Earlier this year we visited the newly opened Danish branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
SMWS was started as a whisky club in Edinburgh some 30 years ago, but has developed into an international franchise with a fairly snobbish ring to it. It is based on making high quality single cask bottlings from predominantly Scottish distilleries exclusively available to its members. An SMWS branch (or Member Room, as it is formally known) is both a whisky bar and bottle shop. Non-members are allowed to enter the bar and buy a glass, but you must be a member to buy a bottle, and members interested in buying a bottle or two can sip on it before buying, which is quite an advantage. Memberships are not at all cheap and paid annually.
On top of this the Danish SMWS branch is quite surprisingly located in the unexceptional city of Vejle, which is only the 9th largest city in Denmark.
Intrigued and confused, we took the trip not knowing what to expect.
We visited as a 7-guy-group on a Saturday afternoon. We had booked ahead and asked if they could prepare a line-up of some of their bottlings with emphasis on surprise and peat. This was not a problem.
The Danish SMWS member room is located in Torvehallerne, which is a hotel and conference center owned by the Best Western chain. Upon entering we were greeted by Terje Thesbjerg, who owns the Danish branch, and acted as our bartender for the two hours we were there. Two hours with no other visitors and plenty of time to learn more about what SMWS has to offer, and why it has opened in a small city as Vejle.
Terje is affiliated with the management of Torvehallerne. He has clearly opened the Danish SMWS in Vejle for two reasons: To make Torvehallerne more attractive for thirsty business men, and because he is deeply enthusiastic about whisky.
Luckily it was the last of the two which was most prevalent on our visit and we thoroughly enjoyed the engaging and knowledgeable company as he took us through the line-up.
An SMWS bottling does not directly bear the name of the distillery it is from. Instead it has a code and an extremely silly name, which is somehow related to the taste. However, the code actually tells you where the whisky is from, as the first number represents the distillery and the second number is the number of cask from which the bottle is taken. All you have to do is Google it.
Ignoring the silliness of it and disregarding whatever long forgotten reason for why SMWS started doing it like this, the lack of distillery name does have one advantage the first time you’re exploring the SMWS bottlings: You get to play guess the distillery-quiz.
We did this with rather moderate success throughout this line-up, which had been preselected by Terje.
- 71.37 – Glenburgie, 14yo, 57.9%
- 35.77 – Glen Moray, 15yo, 56.2%
- 66.36 – Ardmore, 10yo, 58.2%
- 33.115 – Ardbeg, 11yo, 55.4%
- 29.128 – Laphroaig, 21yo, 58.8%
- 127.21 – Port Charlotte, 9yo, 65.9%
The line-up was exactly as we had hoped; a tour de force through some gorgeous, soothing and intense whiskies with complexity and of quality.
Some of the bottles were so good, a few of us decided we had to own them, and signed up for membership on the spot. When you join the SMWS you get more than just the permission to spend more money on their bottles, but also a Membership Box. This contains four samples of SMWS bottlings, a Handbook, a tasting notebook and an SMWS pin.
Luckily you don’t have to wear the pin at any time during the visit, but once again SMWS shows a dubious combination of something wonderful and something silly.
Of the seven of us who entered, one had been gifted a membership prior to visiting, three signed up on the day, one just a few days later and the rest have been thinking about it since. This is not only a testimony to the high quality of the SMWS bottles, but also to the atmosphere and service of SMWS in Vejle.
This is, however, not an unconditional recommendation to sign up for a membership. Before it makes sense for you, it is our opinion that these conditions must be met:
1. Interest in buying 3-5 bottles of quality whisky a year.
2. Live (or do business) in reasonable vicinity of a branch.
3. Moderate tolerance of silliness
We will return to SMWS in Vejle soon to sample more of their range, but if next time is as joyous as the first time, we will have no problem calling SMWS the best damn whisky bar on the Danish peninsula of Jutland. Well done Terje.
d & m (Thanks to Thomas N. Jensen for the photos)