting it cheaper than the branded stuff. A bit like buying a SEAT because it’s got a VW engine in it.
Then again if the distillery is anonymous then surely the supermarket can change supplier when they like.

Overall I would say this would be good for people looking to move into the world of single malt, it’s definitely a step up from a bog standard blend for not too much more cash. This stuff is £29 but I notice that Tesco Islay Single Malt is less than £20 (how can that be? - and it has won awards too). But personally I like a bit more personality with my whisky both in the glass and on the bottle.