Being an emotional sort, in October 2011 I found myself overwhelmed with jealousy; jealousy aimed toward the good people of Alberta, of all things. Why would this happen? Well, the Canadian launch of the venerable Scotch Malt Whisky Society took place in Calgary that month, and due to Canada’s amazingly progressive and liberal alcohol laws (engage your sarcasm detectors please) the exclusive single-cask whiskies they deal in remained locked down to that fortunate province.
So what’s to get so excited about? The society was founded almost 30 years ago in 1983 as a new way to bring single-cask, cask-strength single malts (and the odd grain whisky) to its members. Bottled directly from the cask with no chill filtering and no colouring, the committee selects high-quality and often unusual examples of a distillery’s output. To avoid the preconceptions that arise from recognized brand names, they have a “secret” numbering scheme designed to allow the whiskies to be approached without the baggage you and I might have surrounding the distilleries. With time, you might be able to memorize the list, and if you’re anything like me you’ll quickly pick out favourite names and remember those, but I can attest to the fact that at least for a relative SMWS novice the approach works as intended. Each whisky is given a creative name and some whimsical tasting notes to convey the character and, to enhance the mystery, each is bottled in a very dark green glass bottle to disguise the colour and further discourage any pre-judgement. It’s all very cloak-and-dagger!
Now, more than twelve long months after the Alberta launch, some of the governmental red tape has been sliced through and the society finally officially launched here in BC in November. The sales outlet and partner for my local area is Edgemont Fine Wines, Spirits and Ales in Edgemont Village, North Vancouver; Victoria has their own at The Strath.
I love the idea of the society; I’ve been following them since their arrival in Canada, harassing them on Twitter and so on, so of course I made sure to attend their Vancouver launch event. I say Vancouver; that was what was printed on the tickets anyway, though I think the location was actually closer to Victoria! But I kid, the rather fancy Cecil Green Park House out at UBC was a classy place to hold the launch. It’s an impressive historic mansion house, built exactly 100 years ago in 1912, and a fitting space for the event.
Despite the inclement weather and the long drive from downtown, a good-sized crowd of enthusiasts were in attendance who were rewarded with no less than thirteen of the society’s bottlings, including an exclusive 125.56 which was never sold here in Canada. Yes, that’s one of the cunning code numbers given to each whisky – this example is from the 125th distillery bottled by the SMWS, and it’s the 56th cask chosen to date. I’ll let you research where that might be from, but it was light, fresh and delicious, one of my favourites of the night.
After some tasty appetizers, Rob and Kelly Carpenter who manage this Canadian outpost of the society gave us an introduction to the organization and the format of the evening. The twist was that some of the whiskies were to be tasted blind, with only the name provided, and we all had to make guesses at the distillery from a provided shortlist. This proved to be entertaining and highlighted the fact that these whiskies are often not typical of their distilleries – later in the evening when the answers were revealed, there was much ooh-ing and aah-ing over one or two in particular. I guessed only 3 out of 7 correctly which I think proves their point!
It’s not particularly easy to maintain one’s critical facilities over a tasting of 13 cask-strength whiskies, but there were a couple of stand-outs for me in the lineup. The Islay selection was particularly strong, with a very good showing from cask 3.188, “The Camping Trip”, a delicious sherried smokefest, and the somewhat off-puttingly-named “Student Party Aftermath” (127.26) which happily wasn’t nearly as unpleasant to deal with as its namesake.
My favourite though was cask 2.81, “Black Tea in a Greenhouse”, an incredibly intense 15-year-old sherry bomb. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn this was the very dram the term “sherry bomb” was invented for; reading back over my notes I got vanilla fudge, coffee-flavoured chocolates and sultanas on the nose; oranges, fruit trifle with custard, caramel and black bullets overwhelmed the mouth when drinking. At 59.9% ABV it’s unbelievably rich and deep, and I find I prefer it with a few drops of water, which tones down the alcoholic bite yet amps up the dates, raisins, crystallized fruit and toffee. The finish when it comes is as infinitely long as you might expect; the sudden fading silence after a building-leveling explosion, debris gently settling around you as you come back to your senses. If all of whisky was a movie, this dram is the big action scene!
Not everything was quite as memorable, of course; I found a particular nemesis in cask 63.27 aka “Jar-Jar Binks in Trouble Again”. I should have known that a whisky named after the absolute nadir of the execrable Star Wars prequels wasn’t a good idea and so it proved to be for my tastes. I also thought that one of the other sherried offerings (35.64) was afflicted with an unpleasant off-note, a metallic taste that I didn’t at all get along with. However the odd misstep just serves to highlight the quality of most of the rest of the offerings, and brings me to another thing I like very much about the SMWS – members can taste everything before they decide whether or not to lay down their money for it.
On the first Friday of every month, the local partner stores hold tastings where members and non-members can try out any of that month’s releases (or “outturn” in society jargon) for a fairly nominal fee. To me this is extremely important and it’s a huge selling point for the society. It’s an incredibly consumer-friendly practice that recognizes that however clever their descriptions, whisky must be tasted to form an opinion; as individuals we find value in different expressions. It also works for the society as it acts as the best possible advertisement for their offerings.
Since the launch event, I’ve tasted another 7 society whiskies (which were of an even higher standard than the initial lineup) and received my impressive membership kit, which further validates the membership fee and could be given an article all to itself, such is the quality and attention to detail. Clearly my enthusiasm hasn’t waned yet! So if you’re on the fence, head down to Edgemont Fine Wines (or The Strath, or Kensington Wine Market in Calgary) on the next First Friday and try out what’s releasing that month. I’m pretty sure you’ll like what you find.