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.

In response to the above post, the folks at the headquarters of the SMWS wanted to respond to some of the points that were made. Nonjatta has always been an open and transparent forum for discussions so we are happy to include the response of SMWS Director Kai Ivalo here. We look forward to re-evaluating both our above post and the response below in a year or two.

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is, and always has been, about sharing our passion for single cask whiskies with members and their friends and guests. The Society started in 1983 when a group of friends in Edinburgh began sharing their passion for single cask whisky. Over the following 34 years the Society has evolved and we are extremely proud that the Society has grown from its roots in Edinburgh to attract more enthusiasts to join our club and form an active community of members around the world, including Japan.

Our team in Edinburgh, based at our spiritual home The Vaults in Leith, remains absolutely committed to that ethos of sharing the Society single cask experience. Our new owners, who include Society members and whisky enthusiasts mainly from Edinburgh, are also committed to upholding this ethos together with our long-serving operational team at The Vaults – a group of workmates who between them share more than 65 years’ experience at the Society.

Their enthusiasm for the Society, along with their contacts, credentials and financial backing, has provided the platform for us to buy a wider selection of single casks and look at how to develop the Society experience for members around the world. Part of this involves listening to feedback from members. We have also been reviewing the best approach to delivering the Society experience in a particular country.

With regard to Japan, we’re very grateful for the work done on behalf of the Society by Whisk-e and their predecessor and are committed to investing and building on their success to take the Society experience to the next level. This change brings numerous benefits for Society members in Japan, which we communicated to them in February along with an invitation to contact us with any questions (see www.smws.com/japan).

As we are buying more casks than ever for our members, Outturns will be more extensive and offer a greater variety of whiskies; more Society tasting events will be staged; more partner bars will be established allowing members to find Society whisky in more cities; our website is being improved to make accessing whisky easier than ever and is featuring more content; and members will receive copies of our magazine Unfiltered.

For fans of single cask Japanese whisky around the world, we remain committed to sourcing single casks, just as we have done since we helped to bring Japanese whisky to prominence when we bottled our first cask of Japanese whisky in 2002. This is of course subject to availability – it is a widely-known fact that stocks of Japanese whisky are extremely scarce thanks to a surge in demand in recent years. Using our network of contacts, discussions with producers are ongoing, just as they are with producers of whiskies across the world as we seek to unearth the world’s widest selection of single casks.

Meantime, our ethos of sharing the Society experience continues; a small selection of our whiskies has been available at non-member prices in Duty Free at Singapore’s Changi airport and Hong Kong airport to help introduce the Society and encourage whisky enthusiasts to discover the Society experience for themselves.

To help members explore the full spectrum of our bottlings and highlight our unique and well-received flavour profiling system we have also recently introduced a new label design. This new-look is built on the cornerstone of the Society philosophy that we focus on the flavours of a cask rather than the distillery it comes from. Our evocative bottle names and Tasting Notes remain as fun and unconventional as ever.

If this helps members better explore the kaleidoscope of flavours in our bottlings and more like-minded enthusiasts discover the joys of single casks and the Society experience, we’ll be delighted and welcome them to the club with open arms. The Society is an experience to be shared; we are not, and never have been, an elitist club.

I’ve been part of the Society for more than 12 years and have seen it evolve and as a whisky enthusiast I believe there has never been a more exciting time to be a member.

Slainte
Kai Ivalo, Director

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