A visit to the London branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society


Becoming an SMWS member was something that stood on my wishlist for quite a while. I was utterly intrigued by the bottle design, inspiring names and educational value of their Unfiltered magazine (although it suffers a bit from anorexia). At the beginning of February, I finally filled out the membership form.

A week later I received the confirmation and payment information. I agree the first year is quite expensive. After smacking a € 110 on the table, they'll send you an elegant box with a badge, a notebook, the bottle code list, 4 random 10cl samples and the latest Unfiltered magazine. And of course, your membership card that opens a few British (correction: one English and two Scottish) doors.

Monday, February 10

An early Valentines- and birthday gift came out of the blue. My girlfriend could not wait any longer to announce we would be going to London on Friday to celebrate my 30th birthday. My brain went into overdrive for a few seconds: buying shaving soaps at Truefitt & Hill, Geo. F. Trumper, Taylor of Old Bond Street and Dr Harris. Buying some whiskies at Berry Bros & Rudd and The Whisky Exchange/Vinopolis. And SMWS has a venue in London...Too much to plan, very few days to go.
Two emails with SMWS Benelux/Germany later, I had some kind of admission letter for Greville Street. Chances that I'd receive my actual membership card before Friday were very small. Better safe than sorry.

Friday, February 14

Fast forward to our departure day. At nine o'clock in the morning (one hour and a half prior to departure) someone rang at the door.
- “Gert Claus”
- “Ehm, yes?”
- “I've got a parcel for you, sir. Sign here please.” 
Again the brain matter in overdrive. Valentine's gift? Birthday gift? I glanced at my girlfriend, she looked as puzzled as me. Only one way to find out. Open it! Aha! The SMWS gift box with the membership card. I quickly put it in my pocket and off to London, we were.

The SMWS members box

Monday, February 17

On Monday we had some spare time to visit Greville Street. Some research learned me the address (The Bleeding Heart Yard) was featured in a few Charles Dickens novels.

source: beerintheevening.com
As an almost digital-native, I found a thumbnail picture of the front door. Via Google Street View I could identify the door belonging to a small house next to the Bleeding Heart Tavern. He who is well prepared has half won the battle, right? From our London studio, we only needed to take the underground from Kings Cross St. Pancras to Farringdon. 5 minutes later I had my magical green card ready to open the door.

Members only...

Greville Street 19 is rather small but cosy. A crackling fire, two large couches, a few tables and some comfortable chairs. We quickly picked our spot in the corner. But then picking a drink... A catalogue with telephone book allures was waiting for me. Some guy called Neo once said: "Choice. The problem is choice". Damn, he was right after all.

I decided to start with the Malt of the Month. A nine-year-old Benrinnes that went by the name "Intensely Tasty".

The tasting notes of the Society panel on bottling 37.67
A good example of whisky transformed by water – we didn’t know what to make of the nose – quite fruity (baked apple, fruit salad, watermelon, lemon curd, pear-drops) with an odd assortment of other aromas – Hawaiian pizza (pineapple, ham, pizza dough) pine forests and model kits.
With water, suddenly the sweetness was released – caramel wafers, honeycomb crunch ice-cream and vanilla fudge. The unreduced palate seemed sweet and sour – pineapple dusted with chilli and salt, peppery Cream Soda and a slightly metallic finish – but water settled it down to zesty key lime pie and biscuity flavours – intensely tasty. Named after Speyside’s biggest mountain.
Drinking tip: As an aperitif or to awaken the senses. 
Date Distilled: 17 June 2004
Colour: Fake gold
Age: 9 years years
Flavour : Juicy, oak & vanilla
Cask Type: First fill ex-bourbon barrel
Whisky Region: Speyside Spey

 Dram number two grabbed my attention with his name only: “An ‘Old Fashioned’ in a traditional barbershop”. If there was a whisky that could wrap up my birthday trip to London, it was this 26-year old Mortlach.

The tasting notes of the Society panel on bottling 76.103:
First impressions are slightly dusty and oily like in a traditional barbers shop; pre-shave oil, Old Spice aftershave, sandalwood hair wash, Brylcreem styling hair cream, and a well-used leather razor strop. Customers are offered, whilst waiting, salt and vinegar peanuts, a slice of Madeira cherry cake and an ‘Old Fashioned’ with an orange slice and a lemon twist. The taste offers wood smoke as well as fried bacon, Garibaldi biscuits and Chinese rice crackers. With water the nose has an intense sweet hickory smoke aroma next to singed orange peel. The taste is now like toasted coconut and dark chocolate infused with flavours of orange, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Drinking tip: Whilst waiting for your haircut
Date Distilled: 7 April 1987
Colour:Bronze  Age: 26 years years
Flavour :Spicy & sweet
Cask Type: Refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Whisky Region:Speyside Spey
I wanted to tame one last peaty beast to finish the evening. I picked a Caol Ila with the telling name "True love on a pebble beach".

 The tasting notes of the Society panel on bottling 53.201:
The nose inspired a picture – boy and girl – pebble beach, bonfire smoking – he cut his hand opening oysters – she applied bandages and iodine from first aid box; she was wearing powder puff and lavender perfume – he stole a honeyed kiss; then they spread a tarpaulin and enjoyed Lapsang souchong and sherbet straws watching the sunset. The palate was hot and intense – peppered mackerel in chilli sauce, crab with grapefruit, Edinburgh Rock, burning twigs, lobster shells, coal, soot, bandages, hot stones, smoke and liquorice – but with water, a wonderfully drinkable mix of hot-dogs, ash, carbolic and chilli chocolate from Islay’s largest distillery. 
Drinking tip: A wonderful bed time dram – to inspire sweet dreams  
Date Distilled: 29 August 1995
Colour:Bright moonlight on barley stubble
Age:18 years years
Flavour : Heavily peated
Cask Type: Refill ex-sherry butt
Whisky Region: Islay

I sampled three delicious whiskies in a cosy environment that stimulates inspiring conversations and some lovely company. Too bad it is a bit far from our small Belgian countryside hometown.

But Neo The Terrible One still had a role to play. I absolutely wanted to take one bottle home. “An ‘Old Fashioned’ in a traditional barbershop” had a small advantage, because of his name. But that Caol Ila was also damned good.

 Luckily there was a deus ex machina moment. "If you really want the other bottle, you can have one" said my lovely girlfriend. Problem solved: two priceless (matter of speaking) bottle for my collection and I was happy as a child.

Back home in Belgium, I noticed the bottlings for the U.K. aren't the same as those available in Belgium. So the bottles I brought home are truly unique. My ego was flattered again and I was even happier.

The loot after 5 days of London...