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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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The SMWS at the Quaich Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has, when it comes to tastings, adopted the American military’s infamous strategy of shock and awe. Not only are their drams the equivalent of B52s in impact and firepower, their ambassadors together form some sort of Single Malt Navy Seal special forces unit. Essay deadlines had leached my preceding week of colour, life and pleasure. An airstrike from the SMWS squadron explosively repatriated them.

St Doug Clement worked a little miracle for the Quaich Society; by contributing 300 Glencairn glasses we could ensure that the five single cask, cask strength, unchillfiltered, uncoloured (my, oh my) drams Craig Johnstone had retrieved from The Vaults to wreak mass destruction would not be thwarted in their mission by inadequate glassware. ‘To leave no nose upturned’ is the Society’s motto, and when I had a mind to scan the room, every one of the 60 guests appeared to have theirs buried in Glencairns.

Some many-hued delights. 'Horizontal' tastings offer endless possibilities for exploration.

Craig introduced himself to the room, and the room to itself. He enquired of everyone’s places of origin and their taste in drinks. This was no phatic stunt to break the ice, however; it turns out that Craig has been just about everyone, tasted just about everything, and has a ravenous desire to understand how so many of our favourite beverages come to be. We learnt of eccentric Canadian treatments for back pain (Crown Royal if your sciatica is playing up); how India claim to be drinking more Johnnie Walker than Scotland produces, and the extraordinary diversity of flavours being created throughout the world and which Craig has witnessed for himself.

A considerable proportion of this flavour diversity – and maybe all of the 32 primary aromas he talked about – leapt out at us from the glasses in front of us. The first dram of the evening hailed from distillery 121 and it was cask #48. 121.48, then, or ’Let’s get this party started’ as the tasting note excerpt read. I found this light and rounded at first, with crisper, biscuity dry undertones developing. A little bit of braised cabbage and candied lemon, also. The palate was clean and smooth, with a hit of alcohol mid-palate and unripe pear. Water sharpened the nose, bringing out freshly washed cotton on the clothes line. A more strident biscuit note developed in the mouth, with charred oak, thick caramel and dark chocolate. A very fresh and frisky dram from Arran.

Dram No. 2 - or to be more correct, G5.3 – was a revelation. Gasps gusted around the Garden Suite and it was not simply on account of the 65.6% abv. Matured for eighteen years in a toasted virgin oak cask, this was one single grain that, for many, outstripped the single malts that night. I must confess that ‘Extraordinary’ is right. The grain spirit had plucked everything that was superlative from the cask, while keeping its light, clean softness. ’Who thought grain whisky could taste like this?’ Craig enquired. Had most of these Quaich Soc’ers not already been blessed with John Glaser’s proselytising with the help of his Hedonism bottling, more hands would have gone up. This was another weighty case to put to the grain dissenters.

The evening then repaired to an Old Jazz Bar next, a 26yo specimen from #35. I was impressed by the breadth of flavours, although it seemed a tad too discreet and polite at first although perhaps this was due to the strength. At 40.6% another couple of months in this particular ex-Bourbon cask would have robbed it of its whisky identity. Crisp, flaky malt, plain chocolate, ginger sponge and ground coffee comprised the expansive nose while the palate was exceptionally soft, with apple, well-integrated oak and vanilla biscuit. As Glen Morays go, this was a deliciously delicate individual.

Mr Craig Johnstone, giving one hell of a lecture.

I would never in a million years have supposed that 76.85, ‘The Antagonist’, might have indicated output from dear old Mortlach. Apple, pear and melon (eh?!) on the nose with some gently buttery barley and crisp oak have never appeared in my tasting notes for this Chthonic distillery. On the palate I did find rich vegetables and a ‘fixing’ quality, but I did not think to equate this with worm tub collusion, still less Dufftown. Water made it more voluble and oaky, with some orange rind tucked underneath to please the nostrils. And they were pleased, just fairly rubbish at the identity parade.

There could be no confusing the next incumbent. 29.90, as all Society peatheads will tell you, is the quite unique Laphroaig and I doubt this particular bottling would disappoint them. Heavy peat, glorious peat. Cigarette ash and bonfire night, spent matches. There were some in the room, however, who were somewhat hostile to this style of spirit but Craig, ever resourceful, had a solution. ‘I promise you this will get rid of the smoke, and you will finish that dram.’ Eyebrows were raised, but Craig persevered. ‘I want you to take a mouthful of water and just keep it there.’ We all obeyed, trying not to drown ourselves or gargle. ‘Now drink the whisky through the water.’ I stared in bemusement and wonder. The equivalent of Sawing the Woman in Half had just happened, in my mouth. The smoke fleetingly appeared as a rich, dry tickle and then disappeared altogether leaving only a caramel-like, barley sugar sweetness that rolled over the tastebuds with every possible flirtation. ‘The phenols dissolve in water first, you see,’ Craig said through a huge grin.

The tasting over, and a queue of people around the front table for the purposes of either thanking our host or putting their name and credit card details in his membership ledger, I could reflect on the marvel we had all witnessed. Craig Johnstone is the Kilchoman of the whisky ambassador world. For one so young it astonishes me that he should have acquired so much knowledge, science, anecdote and authority in so short a space of time. In fact, many a wily and more senior ambassador has laid light fingers on his show-stopper tricks without attribution, a tactic that does wrankle him a little. Of course, he is a couple of decades ahead of them already, and who knows what heights will be attained with a few more years around casks regarding the Craig Johnstone package?

‘Had any of you heard about the Scotch Malt Whisky Society before tonight?’ Craig had asked at the top of the evening. ’Did any of you think we were a cult?’ Perhaps expansion into the religious sect business would not be a disastrous idea: I know that many in St Andrews were converted.

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