From the Archive: This article was originally published usscots.com written by Charles MacLean. Republished here to preserve the resource.
Today, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is the world’s premier whisky club, but like all good institutions, its beginnings were small and its early days fraught. It might be said to have its origins in the stoneflagged hall-way of a genteel ground-fl oor fl at on Scotland Street, at the heart of Edinburgh’s New Town – a street since made famous by the writings of Alexander McCall Smith.
The flat was owned by Phillip (‘Pip’) Hills; the date was 1978. During his extensive travels in the Highlands, Pip had tasted malt whisky drawn straight from the cask, and had been astonished how different it tasted from the bottled variety – more aromatic and flavourful, bigger in body and texture. Fired with enthusiasm – Pip is a great enthusiast – and armed with some samples, he quickly persuaded a group of friends to share the cost of a cask of Glenfarclas (one the few malts that you could buy direct from the distillery).
In his flat that fateful day in 1978, the friends gathered to bottle their cask by hand, and to sample what they had bought. It did not take long for this early group of friends to expand their number and become a syndicate. More casks were bought, bottled individually, at natural strength, and without the chill-filtration that most whisky undergoes, in order to prevent it going hazy when water or ice is added (unfortunately, the compounds removed by this process are mighty contributors to flavour and texture). The syndicate members eagerly subscribed for bottles. Pip spent an increasing amount of time touring around distilleries in his 4.5 litre 1937 Lagonda trying to persuade them to part with casks of good mature whisky. In those days single malts were little known and difficult to find; single cask, single malts were more or less unheard of.
The members of the syndicate began to discuss founding a club, open to all comers, and their discussions were given sudden urgency by the arrival on the market of a very old, very large and very derelict building with whisky connections running back a hundred years, and wine associations over nearly 1000 years: The Vaults, in Leith, the Port of Edinburgh. The lower three floors of the present building known as ‘The Vaults’ was erected by the Vintners’ Guild in 1682. A fourth storey was added in 1785, but beneath the building are four vaulted cellars used, as they always have been, for the storage of wine. They have been described as “the oldest building in Scotland, and possibly in Britain, still continuously used for commercial purposes”. Tradition has it they were granted to the Abbey of Holyrood on its foundation in 1143; certainly they appear in a charter granted by the abbot in 1439 as “the grete volute of Villiam Logan”. Logan himself was the grandson of Sir Robert Logan of Restalrig, Lord High Admiral of Scotland and son-in-law of King Robert II, who died in Spain in 1329, while accompanying Robert Bruce’s heart to the Holy Land. In 1588, following the Reformation, the Vaults passed from the Abbey to the Vintners’ Guild of Edinburgh, which erected a single story building above them, known as The Vintners’ Room, the outside wall of which remains today. Here members of the Guild sampled wines that had been landed at Leith and, if deemed good enough, purchased the wine. Once purchased, the casks were carted up to Edinburgh and sold ‘on draught’, the citizens fi lling their own bottles and jugs. In 1739, Thomas Clayton, a plasterer recently arrived from England, completed his first assignment in Scotland, which was the opulent decoration of the Vintners’ Room with bibulous putti, vines and a scallop-shell surmounting the auctioneer’s niche.
These are all still intact and preserved. Clayton was working with William Adam on The Drum next year, and later did work at Holyroodhouse (now lost) and the Duke of Hamilton’s palace at Chatelherault. In 1753 the whole building was leased to James Thomson, Wine Merchant. His father had married into the wine trade in 1698 and established himself in Thomson’s Court, off the Grassmarket in the Old Town of Edinburgh in 1709. The firm became known as J.G. Thomson & Co in 1820, after its senior partner, James Gibson Thomson. He became Treasurer of the City of Edinburgh in the 1840s, by which time his firm was the leading wine merchant in Scotland. In 1875, the year before he retired, J.G. Thomson took as partners James Anderson and the Usher brothers, John (later Sir John) and Andrew (the ‘Father of Blended Whisky’). For three generations the firm was directed by Andersons, and began to bottle and sell its own brands of whisky. J.G.Thomson & Co became a limited company in 1905, and by 1930 was supplying wine to most of Scotland’s leading hotels. It was also a leading independent whisky blender, with a prosperous overseas trade. After World War II, many privately owner hotels amalgamated into ‘chains’ or were acquired by breweries. This effectively removed Thomson’s principal customers, and by 1960 the company was a shadow of its former self and was obliged to become the wine division of a brewery, ultimately joining Tennent Caledonian. The last bottlings were done at the Vaults in 1964, and the old building became no more than a warehouse with offices. By the late 1970s the top two storeys were unsafe and unusable, and in 1983, the year the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was founded, the building was put up for sale. Such a unique opportunity was irresistible to the founders of the Society. They quickly formed Vaults (Leith) Limited, and managed to buy the semi-derelict building for £40,000. Their intention was to refurbish, create a number of flats, a restaurant and a whisky museum, and above all to install facilities for members to enjoy whisky and each other’s company. However, the new company soon ran into financial difficulties. Some flats were sold and the restaurant as well.
The whisky museum was adopted by the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, but in essence the heroic restoration of the Vaults and the creation of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society realised the ideals and vision of those founding fathers. It has not been plain sailing since then. By 1993, the Society was again in acute financial difficulties, following an attempt to enter the American market. In effect, it had grown bigger than the amateur skills of the founders could cope with. Richard Gordon was appointed Managing Director (without the extent of the problem being explained to him!). Having done a fantastic job, he retired in September 2006 to become bursar of an Oxford College. In 1996, he launched a limited share offer to members: £1 shares, with a minimum allocation of 500 shares, ‘to raise capital to lay down stock, buy another fl at for members’ use at the Vaults, to establish a Members’ Room in London and to reduce the Society’s debts’. This raised just under £350,000, and all the goals have been more than realised. In 2004 the Society bought further premises in Edinburgh, a beautiful Georgian town house in the New Town. The same year the shareholders agreed that the Society be taken over by Glenmorangie PLC, a move which secured supplies of high quality mature whiskies. Membership currently stands at 24,000, and there are now branches in Austria, Switzerland, France, Benelux, Germany, Italy, Sweden, Japan, Australia and the U.S.A. Regular tastings and events are held throughout the year, all over the U.K. and among its international branches. Andrew Macdonald, an experienced and enthusiastic whisky man, formerly at Macallan and Glenfarclas, who succeeds Richard Gordon as MD, has a sound ship to navigate through the years to come.
Footnote: The SMWS has since passed from Glenmorangie ownership and is once again in private hands