In Part 1 on the SMWS Canada feature, we talked about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’. Now lets discuss ‘who’.
While I’d like to tell you it is two fine upstanding old gents in tweed coats and a tendency to use the phrase ‘hmmm, yes…rawther’ to punctuate their thoughts, nothing could be further from the truth. C’mon, you stodgy old buggers. Scotch ain’t the old boys’ drink it once was.
Here in the Great White North, our champions of the green-bottled single cask are a husband-wife team of young, enthusiastic anoraks, who love to socialize, laugh and bring their passion to the masses. After years of rumour regarding the SMWS‘s migration to Canadian shores, we finally have this duo to thank.
So…in the absence of this refined pair, who better to lead the charge than two deep, dark and mysterious serious-minded individuals who would never be caught dead in a compromising photo*, Rob and Kelly Carpenter.
I’ll let them speak for themselves…
ATW: Who are Rob and Kelly Carpenter?
Calgary-based husband and wife and recreational whisky enthusiasts with full-time day jobs who have been lucky enough to turn a hobby into a great side business.
ATW: How did you two find yourselves immersed in the world of whisky? What was the catalyst?
The catalyst was having the good fortune to live in Edinburgh, Scotland for a year. Kelly was always a fan of whisky as she grew up in a house where it was her parents’ drink of choice, but Rob didn’t get into it until we attended a whisky tasting during our first month in Scotland. That’s when he finally saw the light.
ATW: What led to such a passionate interest in the SMWS and to the initiative to bring it to Canada?
A fellow Canadian, and classmate of Rob’s at the University of Edinburgh, Sam Simmons, took us to the Members’ Room of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Leith one night. Called “The Vaults,” it’s known as the spiritual home of The SMWS; it’s a fabulous old building with great high ceilings and dark wood and big comfy leather chairs where members (and guests of members) can settle in for a dram (or several), some good food and great fellowship. As fantastic as that room is, though, it was of course the whiskies that really got our attention. We couldn’t believe the quality and variety and wanted to try as many as possible! As we sat there that first night, with Sam waxing philosophical about how he’d love to bring the Society to Canada, Rob’s wheels were already turning on how to do that! Unlike Sam, who is still in the UK (and is now global brand ambassador for The Balvenie), we returned to Canada after our year in Edinburgh and immediately started bending the ear of the Managing Director at “HQ” to bring The Society to Canada.
ATW: I imagine there were some pretty substantial logistics obstacles in the process. Can you share any big ups and downs regarding setup and launch?
We’ve had all kinds of issues, just as any small business faces when starting up. Developing a website, setting ourselves up as liquor agents, then figuring out how to ship product, how to format the marketing materials, etc. Of course, this business has a strong regulatory aspect to it as well, and we’ve had to work with the regulators in each province a fair bit, but on the whole the regulators have been very helpful. It’s been a lot of work but the response from the members makes it all worth it.
ATW: The Western incarnation of the SMWS is obviously of a slightly different make-up and caliber than in the UK. How are you finding reception here in Canada? Does it differ drastically from your experiences in Scotland?
We’ve found people extremely receptive. As in the UK, they love the variety The Society offers and the uniformly great quality of the bottlings. It’s a lot of fun introducing a Society bottling to someone who’s never tried it before and seeing their eyes go big and hearing ‘that’s amazing!’
ATW: Is Canada getting a fair shake at all casks that the global SMWS is seeing? Do you two have a say in what makes it here?
From our perspective Canada is absolutely being treated fairly in cask allocation. The Society’s headquarters is very good at ensuring all branches have an equal crack at rare and unique casks. HQ has been very supportive of the Canadian branch.
ATW: What can you explain about the SMWS cask selection process?
The Society in Edinburgh has a variety of sources for its casks so it gets samples on a regular basis. If the samples are deemed to be of acceptable quality they are forwarded to the Tasting Panel to be put through a rigorous grading system. The Tasting Panel consists of whisky enthusiasts, Society ambassadors, writers, poets, etc. and they actively participate in offering their impressions of the nose, palate, finish, etc., both without and with water. The Chair madly records all the comments being tossed around, and if the sample gets a passing grade (only about 50% of casks the Tasting Panel tries are passed) the Chair then crafts the musings of the Panel into the curious tasting notes that Society members see on the bottles and in Outturn (the monthly listing of new releases).
ATW: Any thoughts to one day opening up a Calgary Club House for SMWS members? In the meantime, I hear tell that it is generally acceptable for members to converge on your place for cigars and drams. Is that right?
We’d love to be able to have a venue in Calgary and other Canadian cities at some point in the future where members can enjoy fantastic Society drams in great settings. That, however, is a long term vision and for now we are content with ensuring members get great variety every month and introducing The Society to as many people as we can. As for converging on our place, the door is always open, but we have a fierce security guard who may not be as welcoming as we would be.
ATW: What are a few of the more spectacular bottles you’ve come across? Any real duds?
Actually, we’ve still got some bottles that we brought back from Scotland before we launched the Canadian branch that we’re afraid to open because we remember them as spectacular when we tried them in Edinburgh, and as we’ve said before about Society bottles, once they’re gone, they’re gone! We like to tell people that The Society bottles two types of single malt whisky: fantastic whiskies and interesting whiskies. We’ve never found a dud; The Society maintains consistently great quality in its bottlings. Of course, there will always be some that members like more than others, but it would be boring if we all liked the same thing. In the end, The Society is really about satisfying the never ending curiosity of single malt enthusiasts for new and unique offerings.
ATW: Which distilleries have you been particularly impressed with in the SMWS bottlings?
Bottles from Laphroaig, Ardbeg and Glen Scotia are consistently outstanding, but again, there’s never a dud and it always boils down to individual tastes and preferences.
ATW: As the SMWS gets on its feet in Canada, is there an inherent difficulty in determining quantities of each expression to order? Has stock and availability been an issue up to this point?
When we started we had no idea how people in Canada were going to respond. As a membership organization, The Society is a very unique concept, and we didn’t know if people would balk when told that they could only buy the bottlings if they were members. So we were cautious about how much stock we ordered initially. But the response has been very positive. Unfortunately, as a result we’ve had some challenges with stock availability which the members have had to be patient with, and we thank them for that. We’re now starting to see more stock come into the country. But the fact remains that these are always single cask releases and they will therefore never be of unlimited quantity; once they’re gone, they’re gone forever.
ATW: Are you happy with the reception to the society in Canada? Any future initiatives?
Thrilled! Our expectations and projections of where we’d be six months in have been hugely exceeded. It must be noted, however, that we wouldn’t be anywhere close to where we find ourselves today were it not for the tireless effort , enthusiasm and support of Calgary’s Kensington Wine Market and in particular their whisky buyer, Andrew Ferguson. A huge supporter of this crazy endeavor since the beginning, Andrew’s whisky knowledge and clientele is arguably second-to-none in Canada. It’s been primarily thanks to his huge following that we’ve garnered the interest we have.
Future initiatives include expanding into other provinces so that our members outside of Alberta can find Society bottles on the shelves of liquor stores in their own provinces. It’s a slow process, full of red-tape, but we are now planning to launch in BC in the fall and we are currently in talks with the LCBO to try to ensure that Ontario residents can access Society bottlings as well.
ATW: Any last thoughts?
It’s time for a dram…or two.
ATW: Finally…tell us your best lawyer joke…
Lawyers aren’t funny (however, it’s imperative that wives of lawyers have a sense of humour).
Thanks, Rob and Kelly.
*if you ever get the opportunity to share a dram with Maltmonster, ask him to see the photo of Kelly on his phone. 😉
Watch for Part 3, tasting notes on eight different SMWS casks, coming soon. Slainte!