The Scotch Malt Whisky Society presents….Exotic Cargo

Members or watchers of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society may recently have heard about one of the Society’s latest projects:  The release of a blended malt.  No, not a blend….a blended malt.   (And if that subtle distinction in terminology still confuses you, you are welcome to write to the Scotch Whisky Association and let them know your thoughts on the matter.  Good luck.)

If there’s one thing you can’t accuse the Society of doing in recent times, it’s standing still.   Clubs, societies, bottlers, and brands need to continually evolve and change with the times, and the Society has been particularly pro-active in expanding its list of bottlings and the benefits that membership bestows on its members.

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Fets Whisky Kitchen

One of the greatest and most appealing aspects of being a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the Members’ Rooms in the UK.  With two venues in Edinburgh and one in London, the Members’ Rooms are both havens and heaven.  They’re the whisky equivalent of entering one of the First Class airline lounges at an airport:  Cosy lounges, brilliant food, a comfy fire during winter, knowledgeable and friendly staff, meeting facilities, and – of course – a sensational whisky bar.  New and old SMWS whiskies adorn the shelves and they’re great venues to try the latest releases first without necessarily having to buy a whole bottle for yourself.

Of course, whilst that sounds great on paper, the reality is that for members who don’t live near either Edinburgh or London – and particularly for members who live in other countries (not to mention other continents!) – a visit to one of the Members’ Rooms isn’t exactly a stroll around the corner.

The Society started to address this many years ago with the introduction of “Partner Bars”.  These were existing third party venues, initially the bars inside high-end hotels, but over the years they’ve branched out to include some very formidable whisky bars, dive bars, restaurants and pubs.   Quite simply, the Partner Bars are venues that stock SMWS bottlings which can then be purchased over the bar by the dram.  No, you don’t have to be a Society member to be able to buy a dram but, depending on which country/venue you’re in, many Partner Bars offer the drams at discounted prices for Society members.  (You simply need to flash your Membership Card).

Fets Whisky Kitchen in Vancouver, Canada, is arguably the most well-stocked and extensive whisky bar in Canada.  And whilst whisky-loving folks will obviously focus on the bar, Fets is actually a mighty good restaurant, serving absolutely delicious food.  Operating for over 30 years now, the venue is located just outside and east of the CBD.  The food menu is “southern inspired” and the whisky menu is…well, it’s huge.   The whisky range expanded further in October 2013 when the venue became an SMWS Partner Bar.  There are over 800 different whiskies available by the dram, including an unbelievable 180 different SMWS single cask bottlings!  And for those whose whisk(e)y flavour preferences sit outside Scotland, there is also a huge range of American whiskies (over four pages’ worth of bourbons, ryes, and craft whiskies on the menu), plus impressive selections from Canada, Japan, Ireland, India, Australia, and more.  The bar is also home and host to a large number of whisky tastings, events and product launches that are held throughout the year.

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The Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship, 2016

The Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship is a bit like the internet.  It’s something you might think is a relatively “new” thing, when the reality is that it’s been around for decades longer than you gave it credit for.

In actual fact, the Australian Malt Whisky Tasting Championship has been around since 1989!  As the name suggests, it is a tasting competition, and had its origins in Adelaide, South Australia.  The competition’s principal format and structure has remained largely unchanged over the years: Competitors are presented with eight whiskies pre-poured before them, and supplied with a list of nine possible whiskies – in other words, the eight whiskies that are on the table, plus one red herring.   Competitors are then given 30 minutes to identify which whisky is which and to write their answers on the answer sheet.  Of course, having a list with all of the possible contenders in front of you makes the exercise seem a little easier, but the challenge is also in establishing which whisky of the nine on the list is not on the table!

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An audience with David Stewart & Balvenie

If you’re an employer or in charge of Human Resources, you’ll be aware of the dynamic and shifting nature of your workforce in recent years.  Being Generation X myself, it was drummed into me that you should show loyalty to your employer and stick around.  We were constantly told by the Baby Boomer generation above us that “your CV will look more impressive and you’ll be rewarded if you’ve demonstrated that you stay at the one place for five to ten years.”

This is in stark contrast to the Gen Y and Millenial approach, where the thinking seems to be that a CV littered with multiple positions and experience gained across a many different roles and jobs is the more attractive pursuit.

So with that as context, what do we make of an employee who sticks with his boss for 54 years?  What do we make of a role and a career that has outlasted many people’s lives, let alone most people’s professional undertakings?  Such is the story and the appeal of Mr David Stewart.

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The art of matching food to whisky

SMWS Whisky Dinner

with Franz Scheurer and LuMi Bar & Dining

When the Scotch Malt Whisky Society launched and commenced operation in Australia back in 2002, one of the earliest and most staple activities was a healthy program of whisky dinners.   The tradition has never died and, here in Sydney at least, the Society continues to hold at least two significant whisky dinners each year for its members. When it comes to matters culinary, if you’re going to promote something as being uniquely special, delivering excellence, and showcasing “the best”, then you need to work with the best. For this reason, wherever possible, the Society chooses to team up with Franz Scheurer – the maestro of matching food to whisky.

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Port Ellen and dram envy

All whisky drinkers are on a journey.  You may be just starting out and discovering the world of whisky via some casual drams of Johnnie Walker, or you may be an über-enthusiast who doesn’t get out of bed for anything less than a Macallan 50yo.

I’d been giving this some thought lately, as I’ve seen and read a bit of chatter on various whisky forums and discussion groups that hinted at there being some sort of series of conquests or achievements that you’re supposed to tick off as you continue your whisky journey.   It’s almost as though you’re expected to graduate from blends; transition across to mass-produced single malts; upgrade to limited edition releases; stop by Islay to collect your Peat Badge; gain a promotion to take on cask-strength whiskies; and then make the leap into the industry as either a brand ambassador, a blogger, or set up your own distillery!

Of course, I don’t support or endorse such an observation for a moment, but I can’t deny that there does seem to exist some unwritten, barely-whispered gates or “checkpoints” that some folks feel you need to pass through if you want to assert or display a heightened sense of creditability as a whisky drinker.  And by “checkpoints”, I mean drams.  In other words, there are some whiskies you probably need to have tasted and conquered if you want to demonstrate you’re taking this caper seriously.  And it seems like one of those whiskies is Port Ellen.

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Springbank – The enigma of Campbeltown

For most whisky drinkers – dare I say, enthusiasts – distilleries fall into one of three categories:  There is the “well known” category, where names like Glenmorangie, Lagavulin, Macallan, Glenfarclas, Talisker, etc all reside.  Their whiskies are widely available; the brands are well known; they have visitor centres; and chances are, you may already have set foot in their stillhouse.

At the other end of the scale, you have the “unknown” category.  These are the distilleries that don’t have any official releases; the ones that don’t have visitor centres and are closed to the public.  Their spirit goes straight into the blends and you’ll struggle to find any detailed information about them.  Most readers may not even have heard of them!  I refer to the likes of Allt-a’Bhainne, Miltonduff, Inchgower, and so on.

The third category is the more interesting one, and I’ll tag it with the label “enigmatic”.  And surely, there is no more enigmatic distillery than Springbank.  Independent, family owned, a Campbeltown distillery no less, its whiskies are hard to come by; the releases are few and far between; and yet – and it’s a big yet – hardcore whisky lovers adore it.  Fans speak of Springbank with a reverence and dedication reserved for very few distilleries, and for those who’ve not discovered the distillery or been enchanted by its spirit, it’s all a bit of a mystery.

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The Ultimate Glenfarclas Tasting

Back in 2007, a very special whisky event was held in Sydney, Australia.  Held at Sydney’s iconic Claude’s restaurant, it was billed as “The Ultimate Ardbeg Dinner” and it featured an unbelievable line up of the rarest Ardbeg bottlings ever assembled, including the 1965.  That particular event had been preceded a year earlier by an incredible Macallan tasting (featuring the full ESC range, as well as rare bottlings from the 1980’s). And, only a short time prior to that, there was the unbelievable Springbank tasting, which featured the entire Millennium range of Springbanks.  These were the glory days of tasting and appreciating the uber rare, special, and expensive releases amongst Scotland’s elite single malt bottlings and distilleries.  In terms of the rarity of the whiskies at the Ultimate Ardbeg Dinner, many thought such an event could never be equalled.  We may finally have found a successor…

In 2015, it was time for what I’m personally labelling The Ultimate Glenfarclas Tasting – in this instance, the most incredible line-up of rare and special Glenfarclas whiskies ever assembled and tasted in Australia.  (If a more impressive tasting line-up has been held outside Australia, I’d love to hear about it).

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How wood you like that?

A few years ago, I was privileged to attend the launch of a new, premium expression of Glenmorangie.  Appropriately named “Pride”, it was a very limited bottling of a special and unique whisky.  The spirit was distilled in 1981 and initially spent 18 years maturing in Glenmorangie’s best ex-bourbon casks.  In 1999, the whisky was then transferred into some Sauternes barriques sourced from Château d’Yquem, where it then spent a further 10 years of extra-maturation (or finishing, in the old parlance).

The result, not surprisingly, was incredible.  Three compounding factors are at play here:  It begins with Glenmorangie’s famed light, fragrant, and complex spirit (malt, citrus, and spice), which is then framed and shaped by the bourbon casks.  (Vanilla, oak, and sweetness now enter the equation).  And, finally, you then have the influence of the sauternes casks, which inject exotic, dessert-like undertones, sweet fruits, spice and more toasty oak.   A mere three bottles originally found their way to Australia, and took pride of place at three very lucky bars for sale by the dram.   A new incarnation of Pride (vintage 1978) was released last July and if you can score yourself a wee dram, it’s worth hunting down.  (The price of an entire bottle is sadly beyond the means of most of us.  And if you’d like to explore that theme a little further, read this article here).

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SMWS Jim McEwan & Bruichladdich Masterclass

On 1st October, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (Australia) held a very special SMWS / Bruichladdich / Jim McEwan masterclass.

 

It’s hard to write an objective, even a subjective review of a tasting event when you were one of the co-hosts and facilitators of the event.  However, this was a fantastic evening, with so much whisky love in the air, and so one can’t help but give some account of the evening.  So forgive me if it comes across as a little biased…..

 

Jim McEwan, industry legend, is currently on a promotional tour across Australia to share the Bruichladdich story with whisky drinkers.  Trade and open-to-the-public tastings have been organised in most of the capital cities, and the Australian distributor, South Trade, has got Jim on an incredibly busy schedule, with up to three or four events each day for the next two weeks.  And Jim wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia LOVES to team up with distributors, distilleries, and “the big brands” where and when possible, and the planning was set in motion early to ensure we could deliver a corker of a night.

 

90-odd people squeezed into the Royal Automobile Club in Sydney, and were handed a gin & tonic on arrival.  Not your typical way to start a whisky tasting, but with the gin being The Botanist, distilled at Bruichladdich, it set the tone of the evening nicely.  Yours truly took care of the welcomes and introduction, before handing the reins over to Jim.  And from that point, the earth stood still for a few hours.

 

One of the things I love about Jim (having met with him and seen him in action many times over the last 10 years) is that he tells not just the story of the whisky, but of the people and the community who make it.  And so our audience this evening got not just a glimpse of Jim and his curriculum vitae, but also the people behind the scenes who live and breathe Bruichladdich each day:  The farmers, the Visitor Centre staff, the mashmen, the brewers, the distillers, the warehousemen, the people in the bottling hall, and even the young lady who inserts the promo brochure into the bottle tins.

 

The man has an incredible sense of humour and entertains his audiences with every word.  So much so, that it was almost possible to overlook the amazing whiskies that were poured before us.  Until you nosed and tasted them.  All the whiskies on the table were fantastic:  No caramel, no chillfiltration, this was REAL whisky and each one of them pushed my buttons.  If I’d been handing out scores on the night, they would all have been high – there were no duds in this line up.

 

It wouldn’t be an SMWS event without an SMWS whisky, and so we squeezed one into the line up.  The whisky menu on the night was as follows:

 

  1. The Classic Laddie Scottish Barley
  2. Islay Barley 2006
  3. Black Art
  4. Port Charlotte Scottish Barley
  5. Port Charlotte 10yo
  6. SMWS 127.39 11yo PC single cask from a Refill Sherry Butt at 66.7% ABV
  7. Octomore 6.1

And it didn’t stop there. Jim said some very kind words about the Society and what we’ve done locally in Australia to promote both Bruichladdich and the single malt category in general. In recognition of this, he elected to unveil – for the first time anywhere – a new expression of Octomore.

And so, with much fanfare, an eighth whisky was brought out for the night.  Roughly 5.5 years old, and matured in virgin French oak, this was a sublime whisky moment both in its sentiment and on the palate, and – I won’t lie – it brought a tear to my eye.  Jim pressed home the point that we were the first people in the world to taste this, and we were humbled and honoured. And, all sentiment aside, I have to say it was an incredibly tasty, flavoursome, and beautifully balanced whisky.  Was it my top scoring dram of the night?

 

 

 

 

Yes.

 

 

 

Thank you, Jim.

 

 

The evening concluded with Jim’s legendary traditional Highland toast, and those who were brave enough stood up on the chairs and placed one foot on the table for the delivery. I’d done this toast with Jim several times before, but on this particular evening, I couldn’t help but give it considerably more gusto!

Jim retreated to one side of the room and made himself available to sign bottles (everything that was up for tasting could be purchased there and then on the night) and to answer questions and pose for photographs.I’ve deliberately not gone into long-winded tasting notes for the whiskies. Other well-known and well-subscribed whisky bloggers were present on the night, and they’ll no doubt do the whiskies justice in their respective write-ups. (That’s a hint Matt, Jonathan, & Hendy). For me, the night was simply about spending time with a good friend, a whisky comrade, and to marvel at the passion, charisma, and skill he brings to the game.

Slainte, Jim.  

The Society is doing two other similar events with Jim on this visit in Brisbane & Melbourne respectively.

Thanks go to Gee, Eddie, & Tony at South Trade for teaming up with us and for collaborating to put on such a good show. Feedback from SMWS members on the night and in many, many emails we received the following morning testify as to just how good a night this was.