What a treat Great Drams has for you today. A world whisky exclusive interview with the Chair of the SMWS Tasting Panel. That’s right, under the condition of anonymity, the mysterious Scotch Malt Whisky Society has granted an interview with the chair of the Tasting Panel for the very first time.
Ever since the idea for what would become the Great Drams website was casually scribbled on a Post-It note, the site’s ethos has been to try to look at whisky through the eyes of both enthusiasts and those who don’t drink whisky. To do this we are looking at all kinds of different perspectives that, together, will create a rich and compelling whisky blog that stands out from the crowd.
One of those perspectives is to understand and explain the way in which whiskies communicate and differentiate their products by exploring the excitement, mystery, intrigue and emotion behind whisky.
My motivation to speak with the SMWS Tasting Panel about this was fuelled by how I consume their products; when I read each name and tasting note then sip the precious liquid I conjure an image in my mind fuelled by the name as to what I’m experiencing so I really wanted to get under the skin of how the Panel decides on names, what their process is and what goes into agreeing tasting notes.
The market is flooded with mysterious names, largely by the so called ‘big boys’ needing to release NAS (No Age Statement) whiskies in order to keep demand high by blending young and old casks to mitigate the the more aged single malts effectively drying up as global demand increases.
Another set of mysterious names also exist
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) are big boys in their own right;
- Over 30 years old
- 26,000 members worldwide, 16,000 of those based in the UK
- A presence in 19 countries
- Owned by Glenmorangie (but run completely independently from their involvement)
- The largest bottler of single cask single malt in the world
- One of the largest private collections of single cask whiskies in the world
- A brand that feels so slick and so ‘right’ that it exudes premiumness, quality and exclusivity
But how did they get this kudos and what makes the Society special?
Pretty simple actually – by having a self-governed SMWS Tasting Panel, the Society can embody diversity and independence of thought, diversity of activity and a commitment to whisky exploration.
The Chair explains this:
Historically the Society has had a panel right from the beginning. A group of friends who were in the business of buying casks and sharing them originally set the Society up, then the membership naturally grew over the years. This group of people were going to distilleries to buy the casks but needed a fair way to assess the sample so they set the Panel up to provide fair assessments of what they were tasting.
In fact, there is no reason why it needed to continue once membership was introduced but each time the question has been raised as to whether the Tasting Panel should remain as it is, it has been decided that it allows for a fairness not really seen in other whiskies. As a collective, they are able to iron out the quirks and unique views of one person i.e. if one of them in the Tasting Panel does not like sherry cask whiskies, their prejudice will be smoothed out by the other people weighing in.
When probed further about how they go about their business I was given some fascinating insight…
[We] meet about two or three times a week, normally have five or six panel members assessing seven whiskies in each sitting. The purpose of the panel is to assess the whiskies and to decide if they are good enough for the membership or not. We act on behalf of the interests of the members and the society which brings an important layer of independence and objectivity to the process and to what makes us unique.
Knowing they are owned by Glenmorangie I gently probed around whether or not brands or price came into their decisions at all…
Questions of brand favouritism and cask price does not come into it, we don’t know the costs of each we try beforehand so if the cheaper is better it will be accepted, if the expensive one is better, that will be accepted – our reason for being is to select the best possible product for our members. Other company’s buyers can be under obligation to choose cost effective whiskies, but we are not.
We are under no pressure or obligation to choose any whiskies, be it from our parent owner or not. We have the utmost authority on what is accepted which adds to our credibility.
The Chairs are all independent people, not associated with brands or distilleries. Two of the chairs are published whisky authors, one had a long career in the whisky business so they have the credibility but are definitely independent.
So how do they go about deciding on the rather outlandish names and varied styles of tasting notes? The Tasting Panel of six or seven people convene, there are many members of the panel but they rotate in and out like the Chair does so that nothing ever gets stale or formulaic.
The key thing here is that one person can do so much, Jim Murray is a testament to this but we find that for both our product and our members you get a better result from a brainstorm than just one person writing each one every time as things can get a but tiresome.
If I had to sit down for half an hour to assess a sample it would be a bit thin on descriptors and metaphors so with people in the know getting together we get a wealth of ideas. The Chair makes sure conversations are conducted professionally, where commonalities in descriptions are identified and built out – if one person gets cabbage water and others say he’s crazy you know not to add too much weight to the anomaly whereas if they all get cabbage water we know to roll with it.
Sometimes conversation gets excitable and we have fun as well as getting down to business. The job of a good chair is to let people have fun and enjoy themselves but ensure we get things done. Tasting note has to be two things: entertaining and informative.
If it is purely information it gets boring to read and if purely entertainment it loses the truth and power of the whisky.
Has to convey what you might expect if you buy this whisky.
Do people ever challenge the tasting notes or names?
I think you can only give an impression of a whisky, but it is an impression based on the careful assessment of five or six people with a hint of literary license which is our style.
Whisky is so subjective. If I asked five people what the main characteristic of the nose is, I might get five answers, when the customer tries it they may get something else or two or three of the defined notes.
We aim to provide a helping hand to help people make their minds up. Especially as the majority of members in the UK do not visit our venues so the tasting notes (as well as other cask information and the flavour profile details) are vital to allow them to select and buy bottles (for international members this is even more significant).
As far as the Tasting Panel goes, we try to keep it fresh and fun by writing a story or poem or using a strange literary style. Usually when I’m writing I look for what exciting words from the description I can pull out to elevate at the name
The names, as I’m sure many of you will know, are incredibly random at times but others they are really suggestive of taste and allow you to reminisce with times past. How do they come up with them?
Every one is different but we have guidelines, the name must sound interesting, using evocative and smile raising descriptors, sometimes they can be outrageous in order to draw them in and to make them ask what this all about.
Often it is about what is in the whisky but others are evocative and some are highly random to tease and delight.
Setting the scene either verbally to make the experience real and unique. How you tell it can either be straight, for example Bright and Uplifting, or eloquently and in a more sophisticated style, like a mini-story such as Mouth Numbing Mounteneering Dram.
Literary license makes it fun, it does not tell lies, we are not taking bad products and putting a nice label on it, these whiskies have already done what is needed and been accepted and scored by the Panel to ensure it is good enough, now we bring it to life.
Finally I had to ask a really obvious one… what are the Chair’s favourite names from over the years?
Tough one, so many to choose from and so many that mean different things but how about these…
Keith Richards Meets Socrates
Whild West Cowgirl Dressed in Leather
Ballerina in Stillettos
Kissing a Balrog’s Bum
Mouth Numbing Mounteneering Dram
With that we briefly said goodbye and I frantically typed up all the notes I could before I forgot any of the detail.
I am very thankful to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society for granting me this unprecedented opportunity to speak with the Chair of the SMWS Tasting Panel, you’re secrets are safe with me.