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The SMWS Vaults – and Leith’s Labyrinth

‘This isn’t very relaxing at all,’ I raged, stamping past another betting shop, wincing as blisters began to bisect my heels and perspiration pooled beneath my pullover.

The entrance to the Vaults.

On the subject of my pilgrimage to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Vaults venue in Leith, Edinburgh, I had envisaged whisky’s bard – Mr Robert Burns – supplying a cheerful commentary. Unfortunately, rather than his Scotch aphorisms captioning my expedition, the only refrain I could recognise circulating within my seething brain concerned ‘mice and men…’

What ought to have been a leisurely 25 minute stroll from the bus station in St Andrew Square to 87, Giles Street demanded instead an hour and a half of feverish to-ing and fro-ing, in addition to a testy phonecall to my sister sat in front of Google Maps at home, trying to work out where the hell I was and how exactly I was to get to my hallowed destination.

I successfully found Giles Street and my anti-clockwise stromp around it was to be my final error of the day. A likely-looking building reared up at me, all old chunky bricks and little warehouse-esque windows. The green sign was perhaps the biggest give-away, though. Relief evicted the anger from my system, which had the disadvantage of robbing me of what energy I thought I had. Panting and swaying, I mounted the many steps and continued passed the paint tins and dust sheets to what I had been searching for – the bar.

Worries as to whether I could be fitted in were instantly abolished. Having signed in and handed over my membership card I discovered with delight that there was a surplus of leather sofas, broken in to the point of perfection by the posteriors of many a whisky aficionado. Perhaps. I ordered a 7.67 and sunk into one myself.

The members' room - a dining room-come-bar. And ever so cosy.

I can confirm what my picture suggests: this is the baronial stately home approach to accommodating whisky devotees, alluding to a sepia-tinged yesteryear when, I hate to say it, men repaired to the drawing room for a tumbler of something. Cutting edge the Vaults is not. In fact, I was far closer in ages to the bar staff than I was my fellow members. However, I stuck my nose into my Longmorn, ordered some haggis, neeps and tatties and quickly failed to notice anymore.

Many have praised the food available from the SMWS kitchens, both in the Queen Street branch and at the Vaults. My plate was certainly stacked high with flavour (I haven’t had Scotland’s national dish served in that style before) and the chocolate mousse for dessert ticked all of my personal boxes for richness, tartness and gooeyness. Mindful after the last mouthful vanished that I still had some serious tasting to do, it perhaps wasn’t the best combination for keeping my senses in optimum condition. Nevertheless, I had reclaimed the calories Leith’s streets had taken from me and within half an hour I was ready for my next dram.

The bar. As it happens, I only explored the left-hand side.

The 19.46 astonished and moved me. This 21-yo whisky from a refill hogshead smelled initially like an ornamental fireplace in an oak-floored Highland house: blackened coal scuttle and an ancient stone and cast iron grate into which some autumn leaves had found their way. There were brass furnishings, too. Then came rich butter and brown sugar, deep oakiness with a green touch and light, crumbly sweet peat. Caramel toffee-accented malt confirmed the high class of the nose. The palate was equally suave and involving: spicy, biscuity, oaky and leafy. In my notes I have ‘a full-on burnished experience’ which I think means that both the brass furnishing character from the nose reappeared as part of the all-round impression of cohesion and quality. Coriander is another mid-palate note. It becomes rich and buttery again after a time, with late hints of candied lemon zest.

The addition of water developed the lemony theme as lemon curd arrived on the nose, spread between two layers of soft, rich flapjack. Heavy butterscotch, together with strawberry and blueberry jam, rounded out a very good and above all different character. The palate revealed more of the cask influence, with a rich, dark char. Coriander can be found in the mix again, with more lemon pieces. Pepper. The abiding impression was of richness, with a gentle chew.

My abiding impression of the Vaults, though? As a base camp for a society like the SMWS, I doubt it could be improved upon. In fact, my navigational headaches buttressed the atmosphere of eclectic sequestration the place exudes. You can’t just pop in off Prince’s Street. It seems to me very appropriate that there should be a venue in the city’s former commercial and goods trading centre, one that is built in to Leith’s abundant wine and spirit heritage. The decor (the final touches to a refit of the reception rooms were taking place during my visit), friendliness of the staff and eye-popping breadth of bottlings promise a permanent reward for those keen enough to make the trek to discover the spiritual home of the Society, tucked into a district where whisky as a viable commercial product was made possible in the first place. Who would have thought that at the centre of the labyrinth there would be an Olympus?

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