SMWS May 2020 Outturn

From a bountiful month of whisky festivals, releases and whatnot, May has become a virtual, desolate tumbleweed environment. Thanks to that virus, everything and everyone has shut up shop and festivals have quite rightly been deferred until 2021, others hang in the balance. Quite a spanner in the works for everyone. For all the distilleries and independent bottlers, it is an unexpected issue that has effectively wiped clean the whisky calendar for the near future.

Festival releases are selected and bottled months in advance. Meaning that in theory, such releases will have to be repacked, put on ice, or deployed via a new novel scheme. For the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, we’ve reached their May outturn, which is normally a bountiful assortment of festival releases with fancy labels that sell like hotcakes. Peat is often on the agenda with Islay and Campbeltown receiving special treatment and 2020 will see a Highland festival bottling.

What’s been interesting is how each and every company has approached the virus issue. How they’ve responded to the demands of their customers and the welfare of their employees. Some have been very open and honest, others have closed and reopened with a new approach that caters for online trade and social distancing. Others don’t seem to have a direction. Some firms have been very quick and agile such as Dornoch distillery, who quickly started making hand sanitiser and released a guide as to where you nearest producer might be located. Then, the big companies, like giant oil tankers, have proved to be less nimble and accommodating.

Generally, I’ve felt that most businesses have been thankful of any business you put their way and many of us have made an effort to keep things local. I’ve had butchers, spirit merchants, farmers, restaurants and all sorts, at my door in recent weeks. They’ve rallied and there’s been a mutual appreciation on both sides, but regardless of what type of business, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society were the only ones to send out a message like this:

This was part of an email sent out on the 5th April, entitled A Message to all Members with Managing Director and Chief Member Champion, David Ridley providing the above outline. These times are full of difficult messages I’m sure, staff being furloughed, businesses going into administration and what awaits us all tomorrow. However, I just felt this was badly timed, insensitive and unnecessary. Perhaps it was just me? So, I reached out to several friends and others I know as existing members, who felt the very same, with one (a business owner himself) commenting it was an appalling fopar, everyone is struggling in one way or another FFS, and buying whisky membership ain’t a priority!

At least I wasn’t alone in my reaction and it just felt like another missed opportunity from the SMWS. One where commerciality took over, where a more considered approach would have been beneficial. As a forthcoming renewal myself, I felt a more common sense and respectful approach would have been to announce deferring all pending renewals for 3 months, or so. We’re helping you to get through this and we’d appreciate your support on the other end, when we all get through this. That would have been a far better message to communicate and extremely fair.

At least the email was tempered with the announcement that the SMWS had given £2500 to the Edinburgh Beer Factory, who were producing hand sanitiser for the Marie Curie Hospice and their workforce. An admirable gesture. Possibly not ideally placed beneath the above-quoted message, yet a sense of some balance. Even during these difficult times, the Society was doing the right thing.

The right thing? I felt that way, until a fellow member pointed out that one of the owners of the Edinburgh Beer Factory is John Dunsmore. A former Scottish & Newcastle boss, who also set up the HotHouse Club with his partner in 2013. The same investment house that acquired the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in April 2015.

My colleague felt there is arguably a conflict of interest here, or at least an issue of transparency in the email message, noting the 35th Anniversary event last year involved the Beer Factory and also another interest in Chapel Down wines. Personally, such news did take the gloss of such a gesture. That’s the reality of today’s ownership (and not the romantic Pip-era that ambassadors love to talk about), and possibly why the beers at the Edinburgh venues fail to take advantage of the varied local brewing scene.

On that disappointing note, I’m looking ahead to our May selection to showcase that 2020 is finally delivering as a member. Before we jump into May, I was kindly given a recent release by a neighbour. I always have time for Blair Athol, so lets start there before moving into the latest outturn.

SMWS 68.32 A Belgian Half and a Half – review

Distilled on 24th August 2007 and bottled at 12 years of age. Bottled at a robust 57.2% strength, this was fully matured in a Refill Ex-Bourbon Hogshead. The outturn of 283 bottles was available for £54.20.

Colour: a light haze.

On the nose: very spirity, vanilla, icing sugar, meringues, some cereal notes and lemon. Oily, caramel, toasted pine nuts and bashed mint leaf. Water unlocks a pine freshness and green apples.

In the mouth: more of that spirit hinting at a less than stellar active cask. A touch of smoke, more pine nuts, pineapple, sugary and used tea leaves. Some caramel, orange and sappy nature. Water here wasn’t beneficial, unlocking a bitterness and more wood-driven notes.

Score: 6/10

Continuing our COVID-19 approach to bringing you a monthly slice of independent SMWS option, we plucked a release from the May preview bottles. Ironically, the pick of the bunch, on paper at least, was from the distillery where it all started. This didn’t hang around for long, so we were fortunate to grab a bottle – underlining what we said last month in that sherry sells. Thankfully, the Glenfarclas is all sherry without any additional cask foreplay.

Unfortunately, this release was delayed due to some issues with the label for this particular bottling which needs attention from our production team. Thiss just one of those things during the COVID-19 era and reduced staffing levels. Credit where it is due, the SMWS gave those who ordered the bottle the option to wait, or receive a full refund. Regardless of your choice, those affected also received a £10 off your next order voucher – a thumbs up for this approach.

So, we’ll have to jump over 1.223 for now, but I’ve saved it a space for when it does turn up.

SMWS 1.223 Dessert Triptych: Mushroom Sorbet – review

Distilled on XXX and bottled at 10 years of age. Bottled at a robust 63.4% strength, this was fully matured in a Refill Oloroso butt. The outturn of 618 bottles was available for £65, with the preview allocation of circa 60 bottles selling out in under 10 minutes.


On the nose:

In the mouth:

Score: /10

The May outturn is pretty scant on paper with just 12 releases – because the festival releases were pulled for mid-month outturn. The average age of this outturn was a lowly 10.6 years, which is slightly up on the 10.2 of the previous outturn, but still, nothing to suggest this is the premium experience that the SMWS like to pitch.

Even so, age isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to whisky. Occasionally, you can strike gold after considerable effort and tenacity. A youthful 105 caught my attention, being Speyside’s greatest enigma. Given my appreciation of this distillery, the perfect opportunity to gauge whether a 2nd fill 7-year-old is up to the job. Then, Mark made our Patreon supporters pick and plumped for a dirty Glen Scotia.

SMWS 93.135 Olive Oil Whirlpools – Jason’s review

Distilled on 19th June 2007 and bottled at 12 years of age. Bottled at a palatable 56.9% strength, this was fully matured in a First Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel. The outturn of 203 bottles was available for £68, with the UK allocation of circa 68 bottles selling out within 30 minutes.

Colour: light gold.

On the nose: buttery salted popcorn, caramel and vanilla. Fresh pinewood, resinous, pretzels, milk chocolate and a nice oily nature. Cooking apples, coconut and fir trees. Water reveals wood spice, toffee, a touch of salt, honey, creamy and some smoke.

In the mouth: salty, vanilla, nougat, a chewy texture somewhat. Toffee, creamy white chocolate and water brings out cask char.

Score: 6/10

SMWS 93.135 Olive Oil Whirlpools – Mark’s review

Colour: yellow gold.

On the nose: absolutely reminds me of a Nikka Coffey Grain single cask I had years ago. What a weird flashback. Smells and memory, eh? Really nice sweet perfume to this, sandalwood, an intense vanilla ever-so-slightly enveloped in an industrial note. Strawberry jam, sponge cake. Heather honey. With time any sort of intense grain-inspired (yes, it’s malt, but you know that intense vanilla hit you get with grain) notes fade and it becomes rather dreamy.

In the mouth: hefty sweetness, and there’s more of the industrial note coming through than before: a slightly charred, sun-dried tomato note under the layer of heather honey. Vanilla, lots of that sure. Dark Chocolate Bounty bars. If I had a bone to pick, it would be that it’s a little less exciting than the nose. There’s a tightness of flavours that water doesn’t especially open up. Toffee apple, that fades quickly to reveal some underlying sage.

Score: 6/10

SMWS 105.27 Italian Fake! – review

Distilled on 1st May 2012 and bottled at 7 years of age. Bottled at a robust 63.7% strength, this was fully matured in a Second Fill Ex-Bourbon Barrel. The outturn of 205 bottles was available for £44.80.

Colour: a very light tan.

On the nose: lime zest, pencil shavings, sappy and green apples. Clean and well made but lacking definition. Dried reeds, pears, a little green pineapple, icing sugar and mint leaf. Water unlocks more mint freshness, fresh shortbread and vanilla cheesecake.

In the mouth: sugary sweet and very hot in places. More lime and green apples, pineapple and a touch of smoke. Adding water unlocks lemon, vanilla and white grapes. Very spirit-driven.

Score: 4/10

Jason’s Conclusions

Another mixed bag from our Society selection and as always we refer anyone new to our scoring guide.

The Glen Scotia is solid enough and if the palate matched the nose then we’d be looking at something very enjoyable. As it stands, the full potential has not been harnessed and I’ve had better 93’s from the Society in recent times. If you’re fan of this distillery and what an ex-bourbon cask can do, then you’ll be satisfied.

The Tormore began to lose its appeal fairly rapidly. The cask is somewhat to blame as is the decision to bottle this at a youthful age. Such are the flaws with the monthly outturn format: some gaps have to be filled and often with less than sterling whisky. It reminded me of a conversation I had years ago with an independent bottler, who lamented the decision from Chivas to change the filling strength at the distillery. This in their opinion changed the sweet spot of the whisky to a much later age. This cask being bottled at 63.7%, higher than what most distilleries bottle nowadays at (63.5%), as it is believed this is the most efficient strength to prompt that immediate interaction with the wood.

As our guest piece the other day highlighted, what does this have to do with Italy and fake? I’ve just learned to ignore such thespian flourishes from the Society and their art of selling. Scotland’s most mediocre bottler in the eyes of some, or just the variety of Scotch? Let’s see what June produces, and I still have high hopes for the Glenfarclas gap above.

Mark’s Conclusions

93.135 is a most peculiar specimen, and in a good way; though a bit of a sugary bomb. Some of you deviants might like that.

Please note any SMWS links are for your convenience only, as we don’t subscribe to their commission program.

CategoriesSingle Malt
  1. Watch says:

    A bit rich from SMWS asking for our renewals. Virus aside, the Society has redesigned twice in the three years I’ve been a member. If they’d stop with that nonsense, they might have been able to forgo asking us for money in the #timeofcorona

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Watch

      A valid statement and there needs to be a balance between the visual marketing end of the Society and the quality of the liquid. Perhaps it has become unbalanced in recent times? I’ve heard so many comments like your own about this in recent times.

      Cheers, Jason.

  2. Andrew says:

    Hi Jason,

    I persevere with the SMWS still (perhaps I’m a glutton for punishment?) and the purchases from this outturn were the biggest drama yet. Despite having selected 2 bottles, put them in the basket and paid for them, I received an email to tell me that the items were still in my basket but were now out of stock – would I like to select something else? I contacted the SMWS and was asked to forward my receipt for the payment so I could secure my bottles. It took another call and a couple of emails to get to point where I was told I had them and they would be dispatched.

    Sigh. But I digress.

    One of the bottles was in fact the Patreon selection above – Olive Oil Whirlpools. I’m not familiar with Glen Scotia so don’t know if it’s typical to the distillery profile but it’s enjoyable enough so far but then I need to spend a bit more time exploring it. I did notice that adding a drop of water changed the taste for the worse for me – bitterness, which I assuming is the cask char you mentioned? Interesting stuff but it didn’t blow my socks off. I’d agree very much with your score so far.

    The other bottle was a Spirit of Speyside bottle – Pure Decadence which I’d had a tiny drop of and initial impressions are similar to above – decent but not earth shaking.

    Ultimately, I’m still left not quite happy with the experience, especially the logistics of actually buying bottles – The Highland Whisky Festival bottling – Highly Entertaining! was released and sold out in a flash (I wasn’t trying to buy it but watching with interest) and the stock is currently sat at -1. This pretty much underlines that they have a long way to go in my book.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Andrew

      Glad you got there in the end with your order and they sorted it out to a satisfactory resolution. The Scotia is a good dram, so good to hear that you concur. Yes, the bitterness I’d take along the lines of that cask char element.

      From memory, on a previous email, the Society has indicated that the online ordering system has yet to be upgraded like the new front end. I suppose we can view that as a lapse in judgement now, as the topic of ordering seems to be a common bugbear from members. I’d want to make sure my revenue stream (the online ordering facility) was as robust and easy to use as possible. The venues being forced to close just creates more pressure online. I’ve still not really dug into the new website frontend, as it just seemed a jumbled presentation.

      Anyway, yes, you need to be quick with the festival releases. I didn’t even bother with the Highland as it just seemed like another Pulteney cask albeit with a colourful label. There will be another single cask along from that distillery in the coming months I’m sure. Likely just as good. What makes these festival releases special? Exceptional quality? Not really from my experience, but let’s see the others when they land.

      I’m hopeful that hidden gem is coming soon and our random picks will pay off.

      Cheers, Jason.

      1. Gav says:

        I have read and reread your reviews on the SMWS several times.
        There seems to be an underlying current of dare i say animosity here, i would love to give you some of those drams blind and see what your opinion would be…
        Being a proud member of the Society for several years and tasted hundreds and hundreds of bottles across all flavour profiles, both older releases of theirs from the 90s and also those of more recent times, very rarely has something been unpalatable and even if it has, 1. I revisit it and dont rely on my initial view, 2. I say to myself perhaps it is something i just ate or my mood and if that doesnt work i will accept that i dont like everything and will offer it to my mates to try and if they enjoy it, they can have the bottle, this is true for ALL bottlings and not only the SOCIETY.

        I must also comment on what you seemingly see as unfair membership fees at the moment, in my opinion and understanding the fees enable, besides the privileges and sense of belonging to a Society, they also keep the Society going and pay for things like postage and packing costs.
        If like me you order many bottles a month, do the maths and see what for example a £4.95 postage costs multiplied by even 1 bottle a month… that comes to the cost of a basic membership pack, and if you order more consider yourself in profit….

        In order for them to continue in the current situation everyone must continue or it will fold….

        I dont know how many bottles you buy and of what age but I suggest you try some of the older and dearer ones too if you have not done so, to give you a wider perspective of what the society has to offer as if all one is trying is younger and cheaper expressions then you dont get the full idea of what is on offer.
        I hope that you will take my points and understand where i come from!!!

        1. Jason says:

          Hi Gav

          Thanks for commenting, I’ve tasted plenty of Society bottles going back to the original labels and some of the .1’s that everyone seems to chase. I’ve got some older styles open in the house as well. So, I’m well informed on the Society front and what’s in the market generally.

          I’d hope you concur that recent outturns and several bottles have not been to the standard we’d hope to see? The average age I’ve quoted underlines that the age isn’t there right now and I’ve had that comment from several members. There is a danger that we place too much emphasis on age, the SMWS do portray a premium image. I’m more interested in the whisky itself, I had a 3 year old Dalmunach the other day and it was excellent, which underlines we shouldn’t be carried away by age but people have expectations perhaps of what an exclusive club should deliver.

          As I’m doing this monthly, there’s no animosity, just stating what the liquid is delivering, whether that’s blind or not. For instance, the Glen Scotia here is solid but nothing more, the Tormore is below average and again nothing more – noting a colleague scored it 2 on Sunday. The Auchroisk the other month wasn’t great and regardless of distillery, prior knowledge etc. My opinion wouldn’t change and I’m quite confident in that. I’m fortunate to spend a great deal of time and money on whisky, so appreciate the essence of value and what independents can provide. Currently, the Society needs to do more to justify a membership fee.

          As I’ve stated previously, I keep these things as balanced as possible. The email above was a misstep, but the £10 voucher for any Glenfarclas order was refreshing good and deserved to be highlighted. I can only state what’s in front of me (good, bad or misleading) and the hundreds of reviews I do, I’m quite happy to give a good score to a good whisky.

          I always revisit the whiskies over several days if not longer. That’s the advantage of having the bottles and the fill levels will confirm that. I don’t publish until I’m happy with my own notes. Personally, I’d rather pay postage than an annual fee, but that’s just my view.

          There are plenty of other businesses in the same situation, or even worse with no revenue coming in. As the quote within the article outlined, buying whisky isn’t top of the list for many out there, and I don’t think that’s an unreasonable viewpoint. We are all playing our roles, supporting who we can and from our coverage this year, you can see we’ve bought a decent amount from the SMWS, which hopefully helps them continue.

          Until next month perhaps?

          Cheers, Jason.

  3. stuart says:

    Hi Jason,
    As a member of the society for a number of years, I hear your beef with the fact that they have asked members to keep up with their renewal subscriptions but we all know or we all should know, that the only way that the society can keep their prices affordable and their quality bottles high is by the help of it’s members being apart of the inner group. I have “bought” and tasted 100’s of bottles over the last couple of years and I find that their quality of bottles is far superior to any other private bottler. Yes, we might find the odd cask that we do not like but overall it is a very small percentage. Being a member helps to keep their prices at an affordable level for top quality drams. Stop being such a whinge and stop all your criticism, obviously you have never had to make a business decision.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Stuart

      Thanks for commenting and it’s good to hear your experience is a positive one.

      I’ll disagree with your summary of ‘top quality drams’ based on the last year certainly, as it hasn’t delivered such examples. Nor is ‘being such a whinge’ realistic either. There is no need to butter something up when it’s not there. We’re all entitled to our opinion.

      And I have to make business decisions all the time in my professional career. But that’s beside the point. At least I can acknowledge reality and have a good perspective. Hopefully, June will deliver something memorable.

      Cheers, and enjoy those drams, Jason.

  4. The lowlander says:

    Just recieved an e-mail from the SMWS inviting me to take part in a ballot to purchase a bottle of 23.76 (a 28 year old Bunnahabhain). What is the point of that? Surely as a member the whole point is to avoid ballots that you get with a lot of online retailers and should be sold on a first come, first served basis.

    This might be the future of things to come for some of their more expensive whiskies.

    It almost feels like the SMWS are doing everything they can to alienate their legacy membership they’ve had for years to cater for the new members, who (without sounding rude about it) aren’t as well informed about whisky or what the SMWS was like previously before the 2015 takeover.

    The wording of the e-mail begging folk to renew their membership wasn’t great and perhaps reflects the way the current management look at the members.

    A bit of rant, but what else can really be said of the direction of the SMWS is going in?

    I will end on a positive and will say if you live within the area of the tasting rooms in Edinburgh, Glasgow or London, its probably still worth the renewal membership, especially if you go to a couple of tasting events, which can be really good value for money.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi Lowlander

      Don’t say it is a rant when for many members it is very accurate and delivered well. There has been a substantial change with the SMWS in recent times. I don’t think anyone would disagree with that. A more commercial approach and the pursuit of new members and not enough focus on retention or customer satisfaction.

      The inventory and finishing are partially to blame but I don’t think the management have helped themselves whatsoever. As you note, they’ve started to do more with soliciting feedback and trying to offer an extended experience online. All good. But reactionary rather than proactive.

      What I find odd, is that last week after the festival bottles we were told they didn’t have the ability to do a ballot, but this week we have a ballot for the Bruichladdich? Let’s look forward to the June outturn.

      Cheers, Jason.

  5. Jojo says:

    I was a member but didn’t renew because aside from bottles I feel are leftovers being dumped over here, the prices were way too expensive – not their fault but more of the tax structure – for what you get. That said, I’ve had some nice ones. But they never did make any visible effort to get SMWS “out there”, possibly thinking it can rely on word of mouth. But if you can’t get those bottles in the hands of members…And then there’s all this rebranding – twice now, which I felt was utterly unnecessary and is just-to-get-millenials-to-buy-their-bottles kinda vibe. In the final analysis, the value proposition is not there. At least for the Singapore market. In the Philippines, they’re quite cheap. Go figure.

    1. Jason says:

      Hi JoJo

      Themes that we can all relate to. The nice ones are certainly worth the digging. Just not everyone has the drive or financial clout to find the gems. The rebranding just underlines the lack of a long term strategy, but hopefully, they have got it right for a few years at least.

      Cheers, Jason.

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