S

SMWS February 2020 Outturn

How do you kill free time in Edinburgh before another meeting? If you’re a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, then the answer is easy enough, as you can head over to Queen Street or the Vaults, to check out what’s new. This is what I did on Monday when faced with a little downtime; I took the opportunity to check out a couple new releases that had just landed the previous week.

We should do more of this on a regular basis. I’m in and around Edinburgh and Justine lives just around the corner from the Vaults itself for goodness sake. However, whisky means our lives are busy enough and that’s not just chasing whisky or unicorn bottles – if only – rather organising tastings, festivals and the humble online abode you’re now visiting.

On paper, the 2020 releases from the SMWS have shown some promise and a little more variety than what we’ve seen during 2019. Early days I know, but even with the whiskytoil hangover, we have to remain positive. We also have the new branding and bottle look that I’ve touched upon during another incoming article. The Queen Street venue itself is about to undergo a major facelift and even the plastic bags have received a branding makeover. Exciting times then on paper, or plastic, for those involved in the Society. And even the website has received a makeover, although that experienced a few, let’s say, teething issues earlier this week.

Faced with an empty member’s room, I had the run of the place to myself and plenty of time to consider the mid-month releases. Included within this small assortment is the 66.164 Ardmore, also known as I Like Big Butts, a 7-year-old that has been doubled dipped in sherry. Starting life in an ex-Oloroso butt before being finished in a 2nd fill ex-sherry butt, it sold out rapidly online as a preview release, but I was able to have a wee taste and there’s enough here to warrant further exploration, which I’ll do a later date. However, the concept of double-dipping in sherry is interesting and applies to the 63.60 Glentauchers that we are reviewing below.

I picked out another 2 new arrivals at random, skipping the 12-year-old Glenrothes (30.109, Strangely Soothing), as after all, who needs another sherried Glenrothes review? Another popular preview release, confirming sherry sells and when bottles are released under £70, members are quite interested in taking a punt. Also included is the new Battle Axe concept, which is made up of ex-bourbon casks from Islay.

SMWS Battle Axe – review

Distilled on 27th April 2011 and bottled at 8 years of age, 1957 bottles were released at 50% strength and an asking price of £47.

Colour: a faded tan.

On the nose: salt, cauliflower, olive oil, a gentle peat and cream soda. Rockpools suggestive of Islay but inoffensive. Boiled cabbage, saline, green apples and meringues.

In the mouth: a little flat for all the bravado of a battle warrior. A gentle peat, creamy, soda water, dying embers and a touch of salt. Pretty dull and cheap generic Islay with smoke on the finish.

Score: 4/10

SMWS 108.22 Cold Cure – review

Distilled on 10th November 2011, bottled at 7 years of age, this 2nd Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel produced 249 bottles at 63.3% strength.

Colour: a light haze.

On the nose: pine sap and a chalky nature. Green apples, pear drops, a twist of lemon and vanilla. Almost grain-like in places followed by a diluted orange and spent tea leaves. Adding water unlocks cotton sheets, an oiliness, limescale and tonic water.

In the mouth: better than expected albeit somewhat limited with tinges of alcohol. It is light and fruity, hinting again at grain and more apples alongside white pepper, mace and cardboard. Adding water brings out a minty freshness and autumnal notes. A little mezcal in places.

Score: 5/10

SMWS 63.60 Archaeopteryx Paella – review

Distilled on 20th September 2012, this resided in a ex-Oloroso butt for 5 years before moving into a 2nd fill ex-Pedro Ximenez butt for the remainder of its maturation. This produced 559 bottles at a mighty 66.5% strength.

Colour: honeycomb.

On the nose: toffee, red grapes, chocolate, ginger nuts, honey and raspberries. There are wood chips, cola cubes and dried reeds. Water reveals orange zest, bark, kindling and mustard seeds.

In the mouth: a nice mouthfeel, leathery and jammy. Some black peppercorns, coarse on the finish and a little youthful and under developed. A chewy toffee, cardamon and aniseed. Water unlocks a silky caramel and ginger root.

Score: 6/10

SMWS 6.36 The Hills are alive with the sound of museli – review

Distilled on 29th January 2009, this resided in a 2nd fill ex-bourbon barrel until being bottled at 10 years of age. 237 bottles were harvested at a strength of 56.7%.

Colour: almost clear.

On the nose: creamy, rice pudding and vanilla. Some lime zest but overall quite shy. Nougat, porridge oats and water doesn’t have a dramatic impact on the experience revealing some After Eight mints.

In the mouth: a pleasant oily mouthfeel and texture. Green apples, vanilla, white pepper and icing sugar. In other words pretty by the numbers and an inoffensive cask with water failing to shake things up.

Score: 4/10

Conclusions

The Battle Axe looked somewhat flawed and out of place sitting at the bar. A lazy name that is suggestive of a rejected Highland Park concept (who will bottle everything it seems) with a design and label that was knocked up by a 12-year-old on a school day visit. Actually, I’m doing the kid a disservice.

Surprisingly, Islay seems a difficult concept to bottle and advertise without naming a distillery. Take the Atom Brands attempt in Aerolite Lyndsay, which Mark thought was confused at best and had its thunder stolen by the superior Scarabus from Hunter Laing that was better presented and, well, just better on every level.

The Battle Axe is Islay in the glass, but nothing to grab and captivate or stimulate your soul. In essence, it seems a bunch of lacklustre casks were brought together and hey presto you have this Islay thing that tastes a bit peaty, salty, coastal and whala job done. The fact that you could maybe spend £5-£10 more and purchase a single cask from a named Islay distillery sums up the offering as very forgettable.

The Cold Cure is pretty rudimentary. A typical 2nd fill cask that needed longer and hasn’t been granted permission. What you receive is a slightly limited and inoffensive whisky that has bursts of promise but feels rather inept on the whole. Again, one of those drams that could have with the time taken us somewhere rather than struggling to get out of second gear on the road to Applecross.

The Hills are alive with the sound of punters moaning about another poor cask choice! That’s what I think regarding 6.36, which just fails to really go anywhere. The best thing about the experience is the mouthfeel but the privilege of being granted a single cask release is being abused here. This isn’t anything special, memorable or worthwhile and is scored appropriately.

Archaeopteryx is one of those bonkers names you often see on a SMWS label. You’ll be asking what this has to do with a bird-like extinct species and paella? I really don’t have any answers for you whatsoever. However, it is an interesting double-dip sherry experience. An attempt to combine the nutty features of Oloroso and the dried fruits of Pedro Ximénez. Possibly the initial cask was too forceful and it was tamed by the second vessel, or the SMWS are jumpstarting with some aggressive casks and now repairing the damage. Again, no answers, but the Ardmore from this outturn has a similar DNA.

I felt the Ardmore stood up to the sherry casks rather well whereas Archaeopteryx, or Glentauchers as we truly know it, was somewhat obliterated. It is a dram that I expect will reward further exploration, so I bought a bottle for that opportunity. As for this selection of whiskies, the same demons seem to haunt the SMWS for now, but we’ll keep on trying.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Avatar
    Andrew says:

    I got a SMWS membership for Christmas from family and find myself in an odd position.

    On paper this should be right up my street, I’ve been exploring Whisky for about 4 years now and graduated relatively quickly from standard distillery expressions to some independent bottlings and distillery exclusives along with more challenging flavour profiles like Springbank et al. It’s helped that my partner (whom I met about a month after I started drinking Whisky) has vague connections and history in Spirits industry.

    I was initially excited to be a member but then found the format bewildering. One thing that has remained consistent through my whisky journey is that I rarely match tasting notes which is not abnormal I know so having to make a decision based on the format of the names and tasting notes on SMWS offering feels like a huge leap of faith. I did receive the membership triple pack with my gift which contained an ok selection but again I didn’t find a decent match to the notes, just one or two aspects. Then there’s the prices which, when you factor in the membership, seem high compared to other independent bottlers.

    I’m left feeling that the design is there to emphasise the ‘Club’ aspect of the SMWS, the brand and cool factor. I’m can’t help but feel I would have felt far more at home joining when I had *less* knowledge and experience than I do now. It’s the Spotify of Whisky, heavily curated selection that is fine if you never deleted deeper anywhere else to find new things. I don’t know how recently things have been like this but that’s my take and I could go on but I won’t was I’ve rambled far too much already.

    Anyway! this morning I waited on the SMWS website, observed some very peculiar behaviour of bottle stocks dropping before they were on sale (?), cursed their website design as terrible (this is something I *am* qualified to do) and, with some trepidation, I ordered my first bottle. My selection was based on the curiosity of a bottling from a distillery I’ve only ever tried standard offerings from – Old Pultney. The tasting notes sound interesting but I don’t hold out much hope and I’m seriously concerned about the Sauternes cask finish as the only other time I’ve tried that is the Glenmorangie Nectar d’Or. So why order it? Leap of faith? Spirit of Adventure? No, the price seemed right for an interesting bottling of a decent age (I’m aware that age isn’t everything) that I might likely never come across again. Basically, I’m hoping for a hidden gem – isn’t that the point? I’m already teetering on whether I would ever renew so this bottle has lots to live – wish me luck!

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Andrew.

      Thanks for such a great comment. I’m sure you’re not alone in receiving such a generous gift and then thinking – what I am supposed to do with this? I wouldn’t come to any rash decisions about whether to renew as it is early days for you. See how it goes and explore right up until the last moment.

      Personally, I ignore the names and tasting notes on the whole. They exist to sell the bottle. The notes are taken from various sources with the focus on the more characterful suggestions. I’ve never actually had a whisky, reviewed it and then referred back to the notes on the bottle: they are merely window dressing.

      What’s more important are the distillery, the age and the cask type. I tend to drift away from short-term finishes because these have been employed by the SMWS to give some outturn variety, rather than a stroke of genius or for the good of the liquid.

      The concept of trying before you buy is wonderful but for many out there, an SMWS location isn’t nearby, which is why we try to do our coverage now and again, remaining totally independent and open-minded.

      You’ve picked a Pulteney, which is a good distillate and untouched, should be a whisky you can work with as the bottle is explored. I think you’ll be ok with that one. I can give you some suggestions for other distilleries to watch out for if needed?

      Prices can be a little ambitious, although we’re fortunate in the UK compared to America who pay a lot more. The special editions and well-aged releases can be laughable in terms of pricing and show greed.

      We have a selection of reviews here for the SMWS and we’d like to find that gem/s as well. It is frankly, very hard work and the SMWS don’t appreciate anything less than warm reviews or scores. That’s their gig, but whisky by its very nature is variable and being a member is very much a rollercoaster. I think as members and consumers, a wee bit of honesty goes a long way.

      Let us know how you get on with that bottle. And as for the website, I’m still not sure about it, but I’m not as qualified as you!

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Andrew says:

        Hi Jason,

        Thanks for the in depth reply, especially to what turned to be an essay length comment. I’m not ready to give up yet but first impressions and all that. I’d be delighted to have some reccomended distilleries to look out for (then I can have more fun converting codes into distilleries!).

        Ignoring the names and the notes is hard when you’re browsing, I’m looking for something to ‘lock on’ to – in this case I started with Regions – I’ve had far too many Speysides of late so looked down the Highland list. Here’s hoping I picked something interesting – it sold out.

        The issue with your back reviews, which isn’t your issue, is that it seems the SMWS is selling out of stock these days so there isn’t as much about. You’re quite right that I cannot get to one of their rooms to check as they seem to be either North (Scotland) or South at the minute (London), I’m in the North West so Glasgow is my nearest and a couple of hours away.

        Still, there’s so many more options to choose from, I’m not too worried.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Welcome back Andrew,

          I’m always wary of finishes in general and particularly from the Society. These in the past have been used to turbocharge lackluster casks. There was a epidemic of Sauternes finishes a few years ago, when casks failed the tasting panel.

          Nowadays that barrier seems to have been removed, but you’ll still see finished utilitised to give some variety. I note the latest issue of their magazine tried to justify such management, as adding complexity…

          Still, I do consider the cask, age, strength, year of distillation and the distillery. Using these as indicators over the flamboyant notes and names.

          Some numbers would be as follows, although several of these haven’t been seen for a while. 1, 3, 4, 7, 11, 18, 26, 29, 36, 37, 39, 41, 42, 44, 46, 47, 52, 53, 54, 59, 60, 63, 66, 68, 72, 73, 76, 78, 81, 82, 93, 95, 96, 101, 105, 115, 122, 123, 125, 126…

          We’ll try and do more SMWS with previews being the best bet for you – wallet permitting!

          Cheers, Jason.

  2. Avatar
    Dan W says:

    Hi Jason.

    Great article. Sums up perfectly my frustrations with the SMWS and why I’m cancelling my membership. They make bottles available to buy ‘pre-release’ if you can make it to one of their bars. I can’t I don’t live anywhere near. Most members can’t. So any decent bottles in an outturn have their numbers substantially depleted before they even go on sale to all the other fee paying members. I missed out on the Ardmore as I’ve missed out on most of the bottles they release that are in any way interesting. It went on sale at 9am with just over 100 bottles available to members. I was at work. I logged in a little later on and by that point it had sold out. The rest of the release sounds like the usual ‘nothing special’.

    A rule of thumb I’ve come to realise with SMWS bottlings I’ve had is subtract around a third from the stated age on the bottle to get an idea of how the bottle will actually perform.

    The 22 year old Glen Grant I had from them performed like a 12 year old.

    The 16 year old Aberlour like a 10 year old.

    The 11 year old Balblair like a 7 year old.

    I’m quitting and won’t be considering rejoining unless I hear they’ve started looking after ALL their customers a lot better and have got some decent casks to bottle.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Dan

      Thanks for commenting on your experiences with the SMWS, which I know are echoed by many.

      Part of my motivation this month to get down to the bar and purchase some whiskies to review was to try and give an honest and independent appraisal – a heads up for members like yourself further afield.

      Unfortunately as you suggest, most of the outturn is pretty innocuous, with just a handful selling out and promoting interest. Quantity over quality always wins when you follow a monthly outturn format.

      SMWS ambassadors are quite fond of quoting figures of investment in their inventory. This is all good and well, but if the investment is badly placed, or mismanaged during maturation, then you’re effectively chucking good money after bad.

      Rather than rebranding it’s the internals that need investment and addressing. And retaining existing members by making them feel valued.

      Cheers, Jason.

  3. Avatar
    Alasdair Gray says:

    Great write-up Jason. I joined SMWS middle of last year, went a bit overboard with buying a few bottles every month and spending far too much to start with. The hype soon passes. Agree with what Dan has said above. Some of the releases at 9.00am are out of stock by 9.01am, with no option to even add it to your basket. I notice they have upgraded their site, so that may have now improved.

    I do like my 96s however (Glendronach fanboy 🙂 ) and do really like some of their fruity bourbon cask releases.

    1. Jason
      Jason says:

      Hi Alasdair

      I think we all go a bit crazy with spending initially. Then, the reality sets in. Generally I’ve observed friends having severe doubts after 18 months and then leaving shortly afterwards.

      The new site has its issues and the SMWS have issued an apology this afternoon for their customer experience. Good to see some humility, even if this should have been issued within 24 hours of the issue, which suggests some internal strife.

      Having done some professional testing myself, you do question the professionalism and scope of any testing scripts. However, these things can happen and do.

      There are some good releases each month. You just have to be lightening quick, have deep pockets and a sixth sense to find them at times!

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Avatar
        Andrew says:

        Hi Jason,

        I’m going to jump back in here.

        As I alluded to above, I’m a software tester – and cloud based testing at that. That has the usual side effect of making you much more sensitive to shite website design (pardon my French) and the SMWS website was terrible before the redesign, is still terrible after the redesign with some baffling design decisions and had has had a very wonky rollout (yes, I had a chuckle at it, I know I shouldn’t).

        My initial impression of the SMWS is that they’re corporate and slick, similar to Laithwaites in the wine world but I’m doubting that more now as so many aspects of the busy seem a bit amateur. I sent a feedback email after my first buying experience and got a terribly token lazy reply after a far too long a wait.

        Apologies for the rant as I know Malt is about the liquid but they do charge for membership so they need to back that up in my opinion. Hopefully I’ll get the chance to drop into the members rooms at some point in the nearish future and perhaps I’ll get better idea of what that membership cost is for.

        Speaking of the liquid, I’ll be trying my purchase tonight so I might be back full of praise next time. Many thinks for the recommendations btw, I’ll keep eyes open for some bottles of interest.

        1. Jason
          Jason says:

          Hi Andrew

          Welcome back and no apology needed. Malt is an open forum for all views, good or bad, if well communicated however old the article so what you think is a rant is a perfectly valid comment on your experiences to date.

          It is interesting that the new design doesn’t incorporate some forum, or comments feature, whether publicly, or for members eyes only. Even something as simple as a review feature for each bottle to aid other members would have been useful. I suppose, as you suggest, it is one in a series of bizarre design decisions.

          Funnily enough, this morning someone was speaking to me about their relaunch experience. An initial surprise by the bottle availability, spending a 4-figure sum and feeling good about their purchases. Only to be contacted by the SMWS 36 hours later to say the order wasn’t valid. Another member told me that they were offered a £5 voucher as an apology, which had expired, so it was rendered useless. Then, a widespread public apology a week later.

          Not a good week for the SMWS and they’ve not helped themselves either. It would be easy to bash them, but I’d rather be constructive. I do feel some sympathy for those on the front-line taking dealing with upset members. Although the reply you received didn’t display much empathy. Clearly, staff dealing with the public aren’t responsible for these decisions, which begs the question who is and why are things going wrong?

          For many years the haphazard administration of the SMWS was part of the experience. When I re-joined a few years ago, they sent out my membership letter and card, but hadn’t paid the postage. I had to go into town to pay a fine to collect the letter. I joked about things not changing then and you took it on the chin as part of the membership.

          As you rightly suggest in recent times, they are now targeting a more discerning clientele. You can see it from the branding, marketing and imagery. Unfortunately, the type of customer that will take their business elsewhere if the service they perceive as being premium or luxury isn’t forthcoming. They’ll need to address these issues and I hope a solid solution is found.

          If anyone from the SMWS wants to comment then they can do so, or we’d gladly set up another interview like the one we did in 2017. I think now is the time to show some empathy and try to rebuild their standing.

          Finally, good luck with the dram tonight and I’d always try a splash of water and leaving it in the glass to open up.

          Cheers, Jason.

          1. Avatar
            Lowlander says:

            “If anyone from the SMWS wants to comment then they can do so, or we’d gladly set up another interview like the one we did in 2017. I think now is the time to show some empathy and try to rebuild their standing.”

            If the SMWS do setup an interview, it would be great if you could allow the readers on this site to have an opportunity to give SMWS members a chance to explain their frustrations with the society over the last few years. And thus giving you a better idea of the kind of questions to ask the SMWS.

            Just my 2 pence: I’ve noticed the number of whiskies under the age of 10 years appears to exploded over the last few years and they are charging top dollar for them. If you try to buy anything over the age of 12 years you have to expect to pay a premium. I notice there’s a really large gap in the number of bottles aged 12-18 years. Are they sacrificing ageing bottles to pump out more bottles of younger expressions? Also what’s the deal with BLENDED malts? The whole idea of the SMWS is to promote single cask whisky is it not?

            Regarding the venues, if they could bring in little things like a complimentary dram on your birthday, bring back the complimentary tea and coffee and maybe most importantly, bringing back the mustard mayo with chips 🙂 Joking aside, the addition of the Kaleidoscope Bar at Queen Street just weakens the point of membership if you just want a dram. It means there’s less for members to go around too, who pay membership to access supposedly “exclusive” whisky.

            However I will give praise for the tasting events. I’m lucky enough to live in the Edinburgh area, so can get along to them and find them extremely good value for money (especially for the monthly out turns) This is probably the only reason why I still remain a member.

            At the end of the day I know they are a business, but I wish they would concentrate on spending their money on their core product (THE WHISKY!) rather than on needless website redesigns, new logos and branding and issuing new lapels (what’s the point of that?!)

            Apologies for turning this into a bit of a rant, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who has these frustrations. I really hope the SMWS do get in touch and give their side of the story.

          2. Jason
            Jason says:

            Hi Lowlander

            Thanks for commenting and it’s a sad day if a well-informed outline is viewed as a rant.

            The door is always open to the SMWS and anyone else here. At the time of writing, we haven’t heard anything from them whatsoever. Whether or not the opportunity arises, my plan was always to involve the members and any questions that they may have. As long as a question is relevant and not a rant, then it will be included, length permitting.

            Communication is a 2-way street. Sometimes it feels as if the SMWS don’t utilise that dynamic. You’re right, in that they are chasing a new generation and market with all this rebranding, but this shouldn’t come at the expense of the whisky or their existing members. Some of whom have been with them for a considerable period of time.

            I haven’t attended an Edinburgh event in some time now. Priorities and all that, including making this place tick over. However, when I did, I always found them an enjoyable night out. The best I can hope for nowadays is a couple of bottles being purchased and a quick raid at the bar.

            Cheers, Jason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *