I get asked a lot of questions when I’m behind the bar, mainly “what’s your favourite malt?” or
“what’s the most expensive dram you do?” And from some of the blinder ones “can I have your
Every so often though, someone takes me aside and asks in a quiet, conspiratorial tone,
“What’s the best kept secret in the whisky industry?”
Sometimes I laugh and tap my nose, fobbing them off with the old ‘it’s a secret’ mime, sometimes
I use subterfuge and a little bit of smoke and mirrors if you will, but occasionally, just occasionally,
I let my guard down and I’ll tell them know one of two things. The first I’ve already covered (Japanese
whisky), so I’ll discuss the second.
I’ll look left then right, then lean in close and whisper in their ear.
Some of them will laugh as though I’ve told a joke, others will simply look at me incredulously but a
few, the smart few will ask, “Have you got any?”
Someone at the SMWS headquarters in Edinburgh, that’s the society to those in the know, must be
on to me though, because they requested me to visit them.
Thankfully it was only to meet their agent G (or Georgie Bell) to try some of their very own secret stash
of selected, stunning single grains.
For those of you who don’t know who the society are, the acronym SMWS stands for Scotch
Malt Whisky Society. The Society was created the same year I was born, 1983, it’s a benevolent
membership organisation which bottles and sells single cask whisky. It purchases individual casks
from more than 125 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland and throughout the world, bottles them and
retails directly to its members.
The Society is, well just that, a society for whisky lovers, who believe in and enjoy sharing whisky and
their whisky experience. They have members’ rooms in Edinburgh and all around the world and the
most infamous vaults filled with the most infamous collection of single cask whiskies in the central
belt if not Scotland. All of the whiskies are chosen and tasted by ‘the tasting panel’ an elite section of
society members who then produce fun tasting notes (you’ll see what I mean in a bit) If you haven’t
heard of them, go check them out, you most certainly won’t be disappointed!
Single grain whisky isn’t a new thing, it’s been around for a while but people are only now beginning
to sit up and take notice, the Society has known this for a while, so have most of the younger guys I
know in the industry and now I’m passing this on to you.
Grain whisky has traditionally been used a base spirit for blends, this whisky is generally lighter in
flavour than malt whisky and is distilled in a continuous still rather than a pot still. It has much more
in common with Bourbons and Ryes, both in flavour and production, than it does with single malt whisky.
It is rare for a single grain whisky to be produced, the light flavour and time it takes to mature makes
it unfeasible, unattractive or just plain too much like hard work for very little gain.
However some do make it through and those that do, well they are special.
I’ve noticed, the SMWS have definitely noticed. They’ve released over 30 bottlings from 9 different
distilleries. Even Jim Murray has noticed. The high lord of the whisky bible highlights the growing
quality of grain Whisky and interest from consumers in the new edition of his Whisky Bible. He
notes that grains are scarce but ‘growing in stature’, helped by ages grains released by independent
bottlers, such as the SMWS.
The tasting itself is a lot of fun, Georgie puts paid to the myth that single grains are boring, taste
mostly of vanilla and lack depth, by providing a glittering array so stunning in their diversity it
literally had my mouth watering.
“I have an affinity with grain,” she explains, “as I was introduced to whisky through Bourbons. Single
grains are kind of a nice malt whisky/bourbon hybrid.”
The whiskies on offer were the:-
• 19 yo North British full time ex sherry (yummy) aka the ‘Flamed Christmas pudding’
• 35 yo Carsebridge ex bourbon (coconutty) aka ‘A vaudeville act’
• 23 yo Cambus ex bourbon (small batch bourbon) aka ‘spub sugar and spooned honey –
• 28 yo Cameronbridge (sharp and spicy, ice cream float) aka ‘attractive spirit in a cloak of
oak’ (the colour note for this one was ‘pirate gold in a cave’ which I love)
• 19 yo Invergordon (honey, crunchies) my personal favourite aka ‘all day american
Georgie summed up how I felt about grains when she said. “Grains are just as versatile as malt.”
Which I found was more than reinforced by the tasting and the whiskies on offer.They were all
pretty much gorgeous and the tasting notes were good fun, Georgie was happy to talk me through
her choices and with a few nice touches and personal anecdotes. In fact the only moment she lost
me was when she offered me a spittoon. To which I replied ‘why would I need one? Wait, do you
mean people actually spit out this wonderful Whisky?’
Overall the mission couldn’t be more successful I left with a better knowledge of this lovely little
secret, sadly though I didn’t leave with the bottle I wanted (that lovely Invergordon) as it seems
other people were catching on and it had sold out.
Take my advice try any you can get your hands on, you won’t regret it.
So, I know I said it was one secret but perhaps in the end I gave you two, grain whiskies and the
SMWS. Now I better get out of here, I think they are on to-
This message will self destruct in 20 seconds.
• Sean Murphy is a barman at the Pot Still whisky bar in Glasgow
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Sunday 19 May 2013
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