Visit to Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), London

I just came back from a long, busy, fun and tiring weekend at London which main purpose was a visit to the Whisky Live London exhibition that took place on March 4th & 5th (I went on the first day, and post(s) about that are soon to come). We (Meital my wife came as well) arrived at London a day before the exhibition and already had planned ahead at Israel that we will spend that evening with Whisky Israel Society friends Richard, Raviv & Ben, who also came for Whisky Live. Richard, who travels occasionally to the UK on business (including this time), is a member of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society and was kind to invite us lot as his guests for a night out at the SMWS London, and even my pregnant wife who is not very fond of whisky agreed to come along.

The SMWS Entrance

To those of you who are not familiar with the SMWS, it is a ‘closed’ club (annual fee) established over twenty years ago, which only bottles single casks from different distilleries. All bottling go into similar shaped bottles and share the same label look, yet each gets a unique decimal number consisting of which the first number represents the distillery where the whisky came from (only SMWS personnel know what number belongs to which distillery, though cheat sheets do exist online), and the second number is incremental and represents the number of bottling done from the specific distillery. For example, one of Richard’s favourite bottling is a 19.48 – 19 being Glen Garioch and 48 means that this is the 48 bottling of a single cask of Glen Garioch being bottled by the SMWS.

In addition each bottling gets a unique name (sometimes more dramatic than descriptive) and a very descriptive tasting note on its bottle labels which also include distillation date, age, cask type, region and more. For example, that 19.48 bottling name is “Big, friendly, toffee nose” and its label tasting note includes the fact that it is a 1988 distilled, 21YO, refill hogshead ex-bourbon whisky.

The reason SMWS don’t mention the distillery name but rather only a number is “…because the curious nature of single cask, single malt whisky means the tastes are often not characteristic of the region it comes from. We prefer to describe each whisky bottling with its own unique whisky tasting note.”

We scheduled to meet outside the SMWS at 19:00. Meital and I arrived a bit early and to prevent freezing started to walk the street up and down, then Richard showed and we just went inside due to the cold. I texted Raviv that we’re in, but I didn’t know he left his phone at the hotel, thus the boys stood outside a bit longer before going in and meeting with us. Good thing whisky was to come and warm them.

The SMWS London is a small lounge, with several arrangements of sofas, low tables and one or two regular dining tables and chairs, a good warming fire place, and of course the whisky bar! The entrance is almost hidden in a small alley off of Greville street not far from Farringdon tube station, and it took us a while to find it.

Behind the bar counter stood Kat, our hostess for the evening and the master of the vast amount of shelved green bottles placed on the wall behind her. I must say that looking at a whisky bar being unable to recognise expressions by shape, colour or label has a weird feel to it, like something is wrong, even though it is similar to blind whisky nosing contests where all samples are in blue copita glasses so one cannot guess what they are by colour.

Kat in front of her SMWS bottles realm

On the bar, as well as on all of the tables, was placed the SMWS menu, thick-ish little booklet in which about 3 pages are of food, hot and soft drinks and the rest of the dozens of pages are all dedicated to the SMWS whiskies. Every whisky at the bar is described in this menu with its number, name and full tasting notes, and each has a price indication by means of a colour (and the bottles at the bar have the relevant colour sticker on them). In spite the fact that the whiskies are organised in the menu by whisky regions, it is very difficult to select as distillery name is absent and if one wishes to make a concise decision they will probably need a day or so to go over the menu and really absorb all the subtleties mentioned about each expression.

With Richard’s recommendation we decided to allow Kat to choose for us what we will drink. We asked her for four drams of the same bottle, and warned her n advanced that this will repeat itself through out the night. Meanwhile Richard, Meital and I ordered food leaving the boys to stare at us as they ate earlier. Oh yeah – Meital had a fine superior vintage, lovely nosed and radiant yellow coloured… lemonade. She was willing to nose some of the whiskies though.

Left to right: Ben, Raviv and Richard going through the SMWS whisky menu

As seen in the above picture, the whiskies at SMWS are served in small snifters which was kind of odd, as one usually expects sherry or port to be served in those. However, they still did the trick for the whiskies.

Richard, Raviv and I had four drams each while Ben had three. I don’t recall the exact bottles we had or the exact order, but two that did stand out were a Glen Moray Chardonnay cask – which I wanted to purchase but sadly was all out except for the one at the bar, and a Glen Scotia name ‘Two-faced duality’, which I liked very much and ended up purchasing. Richard and Raviv finished their tastings with the 19.48 mentioned above and also had a taste of a unique apple cider Richard likes.

We finished the night at around 10PM or so, tired but happy, all very keen to get to bed (Raviv, Ben, Meital and I just landed at Heathrow few hours earlier, Richard came straight from work, and we all had busy day planed ahead which included Whisky Live for us boys).

The SMWS Rooms are a very unique experience a fun reward when having the chance to visit them. Though I’ve only been to the London rooms, I believe this is similar to all other rooms around the world. Superb whiskies, served by expert hosts in a welcoming atmosphere at fine premises.

It was great fun and enjoyable night out as we all thank Richard for having us. Thank you also goes to Raviv and Ben for their company, Kat for the outstanding service and of course to Meital for coming along and tolerating few ours of whisky analysing conversation which meant absolutely nothing to her. As Raviv said – the fact that Meital was there and ‘suffered’ quietly is highly thought of.

Recommendation – if you get a chance and have with whom, go visit the SMWS. If you like whisky and live in a country where there are SMWS rooms accessible to you – get a subscription as it’s worth every penny. I wish they had rooms in Israel…

As always – thanks for reading. See you in the Whisky Live post(s) (and also a visit to The Whisky Exchange)



5 thoughts on “Visit to Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), London

    1. Same here Marc 😉
      really lovely stuff from some SMWS… i had only a few samples from a few of their bottlings but they sure have some hidden gems.

      speaking of london, when are you landing in Isreal?

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