Sunday, March 12, 2017

Forever Changed: the SMWS Japan Branch Changes Hands

Post by Stefan Van Eycken, Tokyo

From April 1st – and this is not a premature April’s Fool joke, unfortunately – the Japanese branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) will be run by a new company. On that day, 16 years of nurturing by the incomparable Whisk-e team will come to an end. If this seems like “just one of those things”, a simple changing of the guard, we can you assure you it’s not. It will not only have an impact on the SMWS members in Japan but also affect lovers of quality Japanese whisky around the world, which is the main reason why we’re mentioning this here, as much as we hate to be the bearers of bad news.
As most of you will know, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society was founded in 1983 in Edinburgh by Philip (Pip) Hills and a group of friends keen to share their love for single cask whiskies. In 2004, the Society was purchased by Glenmorangie. Contrary to expectations at the time, they didn’t meddle with the ethos of the Society. In March 2015, Glenmorangie sold the Society to a small group of private investors. For the first year and a half, little seemed to be changing “on the ground”, but recent developments indicate a change of strategy and a reinterpretation of the ethos behind the Society.

The Society is a membership organization with branches all over the world. In recent months, many members expressed their surprise at the fact that SMWS bottlings are now available in e.g. certain Duty Free shops in East Asia… available meaning: to anyone and everyone. Needless to say, this rubbed paying members the wrong way.

A more recent development is the makeover of the bottle and label design. Aside from the highlighting of the age, the new design introduces 12 colour codes (on the caps and label), corresponding to “one of the Society’s flavour camps”. Examples are: Young & Sprightly, Old & Dignified, Heavily Peated and so on. Whilst this is supposedly meant to spotlight flavour, this pigeonholing seems to fly in the face of the irreducible multitude and plurality of flavours in any given bottling and the individuality of each bottling, which is what most Society members I know (both in Japan, in Scotland and elsewhere in the world) love about the bottlings. It may seem like splitting hairs – after all, you could say: just ignore the colours – but it is indicative… indicative of a move towards a more easily and more widely marketable product, in the interest of boosting (overseas) sales.

The move by the new owners of the SMWS to try and establish their own company in the different international markets is another indication that the vision and ethos is changing. In Japan, this new company will be called “SMWS Japan KK”. It also means the end of an era, as said above: the end of 16 years during which the Whisk-e team built up the Japan branch of the Society, not only in terms of membership and buzz in the whisky world here, but also – and this is significant – in terms of having played a crucial role in adding no fewer than 10 Japanese codes to the Society’s roster of distilleries: 116 (Yoichi), 119 (Yamazaki), 120 (Hakushu), 124 (Miyagikyo), 130 (Chichibu), 131 (Hanyu), 132 (Karuizawa), G11 (Nikka Coffey Grain), G12 (Nikka Coffey Malt) and G13 (Chita).
This was possible because of the close ties that the staff at Whisk-e have cultivated with the Japanese whisky community, built up over years of running Whisky Magazine Japan, Whisky Live Tokyo, the Tokyo International Bar Show, the World Whiskies Awards and so on. Getting a distillery added to the roster of the Society is one thing, but then getting bottlings organized is a whole ’nother story. It’s not just logistically hard (seeing as cask samples have to be approved by the panel in Scotland and, then, when approved, the liquid has to be sent to Scotland for bottling there) but at a time when Suntory and Nikka are no longer doing single cask bottlings themselves prying a cask or two out of their hands for bottling by someone else is a truly herculean undertaking. Getting some Hanyu and Karuizawa bottled for the SMWS was hard but doable because of the close connection between Whisk-e and Number One Drinks. The most incredible thing about Whisk-e’s unrelenting efforts to get a few jewels from the Japanese producers for the SMWS – and people who have tried the bottlings will agree they were liquid gold, without exception – is that they weren’t doing it for the money. Indeed, the 6 Karuizawa releases, to spotlight just one set, could have all been sold for much, much more money through different channels.

We had written in publications left and right about how the only way to get hold of single cask Japanese whisky for the foreseeable future was through the SMWS. Now, with Whisk-e elbowed out of the picture, that possibility has vanished into thin air, too. I’d love to be proved wrong, but I doubt that we will see any Japanese whiskies in emerald green bottles for years to come.

To end on a more positive note: speaking on behalf of the Nonjatta community, I’d like to thank the team at Whisk-e for their efforts in getting all those superb Japanese whiskies out to various corners of the world though the SMWS. I’m sure that anyone who has ever had the pleasure of tasting one of the drams they had a hand in getting bottled for the Society would be happy to join me in applauding and thanking them for their dedication and vision.

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