SMWS Review

Joined: October 2015

I’m writing this review of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) 8 months after joining the society. Initially I thought this dedicated page to the SMWS would be complimentary, especially having decided it was worth £130 to join in the first place (which I didn’t do lightly). Unfortunately my view of the society changed after a trip to Edinburgh in July 2016 when I attempted to visit their society buildings, one in the city centre and one in the Leith area. To say it was a disappointment would be an understatement, and it wasn’t just the constant rain that dampened my spirits.

For a whisky investor the SMWS isn’t a good choice. Although there are some SMWS bottlings that make a reasonable return they are few and far between and sell out almost instantly they become available. With only 150 to 250 bottles in most releases, buying an Ardbeg or a closed distillery requires lightening-fast online purchasing skills. For several months before I joined the SMWS I looked at bottles selling at auction compared to their original purchase price and often they sold for the same or slightly less.

As a collector the SMWS is a bit more interesting, especially now that the bottles are more aesthetically pleasing than they were. The SMWS don’t do NAS (non-age statement), which means you know the age of every bottle. This means you can collect bottles distilled in a particular year or of a specific age. Every bottle is cask strength, which isn’t always easy to find direct from a distillery or from other independent bottlers.

The SMWS is designed more for the whisky drinker, and this is where it scores highly against its competition. I’ve yet to taste a bad, or even average bottling by the SMWS and reviews of their output are usually very good to excellent. But, even before my bad experience in Edinburgh, I feel the SMWS don’t offer good value for money. The bottle prices for members are average to high compared to other independent bottlers who don’t require an initial outlay of £130 to join.

I’ve been to Edinburgh many times so my trip this year was specifically to visit the SMWS buildings, not to see the sights. I’d brought my brother as a guest and we made our way along Queens Street in the rain to discover that the city centre branch of the SMWS was closed for refurbishment. I hadn’t received an email about it and it’s not mentioned on the society’s Home page where I would have spotted it before committing to the trip.

Disappointed, my brother and I made our way to Leith, the harbour area of Edinburgh, to the original SMWS building where it all started in the early 1980s. The staff there were setting up the main members’ room for an evening tasting so we were shuffled off to the ‘cask room’ to have our dram. To say we were treated like an inconvenience would be an understatement. I don’t often use Scottish words on my blog but the Leith staff were dour in the extreme. I can’t remember the last time I felt less welcome. My brother and I tried to savour our drinks but the urge to leave was strong so within 20 minutes we were gone. At least I got asked into the members’ room to pay, which showed what a marvellous room it was. It also revealed that they could have hosted us in there for our brief visit with little interruption to their setting up. Clearly they couldn’t be bothered, which begs the question “why pay £130 to be a club member when you get treated like that?”

Summary

When I first planned this page of my website after joining the SMWS I had visions of several photos of the society buildings from my visits and ultimately being quite complementary of this illustrious independent bottler. But my initial view was faltering even before my Edinburgh experience. The society isn’t for everyone and with hindsight I should have bought a few SMWS bottles at auction rather than spending £130 to become a member. I’m sure lots of members never visit the society’s premises but to me part of the allure was the added value of visiting a ‘members only’ club. Therefore to travel 100s of miles at great cost to find one place closed (without proper notice to members) and another full of surly and unwelcoming staff (that members pay for) is unforgivable.

On a positive side I wont be wasting my time going to the London branch of the SMWS or renewing my membership for another year.

Here’s my video of the SMWS Cask Room in Leith:

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