The SMWS was officially syndicated in 1983 in Edinburgh, Scotland, after the founder had toured the distilleries of the Scottish Highlands a few years prior, and convinced a few friends to split the cost of a cask of Glenfarclas. These days the Society has over 26,000 members and has branches in 19 different countries, offers paid yearly subscriptions which enables the member to purchase Society bottlings, grants access to members-only rooms around the world (such as 'The Vaults' in Edinburgh), and to discounted tickets for Society tastings and events. Members also receive a 'starter pack' which includes three samples of bottlings, a notebook and membership card, and a subscription to the Society's quarterly magazine, 'Unfiltered'.
The Society was purchased by the Glenmorangie Company in 2004, who then sold it to private investors in 2015. Since then, a number of positive changes have taken place, one of which is the 'partner bar' program, which as of yesterday (13/08/16) has hit close to home, with the launch of Brisbane's SMWS partner bar in The Gresham in the CBD. Even without the partnership this is one outstanding whisky bar, with very reasonable pricing, great friendly and knowledgeable staff, and a great range including some very rare and unusual malt, rye and bourbon whiskies. With this partnership with the SMWS, The Gresham now has a diverse and very unique range of their bottlings available for purchase by the dram, so Society members (who receive a discount) and non-members alike can try the bottlings before buying or before joining up.
The SMWS bottles single cask, cask strength, naturally presented spirits only after they have passed through stringent blind tastings by a panel of 22 independent judges. While single malt Scotch is still the mainstay of the group, they have more recently also bottled casks of Cognac, Bourbon, single grain whisky and Japanese single malt. The bottlings are often matured in unusual casks, and aside from the very quirky titles and tasting notes on the labels, you'll find an age statement, cask information, number of bottles and the date the spirit was distilled.
You may also notice something missing from the labels: the distillery name! Instead you'll find the distillery's unique identifying number, and the Society's cask number from that distillery. For example, in this case the bottle code is 33.133, where '33' is the Society's code for Ardbeg distillery, and '133' denotes that this is the 133rd cask of Ardbeg the Society has released. The reason for this secrecy was originally contractual, where the distilleries did not want their name printed on the labels (and this is still the case with some companies), and it is also because the single cask bottling may not reflect the distillery's typical taste profile (which is a big benefit of independent bottlings). There is a way around this though: to find out which code corresponds to which distillery, just have a read of this list on The Whisky Portal website.
The back bar at The Gresham. So many whiskies, so little time!
Currently at The Gresham you'll find over a dozen SMWS bottlings to choose from, ranging from a 2-year old Bourbon, to a 10-year old Miltonduff matured in a white wine cask (named 'Burnt Spotted Dick'. Right...), to a 22-year old ex. Bourbon cask Glenfarclas, and plenty more, and there's still more to come! But you'd better hurry, because being single cask limited releases, once these bottles are gone, they're gone!
Which brings us to today's little beauty. Sorry to disappoint you so soon, but at the official launch of the partner bar program at The Gresham yesterday, this bottle lasted less than 6 hours. It's all gone! But I was lucky enough to get a small sample for the purposes of this review (I also bought a dram to try at the launch - and then a second!). I'm sure bar manager Ryan is going to try his utmost to procure a second bottle of this already very-rare beast, and other amazing releases, but in the meantime you're just going to have to live vicariously through me.
What we have here is an 8-year old Ardbeg, which has been fully-matured in a second-fill ex. Oloroso sherry butt. Cask number 33.133 had an 'out-turn' of 654 bottles, at a cask strength of 60.5%, and like all Society bottlings is non-chill filtered and naturally coloured. Fans of the distillery will recall that Uigeadail contains a portion of ex. Oloroso sherry-matured whisky, thought to comprise around 20% of the total volume, but that's about as close as us mere mortals can get to sherry-matured Ardbeg, as far as official bottlings go. Enter the SMWS to save the day, because this 100% sherry-matured Ardbeg is here to show us exactly how magical that can be!
SMWS 33.133 (Ardbeg), 8 years old, 60.5%. Islay, Scotland.
Single cask, matured in second-fill ex. Oloroso sherry butt. Distilled May 2007. Non-chill filtered, natural colour. 654 bottles worldwide, released early 2016.
Colour: Rusty red copper.
Nose: Lovely! Plenty of Ardbeggian notes straight away. Coastal with salty sea air, brine and warm sand. Rich stewed fruits in thick syrup. Bacon grease, milk chocolate, and soft dirty, ashy peat underneath.
Texture: Medium-weight, luscious. It's a beastie, but you'd never guess the age and strength.
Taste: Boom! Peaty and ashy, sweet and savoury. Thick caramel, dried fruit, black pepper, milk chocolate with smoked salt.
Finish: Medium-long length. Thick ashy smoke, fruity & slightly musty dry sherry, some vanilla & spicy oak, and soft, earthy peat.
Score: 4.5 out of 5.
Notes: Seriously, seriously good. Rich, sweet, savoury and peaty, and it's all working together. There's plenty going on, you could spend an entire evening nosing and savouring this beauty. There's a good balance of distillery character and cask influence as well, you'd pick it as an Ardbeg straight away, but with a different edge to it. This is what I dreamt 100% sherried Ardbeg would be, and it's from a second-fill cask!
I'd put it slightly above the 55% Dark Cove committee release OB, and well beyond the 46.5% version. Brilliant stuff. Hats off to the SMWS tasting panel, they really had a hit with this one! If only there were more of it. As great as this one is, I can't help but wonder why Ardbeg haven't released a 100% sherried expression themselves, it's really a missed opportunity if you ask me. As this independent bottling proves, it doesn't need to be old, it doesn't need to be first-fill, and it doesn't need any fancy marketing. And all of that should help keep the price down. And Ardbeg-heads (like myself) would be all over it. Pretty please!
So, while this outstanding SMWS bottling may be all gone, there are plenty of others on the bar at The Gresham to cut your teeth on. And when those are all gone, more will take their place! So get along and dive right in. If you're unsure of what you're looking at or looking for, ask the staff for a recommendation or just start at the left and work your way through. See you there!