The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) was founded in 1983 by a group of friends lead by tax accountant Phillip ‘Pip’ Hills as a private members club. The concept behind the society was to source casks from all over Scotland which would then be bottled and made available exclusively to its members. Hills had developed a particular fondness for richly sherried Glenfarclas, which he was acquiring directly from the Grants in quarter casks for the syndicate. As friends told friends who told more friends, the syndicate quickly grew. Judging on the quality of his product and the response of his friends, Hills had the notion to start doing this commercially. What started as a small collective of friends with a shared passion soon grew into the world’s most recognisable whisky society, with the very first official SMWS released, Cask 1.1, a 8 year old ex-sherry cask single malt from Glenfarclas.
That same year as their establishment, the SMWS found their home and set up location in the historic Leith’s Vault buildings in Edinburgh where it still stands today. Describing themselves as unconventional whisky experts, SMWS promote that they ‘seek out whisky in its purest form, prize flavour above everything else and give each bottling a curious name’.
The process of cask selection at SMWS is an exacting task. Whiskies are hand-picked by the SMWS Tasting Panel, a group comprised of five or six independent experts who meet every week to assess whiskies fairly and decide whether they are worthy of inclusion for their members. Whiskies are chosen from over 140 distilleries in Scotland and beyond. The whisky is drawn at natural cask-strength and remains that way when put to bottle, honouring the society’s value of offering whisky in its purest form. The Tasting Panel acknowledges the diversity in individuals quirks and preferences, ensuring to offer members a constant variety in expressions.
Perhaps the most famous feature of the SMWS bottles are the unique codes. Each distillery is represented by a different number and the following digits indicate that particular release. It’s a rather curious system of coding bottles, but fitting for ‘the world’s most colourful whisky club’ and their endeavour to bring amazing whiskies to the masses in intriguing ways.The Society code was initially created to protect the brands of the distilleries which supplied their single casks. When the society was first established in the 1980s, it was very common for distilleries brand protection to be in full swing and therefore trademark brands were often not authorised to be associated with independent bottlings. To get around this, the society created their own coding system comprised of two numbers.
The first number represents the distillery where the liquid was distilled, for example 1 = Glenfarclas. The second number represents the release from that particular distillery, for example 1.3 = the third SMWS Glenfarclas bottling. At first glance this may seem rather transparent, however, over the years the code has become more complicated. As the society's portfolio of bottlings increased and became more diverse spanning a number of different spirit categories, letters were introduced to classify these e.g. B for bourbon, C for cognac, RW for Rye Whiskey etc. The single malt category has also evolved to allow for one distillery to adopt multiple codes, representing either a distinctly different style of whisky or a different production process. For example, Bruichladdich distillery bears code 23, but their heavily peated Port Charlotte expression is distinguished using code 127.
As the Scotch Malt Whisky Society grew in size, so did their independent bottlings, with now over 180 numerical codes put to label. To make it easier for you to decipher the numerical system and discover your favourite distilleries, we have created a cheat sheet on the SMWS codes which you can download at the foot of this article.
The society's unique coding system has undoubtedly contributed to their huge growth in the industry and their importance on the secondary market. Rare whisky collectors and investors are acutely aware of the iconic 1.1's and their desirability within the market. Many of these first releases were bottled in the company's infancy, and finding equivalent examples of these distillery liquids today is nigh on impossible. To put into context the significance of these first releases, the 61.1 (SMWS' first Brora release) sold for over £6,000 in our June 2019 auction.
Today, SMWS is a global society of over 27,000 members and is recognised as one of the most illustrious independent bottlers of whisky in the world. Their very first releases, .1’s, are some of the most sought-after and collectible on the market. SMWS are also the owners of one of the world’s largest collections of single malt whiskies.
Every month, our global whisky auctions feature some of the rarest and most collectible SMWS bottlings. With over 4,400 previously sold bottles in our auction archives, our past auction results provide an unprecedented selection of sold bottles to track market prices and identify trends.