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40th anniversary of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

Pip Hills, founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. (Photo: Mike Wilkinson)

HAVING BEEN dismissed by industry experts in 1983 as an idea that would never work, a whisky club started ‘for a lark’ by a maverick whisky enthusiast in Edinburgh is this year celebrating its 40th-anniversary and approaching 40,000 members around the world.

For four decades, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has specialised in releasing ‘whisky in its purest form’ – mainly single malt whiskies bottled from single casks that are not diluted with water, artificially coloured or chill-filtered to prevent it going cloudy when water or ice is added. 

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Now The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which has grown to include around 30 branches across the world including China, Australia and the USA, is marking this new milestone in its journey with a year-long series of special releases, events, collaborations and happenings, all inspired by its founder’s unorthodox outlook.  

Alongside commemorative bottles and special releases for the 40th year, the Society’s anniversary activities over the next 12 months include innovative creations such as a chilli-tinged whisky, collaborations with a ‘thrill engineer’ and a top-secret world-record attempt. 

The Society will also launch a new podcast series featuring maverick and game changing characters from around the world and assemble a first-ever female-only tasting panel to select future releases.

The worldwide whisky club was started in 1983 by then Edinburgh-based accountant Pip Hills. The idea came after he’d experienced an epiphany discovering that whisky drawn straight from a cask had much more flavour compared with that era’s choice of off-the-shelf whisky. 

His ingenious idea of forming a club in Edinburgh to share these ‘pure’ single cask whiskies with others and making whisky more fun by using wine-tasters’ terminology to describe flavours was a game-changer at a time when the Scotch industry was perceived as dull and in decline.

Four decades on, the whisky industry is booming – thanks in part to pioneers like Hills – while the Society is also thriving. Despite being told by industry experts that his idea of a whisky club would never work, the Society now has around 30 branches around the world, over 100 partner bars worldwide, has bottled whisky from over 180 different distilleries and has more than 37,000 members.  The club is part of the Artisanal Spirits Company plc group, known for creation and curation of outstanding limited edition whisky and artisanal sprits for premium drinks lovers around the world.  

The Society’s year of celebrations also include the release of a special short film about its origins which documents the whisky epiphany Hills experienced when he first sampled single cask whisky at an Aberdeenshire farm. Other plans involve the release of more sherry-cask matured whiskies, and new releases from distilleries the Society has never bottled from before.

Andrew Dane, CEO of Artisanal Spirts Company plc which owns the Society, said: “They say ‘mighty oaks from little acorns grow’ and that is true of the Society’s story. It’s incredible to think that a small gathering of pals sharing single cask whisky in Edinburgh has grown into this worldwide club.  It seems apt that in our 40th year, we are closing in on reaching 40,000 members, worldwide.”

“As we enter our fifth decade, we’re incredibly excited. Our Spirits Team is hard at work seeking out incredible casks and we continue to bring people together to explore the flavours of whisky and create new friendships. Our members and adventurous whisky fans looking to join the Society can expect to see a few surprises during our 40th anniversary year. Watch this space…”

Society founder Hills, said: “I started the whole thing for a lark. At the time, most of the Scotch whisky industry was very dull and most of the whisky wasn’t up to much. I had had no great liking for whisky, but when I first tried whisky drawn straight from a cask, it was an epiphany – this whisky tasted astonishing and quite unlike any whisky I’d drunk before. I shared some with my friends and they loved it too, so it seemed like a good idea to share it with more people. 

“When we started the Society and began to share the ‘secret’ of single cask whisky with others, there’s no doubt that we began to alter people’s attitudes, so that they came to see that behind the branded sameness of Scotch whisky there lay a world of variety and interest, as well as a drink that tasted a lot better than what they were used to. The great thing was that we had a lot of fun doing and people joined the Society in their thousands to share in the fun, as well as to get their hands on the whisky.”

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