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SMWS Versus The Critics

SMWS bottles

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s modernisation has become something of a microcosm for the industry over the past few years. It’s all happened rather quickly.

Take a private membership club that had quiet rooms in which to enjoy a dram, and that sold cheap whiskies to some of the industry’s more discerning, or geekiest, drinkers. Let it be sold by Glenmorangie to a group of private investors. Switch things around so that there was a drive in attracting a whole load of new drinkers, and change the membership format; alter the branding on the labels (something all new owners like to do); and finally, stick up the prices. It’s the whisky industry’s modern history condensed into just a few months.

And there’s nothing more than whisky drinkers hate than change.

Who can blame them? The product they most admire reaches its optimum with time and patience; whisky is a celebration of slow-moving things. Discerning drinkers don’t give a fuck about what’s on the bottle, as long as what’s in it is affordable, honest and tasty.

So it’s safe to say that the veteran whisky community has not been best pleased (though if you scroll to the bottom, for the sake or more balance we did reach out for some other comments). Especially not with the announcement of the new Vaults Collection, out this week. The bottles of premium spirit clock in at around  £980 and £875, a considerable difference than similarly aged whiskies of yesteryear.

SMWS-In-a-Perfumed-Garden-Credit-Peter-Dibdin-at-Botanic-Gardens-Edinburgh-landscape-1024x735

So at Malt, we decided to actually confront the issue.

As opposed to cutting and pasting a press release, or making grumpy comments on Twitter, we thought we’d do something that is hardly ever done by whisky media outlets: we’d ask some confrontational questions to the SMWS directly. But, we actually reached out to a handful of online critics to put their questions to the SMWS, to get a range of opinions and insight from some people who felt really strongly about what they felt was being lost: value, community.

And guess what? Kai Ivalo, Spirits Director of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, only responded. In detail.

See, it’s not that difficult to have a tough conversation about whisky from time to time, and the SMWS gets my utmost respect for taking the time to ask what were some pretty tricky questions. That’s far better than hiding behind a press release in my eyes.

Interview with Kai Ivalo of the SMWS (or, SMWS versus the critics)

Malt (Mark and Jason’s questions): Obviously, the launch of the Vaults Collection has prompted a reaction from various quarters. Before we address those points, can you outline the premise and inspiration behind the concept?

Kai: The Society’s mission is to unearth exceptional single cask whiskies from Scotland and around the world and to continue to innovate and reinvigorate our offering to surprise and delight our members. As we approach our 35th anniversary the inspiration behind The Vaults Collection was to uncover a limited number of casks that best demonstrate our philosophy. We are building on the work done with our new labelling design earlier this year, the introduction of the Single Cask Spirits range in August and the recent launch of our Exotic Cargo blended malt whisky to further develop our range of whiskies to meet with increasing member demands and expectations.

Traditionally, the Society’s success and appeal have been built upon offering casks from across Scotland (and now the world) to its members based upon their characteristics, regardless of age, distillery and price. How does the creation of a second more exclusive level of membership fit in with these historical values?

Not every bottling we release will be of interest to everyone. The great thing about the Society is that our huge range of whiskies ensures there is a whisky for every person, pocket, preference and taste. In 2017 we will offer members in the UK and EU over 300 single casks. The handful of casks in The Vaults Collection is not intended to – and will not – create a second tier of membership. It is simply one small part of our new range, which offers members a wider choice.

As the Society has developed, we’ve looked at ways to improve the membership experience. For example, this summer we carried out our most extensive member survey yet, and we had feedback from some members that they’d like a more personalised service based on their whisky preferences and buying habits. We recognise that different members have different interests, and we’re looking at how to tailor our offering and communications more.

With The Vaults Collection, we responded to this by asking one our ambassadors to personally contact some of our members whom we felt would be particularly interested in these releases. If we missed out any members who feel they too should have been included in this preview, we apologise, it was not our intention to cause offence.

Ultimately, we’re trying new things to improve our service to members and we accept that we may not have got things quite right on this occasion.

Competition across the independent bottlers is fierce currently with numerous releases and several new start-up companies. How has this impacted on the Society?

As lovers of Scotch malt whisky, it can only be good for the industry to see more independent bottlers coming to the fore as it means awareness of the whisky category grows and more people discover the joys of single cask products in particular. We’ve been spreading the word about single cask whisky since 1983 and this heritage puts the Society in a strong position to welcome new members from all over the world in the years to come.

Our own cask stocks have never been healthier as we’ve been able to increase our investment in this area over the past two years. This year we’ll bottle more casks than ever and we now have casks from over 100 distilleries in our warehouses. There has never been a better time to be a member of the Society.

Traditionally the home base of the Society has been its UK membership. Without discussing numbers which we accept maybe confidential, has the membership stagnated in the UK and now its international clubs are where the growth is today?

We’re looking to grow the Society in the UK and other countries too, absolutely. We are really happy that in the UK our membership is strong, with more people joining the Society and more members staying with us longer, so we are confident that we have a great offering. In other countries, there is lower awareness of the Society and in single cask whisky in general, so this is where we see the greatest recruitment of members in the years to come. That’s why we’re shaping the structure of the Society internationally to improve access for members around the world to a greater number of Society single cask bottlings, events and partner bars. But international recruitment will never be at the detriment to our members in the UK.

SMWS glasses

Questions from John Stumbler

You can follow Mr Stumbler on Twitter.

Why all the finishes? Has the quality of the casks being sourced dropped?

Since we became independent in 2015, we’ve had greater opportunity to source and buy our own casks and manage the maturation of our stocks, with the opportunity to introduce some experimentation along the way. (Incidentally, we have been involved in finishing and additional maturation for many years now, so this isn’t new to the Society).

We have also become much more than just a bottler who buys casks and puts the whisky into glass. We can now purchase new make spirit and actively influence its maturation in our own casks to get the best out of the whisky and offer our members more variety. There’s no guarantee that all those newly filled casks will end up as a Society bottling, but having more control should mean more samples passing our Tasting Panel.

The ability to allow whiskies a period of additional maturation in a second cask also adds to both the quality and diversity of whiskies we offer to members. Variety is something we strive for, so if we have a selection of casks maturing with similar characteristics, we might decide to put some into Pedro Ximenez (PX) hogsheads, some in oloroso, or some in Madeira to inject this variety into the whisky’s characteristics. It’s all about being able to nurture our stock and ultimately to offer more choice for members.

Where we decide to transfer the whisky between casks, we ensure its single cask provenance is preserved – it’s only ever the contents of one cask’s worth of spirit, which happens to be travelling through more than one vessel. We’re moving towards having any additional maturation in a different cask for a minimum of two years, and in the interests of transparency, the relevant cask information will always be in our Tasting Notes.

I am very pleased to reveal that so far this year two of our additionally matured casks have already secured high-level awards. Cask 9.116 won a Gold at the International Spirits Challenge and cask 28.31 won Gold at the Scotch Whisky Masters.

How does [Kai] feel about the new approach?

I’ve been with the Society for almost 13 years. To me what we’re doing now is consistent with the Society’s philosophy and the way that it has developed during its history. We’ve always used our expertise to select and bottle the finest whisky at the right time for our members and we’ve always been keen to try new things too.

Questions from Tom Thomson

Tom writes over at Tom’s Whisky Reviews.

If a cask fails a blind panel, surely the sensible things to do are either a. Leave it in the cask for longer, b. sell it off c. try it again with a different panel. All of my original membership documents talk about the fact that the society was all about the differences in single casks, surely by hiding those differences in finishes that defeats the purpose of the society.

Every single cask is closely monitored during its maturation and then reviewed by the Tasting Panel. On this basis, a sample may go in front of the Panel several times over the years until it has reached its ideal maturation and is passed for bottling.

But there are some whiskies that our Tasting Panel and spirits manager feel would be improved by transferring them into another cask, either of the same type or different style. They are then left to mature in the expectation that this will help them reach the standard the Tasting Panel is looking for. This approach is standard practice within the Scotch whisky industry.

If it still doesn’t make the grade, it simply won’t be bottled. If we were to bottle every cask regardless of the Tasting Panel’s quality assurances, we’d be doing our members a disservice. Similarly, if we had stock lying in a warehouse never to be bottled that we felt could be improved by using our spirit and wood management expertise, it would be depriving our members of the chance to try something new, which they pay their membership fees for. Of course, the vast majority of our bottlings have only ever been in one cask so there’s lots of variety for those members who might prefer to have their whisky from one cask only. In 2017 we will offer members in the UK and EU over 300 different single cask bottlings to choose from.

We rely on our members and colleagues to provide us with feedback on our whiskies and are keen to receive specific comments on particular bottlings. This helps us to adjust and improve our processes and approach to cask selection.

We all pay the same membership fee so should be given the same right to buy bottles. Having some sent a preview in this way (and not an open preview evening type where members can choose or not to attend) smacks of elitism and multi-tiered membership, which would be fine if SMWS are up front and say that they will do this and the criteria that will be used (spend over £x on bottles, spend over £x in our venues, be a member for x years etc).

As I’ve mentioned above, we certainly don’t want to create a sense of elitism. In response to the demand for a more personalised service from our member research findings, we looked at the previous purchases and interests of members, and identified a small group who we thought would be particularly interested in The Vaults Collection. One of our ambassadors made a personal approach to offer them a preview of the collection.

This was a very small group of members and the bottles will go on sale to all members (in the UK & EU) on Monday, 2 October on www.smws.com. We would never prevent individual or groups of members from being able to buy a certain bottling.

Pricing. The prices of older bottles have been creeping up for a bit, felt by many and especially in comparison to other independent bottlers of similar quality, but these “Vaults Collection” bottles are ridiculous. In 2014 when 25.69 etc were released, the prices were £125/150 a bottle. The cask for 25.70 has been owned by the society since this time, so pricing at £875 a bottle is purely profiteering on what is seen as the secondary market. By profiteering in this way, they are doing nothing different to Macallan, Longmorn and Dalmore who are trying to premiumise a product by marketing, not the actual value of the product.

This year we have focused on developing a clear range of different products for our members. The majority is Scotch malt whisky, including single cask, cask strength malts from £45. Plus, there’s the recent release of our Exotic Cargo 10-year-old blended malt also at £45 and the range of Single Cask Spirits including rum, cognac and gin, with Armagnac on the way too.

Our aim is to provide both a wide range of styles of whisky as well as ages and rarity. Each cask is priced individually to consider a variety of factors including the price at which we bought the whisky, production costs and of course the higher amount of duty that applies to cask strength whisky. We’ve also invested more in cask stocks so far in 2017 than in any other year in the Society’s history, and opened a new Kaleidoscope bar in London. This kind of investment is essential for the long-term future of the Society and the sales of our whisky and membership help to fund it.

We also believe that the pricing is fair in comparison to similar bottles on the market and reflects the rarity of these releases, but ultimately the value of the product is what members will pay for it.

Tasting panels. We have heard from multiple sources that some whiskies that have failed the panels have still been bottled with Ewan and other staff members taking the decisions to bottle despite low scores in the panels, simply because too many casks were failing the panel. This goes completely going against the whole ethos of the SMWS, can you confirm intend to do to stop it happening again.

I can categorically say that this has never occurred, in fact, the opposite is true. We have taken the decision on many occasions not to bottle casks that have passed the Tasting Panel, as we believed they would further excel with more time. We’re very concerned to hear rumours like this as the Tasting Panel’s decision is sacrosanct. It may be that this is a misunderstanding of the process as it is possible for one member of the Panel to fail a sample but for it to be passed on the average score and assessment of the overall Panel. As whisky is a very personal experience, we always ensure an overall pass is required.

Odd Casks. Again going back to the original handbook, not only did it talk about single casks and the intrigue but said that not only would casks that were excellent be bottled, but also those that were intriguing and unusual, surely then a cask that doesn’t quite meet the excellent criteria could and should be bottled as an “unusual” cask rather than being finished to hide the original characteristics.

We would certainly agree with this and there are always examples of casks we’ve bottled that are very much about encouraging conversation and discussion.

The use of additional maturation does not affect this but allows us to add to the variety, complexity and quality of whiskies on offer. These are clearly referred to in our Tasting Notes for those bottlings treated in this way.

SMWS bottles

Questions from Chris Miles

Chris blogs at Still Dramming.

I’m perhaps not a known face to many of the new staff now but I’ve been a prolific buyer for many years and the bottles I’ve tweeted, shared, opened and still have in my cupboard is a testament to that.

I’ve had discussions with some of the venue staff about bottles I’ve drunk and still have and they’ve been in amazement as if I’ve got some sort of holy grail to which my only reply is that this used the be the norm. The only prerequisite was getting up to make the call or refreshing the website and boom you had a Rosebank or a Laphroaig or a Karuizawa.

I’ve got the last 8 bottles of Rosebank and would have liked the opportunity and also the affordability of getting what is known as the last cask of Rosebank. Why should I be excluded from that as a long time member?

As previously stated, with the Vaults Collection we responded to a request for a more personalised service by contacting a group of members who we felt would be particularly interested in these releases. If we missed out any members who feel they should have been included at this stage we apologise, it was not our intention to cause offence.

Ultimately, we’re trying new things to improve our service to members and we accept that there will be room for improvement in the future. We can also once again reassure members that everyone will have the opportunity to purchase The Vaults Collection when it’s released on Monday, 2 October on www.smws.com

The venues have been complicit in auctioneering, with personal accounts that staff know “members” who were in and sucking up masses of bottles to put straight onto auction. Over the recent times things have vanished as soon as soon as they’ve hit the shelf and I think the society should have been doing more to prevent this, particularly when they know it’s happening.

The Society’s whiskies are for members to enjoy and share. It does us no favours to see SMWS bottlings offered for sale on auction sites and often sold for significantly higher amounts. However, as with other whisky companies, we are limited in the actions we can take to prevent someone from buying a bottle and then selling it on elsewhere. That said, this is a serious allegation. If there is evidence of this occurring, we would grateful if you could share details with us so we can investigate the matter further.

The fact that this Rosebank failed a blind panel should not have meant that it should have been finished. It may not have been perfect but it was an example of a peculiar and complicated spirit that would have had heads talking about it. Rosebank fans like myself would have lapped it up in its natural state and spent time dissecting it as a Rosebank, not as an unknown distillery. There is a difference and it’s important, especially being the last cask they had. It’s like finding an old beaten up classic car and deciding to cover it in glitter rather than present it as a piece of history, it was an incredibly poor decision and I dare say it was one made by some spreadsheet or “process“.

The decision to transfer an old and rare whisky such as this to a different cask for additional maturation is not taken lightly. While we recognise and understand that this action may prompt debate and concern, we believe the result for cask 25.70 speaks for itself.

As further clarification, cask 25.70 did not fail the Tasting Panel when it was assessed previously.

A Positive End Note

It’s worth adding, that Kai quite rightly points out to me that it could be a vocal minority who have cast their opinion here, and that many people are excited by the changes in the society. Here’s a couple of comments after I reached out on Facebook:

Matt McKay

Likes: new coloured bottles to guide folks as to broad styles; single cask spirits – the ones I’ve tried have been solid so far; Kaleidoscope Bar – great new venue; Exotic Cargo – not the best by a long stretch, but fairly priced and another aspect of whisky to explore; abolition of non-member buying bottles at a higher price.

Lots to like. The very essence of the Vault Collection however is not one of those things.

Philip Storry

In my opinion the SMWS has been a bit of a punching bag that whisky lovers have used to take out their frustrations with a whole industry. As people are excluded elsewhere by price or allocation, they expected the SMWS to be their one last refuge.

There’s the issues people have with finishes. My opinion? Big deal. A decade ago a finish was an unusual thing that people fell over themselves to experience. These days people are suspicious about them, for a variety of reasons. I’ve seen a lot of people decry the finishes without having drunk them. Some worked for me, some didn’t – the ones that didn’t just weren’t to my preference, rather than being bad whiskies. It would be nice if the industry as a whole had better agreed upon nomenclature on what timescales qualified as re-racking and finishing, but that’s not something the SMWS can do a lot about!

Another issue people have had was the recent blended malt (Exotic Cargo). And before that, the idea of SMWS Cognac, Armagnac, Rum and their likes being bottled. The Society started that a long time ago when they bottled their first Irish whisky in the 90’s, then Japanese, then Grain, then… you get the idea. Maybe the Society outgrew its name – but nobody wants to rename it, and nobody is forced to drink the non-Scottish non-Malt or non-Whisky drinks. They still bottle plenty of Scotch Malt Whisky, so what’s the problem?

It’s been a bit of a perfect storm recently for the Society as they embarked on experiment after experiment. I saw someone complain about ice-cream pairings as if that was new – it’s actually a repeat of something they did three or four years ago! But to newer members, it was simply more evidence of “having lost their way.”
(To me, it was delicious. Some of them were amazing! I wish we could have taken some home…)

I’ve long maintained that the reason I’m a member of the Society is that it gives me a monthly selection of great drams at a variety of prices. None of the recent controversies have changed that. The Society has to experiment to improve itself. People complained when they first bottled Irish whisky and Japanese whisky – now those bottles are highly sought after! In time, the experiment will either fail and be forgotten, or succeed and become normal.

So long as there’s still a good dram at a good price in the bar, I’m OK with that.

 

 

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Mark

I've written about (and reviewed) whisky for Whisky Magazine, among other publications, and have been a whisky judge for competitions including the World Whiskies Awards. I've done other writing too: several mass market genre novels, a few short stories, including for BBC Radio 4. For my day job (I know, I don't get out much) I work in digital content. Follow me on Instagram.com/maltreview/ or Twitter.com/MaltReview. Generally, my tastes lean towards ex-sherry cask and ex-wine cask influences on the spirit, but I'm not so fussed as long as the whisky's gone into good wood.

  1. Tom Thomson says:

    “As further clarification, cask 25.70 did not fail the Tasting Panel when it was assessed previously.”

    So the cask was finished twice, despite being good enough to have been bottled without it, why on God’s earth would you attempt to ruin something that was great as it was, never heard the expression “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”

    Much of the rest of it, my feeling is that it’s “we’ve bottled hundreds of casks at prices similar to other Bottlers, and there’s a bottle to meet every budget” but the issue with that is that the SMWS isn’t like any other bottler as you need to pay a membership fee to access them, and the ‘good stuff’ used to be within the budget of many more people who have been priced out of bottles by profiteering.

    For me, nothing Kai has said here truly answers the questions put to him, remember that many of those who asked questions above are members at the moment and as such this is members feedback!

    This does nothing to make me feel less disappointed in the direction the SMWS is taking, and as such I, like many others I know, will walk away from what used to be a great society.

    1. James says:

      Mark is right to point out in the introduction to the piece that whisky drinkers tend not to like companies messing around with their tried-and-tested offerings. Tom is equally on-point with his concluding sentence: vote with your feet and leave.

      I was a member for three years between 2011 and 2014. I felt the bottle prices were on the high side even then, and that was on top of paying for the basic privilege of just being ‘a member’. ‘Unfiltered’ magazine was excellent, though, and I still have my old copies.

      Kudos for actually going to the source and asking these questions but the answers aren’t terribly enlightening. It all amounts to a shrug of the shoulders and a ‘if people are willing to pay what we charge, we will continue to charge it’.

      I do take issue with the new finishing fad for the reasons and suspicions mentioned above. As for the Vaults Collection, when I heard I only wondered ‘what took them so long?’ Not my thing but every other bottler has a ‘deluxe’ line so why not the SMWS?

    2. David Rogers says:

      A bottle to meet every budget is to be honest rubbish. It now seems that anything of a decent age is beyond what I can afford. (I didn’t renew my membership last December). Why should I be limited to ages of up to say for example 15 years because anything older is beyond that.

  2. Taylor says:

    I concur Tom, Kai skating around questions like Torvill and Dean. Frankly the SMWS can get stuffed with their Vaults Collection. The SMWS has become The Ferrari Owners Club and that’s exactly what they desire Arabian Princes and Russian oligarchs. The plumber and bin-man can take a hike.

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