Buying clubs like the Scotch Malt Whisky Society aren’t for everyone. Amateur whisky drinkers may not get the most out of a membership. It can be challenging to appreciate a unique cask or grapple with cask strength spirits in general if you don’t have at least a little experience with them. If you’re used to drinking blends at 40% abv, a malt whisky with a more focused character screaming in at 54% may seem like an unexpected kick to the face.
The price can be prohibitive for casual consumers, as well. Right now, it costs $260 after tax and shipping to join. The yearly renewal fees are around $70 before tax, too, which is $15 less than the least expensive bottle you can buy there. When I asked why they charge membership and renewal fees, the answer I received was “Because we are a private membership club and our whiskies are extremely limited in availability.” They certainly don’t beg for membership, and judging by the slim volume of samples I’ve tasted so far, they really don’t need to.
Fledgling competitors over at the Single Cask Nation use membership fees the way a CSA does; as a cash advance to purchase casks. While you get most of your money back in whisky immediately if you bought a full priced membership, they only run about 6 whiskies at a time and they don’t have the volume yet to add to their line-up more than once or twice a year. Compared to that, the half-dozen that the SMWS adds to their catalog twice a month seems like an extreme variety.
There are also a bunch of small indie bottlers, like the Exclusive Malts, A.D. Rattray, Master of Malt, or Blackadder, to name a few, available to consumers without a membership at all, though the marketing and information about those casks exists in varying degrees of completeness. Looking around at the state of these indie bottlers, it wouldn’t be a stretch to think the SMWS membership fees are really there to help weed out the uninitiated and qualify their members as active consumers of luxury goods.
It’s also possible that the SMWS uses the high cost of membership to encourage members to buy more whisky in order to get their money’s worth. Judging by the well thought out marketing and tasting notes, I wouldn’t rule out that possibility, either.
Nose: A little minerally at first sniff, with some small cask wood, like a cobblestone path through the forest. Patches of heather. Lots of honey, some Jordan almond. Dry grass brings me memories of trespassing on the chaparral hills around San Luis Obispo. Steamed edamame, slight musk and cleanly fermenting mash. A plate of cubed melon and a freshly opened pack of Marlboro Lights over an early summer breakfast round it out.
Palate: The palate is very congruent with the nose, with few additions. It’s cooling with a medium, coconut shaving finish that sticks with the tongue. The honey washes in followed by steamed edamame skins, heathery sweetness, artificial sweetener and Marlboro/melon breakfast. Traces of fennel seed and soppressata.
This 28 year old Linkwood aged very nicely in a refill hogshead. Hogshead usually means that the cask was rebuilt from ex-Bourbon barrel staves, into a slightly larger vessel. Usually, a barrel is about 53 gallons (200 liters) while a hogshead is 10 gallons larger (~240 liters). Refill hogsheads are nice for long term maturation and add a sweetness not polluted with excess spice or resiny notes.
Thanks to Gabrielle Shayne and the US branch of the SMWS for the sample!