Sooner or later as a whisky aficionado, you’ll encounter these strange green bottles with numbers and weird names – e.g. “17.29: Handbags And Popcorn”. You’ll eventually find out who bottles these: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The SMWS (and since I am in the US, I will be referring to the American branch, conveniently SMWSA) is an independent bottler that sells only to current members of the SMWS. Its bottles are single-cask releases, which means the supply is limited to a couple hundred bottles of any one expression. Additionally, they don’t filter or color their whiskies, so you’re getting the ultimate whisky-geek experience – an undiluted single-cask bottle.
What makes the SMWS unlike other bottlers, beyond the members-only policy, is the removal of all distillery names from packaging. Unless you’ve got a reference guide, past experience, or know your distillery trivia, you don’t know what distillery produced the whisky in your bottle. To use the above example, “Handbags and Popcorn”, the identifier is 17.29. That means it’s the 29th cask bottled from distillery 17. What’s distillery 17? Well, all we know is that it’s “Orkney’s lesser known distillery.”
Normal people would then refer to a guide to find out what distillery it’s from, which may influence their purchasing decision. Since I just finished reading a super whisky nerd book, I will save you the time and tell you that Handbags and Popcorn comes from Scapa distillery.
However, that takes some of the fun out of it. I think the truest reactions come from blind tastings and that remains one of the more fun ways to experience whisky – free from any sort of impression other than the drink itself. Short of being part of a whisky club which may conduct them (or having a willing but long-suffering family member aid you in the depths of your obsession), the SMWS provides one of the easiest ways to indulge in blind tasting, if you dare.
I’ll back up a second. I joined the SMWSA recently after seeing a string of fairly well-reviewed and generally interesting bottles. It’d been on my list for a while as something to try so I thought there was no better time than the present. Joining is a snap and takes only a few minutes online.
After a few days you’ll get your membership kit in two parts. First, you get a general info packet – your membership card (mostly useless to those in the US unless you want to tuck it in next to your expired Blockbuster Video card and your wallet-size fraternity membership certificate laminate and prove yourself a mega-nerd), a copy of the society magazine, and a few recent Outturn pamphlets. These pamphlets list the latest casks bottled that the Society has for sale, and publishes their tasting notes. Society tasting notes have a style all their own and it may be hard to develop a picture of the whisky described until your palate has matured a bit. It’s all packaged in a small folder.
The second package is the more fun one – four 100mL Society bottlings, a membership handbook (OK, maybe less exciting), a blank tasting notes book that also is a combination miniature bible and Russian phrasebook, and a lapel pin. God knows my lapels were shamefully unadorned prior to this – and who doesn’t enjoy that important feeling of belonging that only a lapel pin can offer?
But remember: this package has whisky. No lapel pin can bring that down.
My four samples were:
- 5.31 “Morning Has Broken”
- 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock”
- 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth”
- 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags”
The notes for these four will be posted at the end of this entry. I’d heard that Society bottlings could be variable, so this was my first litmus test. I was impressed that even the 23 year old bottle was still in the high 50% ABV territory. My impression (full notes below) was that these were all good bottles – one was aB+ (5.31, which I really liked a lot); the rest were all Bs.
I’ve since purchased a couple bottles which you will see reviewed here in the months ahead. As for now, I’m pretty impressed by the society’s offerings. The blind element lets you browse and buy what tickles your fancy based on descriptions, rather than determining which whisky is packaged in the most seaworthy container. My plan is to buy without knowledge of the distillery and not find out until after I’ve completed my tasting notes (as I did with this batch.)
SMWS 5.31 “Morning Has Broken” 11y 57% ABV
Nose: Fairly spirity; unsurprising at 57%. Nice, solid malty and cereal notes underpinning lighter notes that are slightly lemony and floral notes. Young fruit – a pear, maybe a granny smith apple in there too. Lightly honeyed. A bit of a sugary note that smells like sugar cookies or sugar icing.
Palate: Very strong malt presence that also has some cereal and bread with it. Ripe pears, golden delicious apples (and a whisper of Fuji apple), honey, lightly lemony. Nice heat on the palate, warming to a reasonable point but not overwhelming.
Finish: The malty note goes much more towards baked biscuits. The apple notes drop down in favor of pears; slightly honey and lemon notes continue. The heat subsides quickly and after a short while, golden delicious apples come up a bit again. Light wood influence at this point. A bit of cinnamon on the finish.
Comment: This has such a nice, full, rich body of malty notes that really ground it. The estery top is held completely in balance and while it’s warm it’s not overpowering. A great mix of malt and fruit.
SMWS 76.82 “Gunpowder Green and Lava Rock” 15y 56.7% ABV
Nose: Medium malty notes; a bit of green tea and some white wine. Very light white pepper, some hay and some honey. Water opens the nose up a bit but doesn’t bring much more.
Palate: Sweet initially and with a good malty presence; just a quick hint of toffee up front. Quite warm on the palate with pepper and cinnamon. A bit of hay and some damp cut grass. Wood and a slightly musty scent of old books. Rich and full mouthfeel. Strong texture – chewy. Extremely light fruit – a bit of apple; a bit of pear. Light oak influence throughout.
Finish: Pepper carries into the finish, with honey and grain beneath it. A little of the mustiness from the palate, some malt as well, and the oak continues. A hint of mint on the very far end of the finish accompanied by paraffin.
Comment: This is a pretty enjoyable, big, bold malt. Really full-bodied texture. The heat is strong but totally manageable. That said, there’s nothing very distinctive about this that would make me want to own a full bottle – it’s somewhat anonymous. Ultimately though, there’s nothing here keeping me away from future Mortlachs.
SMWS 29.99 “Power and Scorched Earth” 20y 59.6% ABV
Nose: Strong sherry influence initially, with a bit of toffee behind it, absolutely dominating a faint wisp of peatiness. Very slight medicinal notes, a hint of band-aids. A suggestion of lemon and honey, a touch of white pepper and the faint scent of biscuits baking. Faintly ashy.
Palate: Quite massive sherry note to this one, very syrupy mouthfeel. Heat builds slowly. Lightly medicinal and slightly rubbery. A little waxy fruit note early on. A little toffee and some extremely, extremely faint malt. Slightly raisiny.
Finish: Plenty of heat, drying slightly but still showing a very strong sherry influence. Slightly rubbery; slightly medicinal. Medium waxy apple skins emerge on the finish and a small bit of smoke. Extremely long lasting finish with a strong sherry texture to it.
Comment: I could hardly fathom Laphroaig being overpowered, but here it is. This malt is good enough, but the sherry is so ridiculously overpowering that it’s just over the line into unbalanced.
SMWS 77.25 “Mouth Numbing Handbags” 23y 57.2% ABV
Nose: Nice, a little spirity at first but it’s also slightly floral – almost like a rye at first versus the usual more-flowery floral notes you get in many Scotch whiskies. Substantial white pepper, a bit of toffee. Lightly leathery, slightly grassy. The rye notes fade down after a couple minutes and vanilla comes up.
Palate: Malty upfront, with nice white pepper. A bit leathery again but not overpowering. Slightly salty, reasonable wood influence. A bit of hay, slightly musty. A little apple tart note – nice integration of the fruit and grain notes. Some pear along there with it, but again more as a tart.
Finish: The apple and pear notes come to the fore immediately with malt and slightly old, dusty wood behind them that’s never bitter. Sits nicely on the tongue. A bit hot – cinnamon instead of white pepper.
Comment: Unusually bourbon-influenced nose, but really nice all the way through. Good mix of elements.
Distillery: Glen Ord