By Jim Brucker, Special to Tribune Newspapers
March 17, 2013
In a smoke-filled room, somewhere in the heart of Edinburgh, a society of Scotch whisky connoisseurs has sampled its way through a vast array of tiny little bottles. They nose, taste and imbibe for hours until, relying on decades of communal expertise — tweaked by a buzz — they agree on the perfect name for the perfect cask: "Pudding in a glass."
That pudding will be bottled and offered to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (smws.com), a 25,000-member worldwide club that specializes in unique single-barrel, cask-strength whisky from practically every distillery in Scotland.
Location-based whisky clubs and societies have been on the rise. These organizations, from retailer-supported groups such as the Loch and Key Society in Massachusetts to independent clubs like the L.A. Whiskey Society, typically involve group samplings of common and rare off-the-shelf consumer spirits. The SMWS goes far beyond this.
"I think we're the only private membership club that bottles whisky under our own label, then makes it available to our members," says Alan Shayne, founder and president of the 4,000-member North American branch of the SMWS.
Every three weeks, the Society offers its members the option of purchasing four to five new whiskies. Focusing on taste, distilleries are referenced only by code, with enigmatic bottle titles such as "Kerosene delight" and "Rabbit, ginger, and treacle tart."
The "Rabbit" (cask-coded 71.34) is the real stuff, though, and includes notes of pear and rubber, mixing savory, mineral elements with a thread of sweet sherry. The Society notes are entertainingly absurd, from the "fried seaweed" of a sherry-cask Ardbeg to a young Highland Park's "Lily of the Valley talcum powder."
For 20 years, the only way nonmembers in the U.S. could try SMWS expressions was at The Single Malt and Scotch Whisky Extravaganza, Shayne's precursor to national tasting events such as WhiskyFest. Until now.
The SMWS "Society Spot" launched in early 2013 at three prominent whisky bars across the country: Chicago's Drumbar (with a second Chicago destination opening later this year at Delilah's), Seattle's El Gaucho and the renowned Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington. While full bottles are only available to SMWS members via mail order, anyone can enjoy "pudding in a glass" or other unique drams at a Society Spot.
"It's a very egalitarian community," says Shayne. "We may be exclusive, but we're not exclusionary."
A Scotch Malt Whisky Society of America membership is $229, with a subsequent annual renewal of $60. The membership kit includes four 100 milliliter bottles of single malt, single-cask Scotch whisky, each from a different region, and a subscription to the SMWS magazine, "Unfiltered." And, of course, access to some of the most unique whisky in the world.
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