At the SMWS Members’ Room in London (June 2018)

Back to London in June, this time not to a restaurant (though I did eat some tasty food there). No, this is a brief account of an evening spent in the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s Members’ Room in London. I am not a member of the Society. It never seems to make sense to join in the US, but if I lived in London or Edinburgh I would be all over it. This is because while in the US we only have a few “Partner Bars” where SMWS whiskies may be sampled, London and Edinburgh have Members’ Rooms where you can try whiskies from current and recent outturns and even get a taste of things about to be bottled. And the Members’ Room at 19 Greville St. in London is very nice indeed. How did I get in even though I am not a member? Well, a member can bring a guest and I was the guest of someone who is a member not just of the SMWS but also of the OWI (Online Whisky Illuminati): Billy Abbott. 

As he was coming from work and I was not, I beat Billy there. This even though it took me a while to find the door once I was at the address. The premises are divided into two areas: the general Members’ Room on the first floor (second floor to Americans) and a separate Tasting Room on the second floor (third floor to Americans) where events take place. The members’ room is a nice size with a compact bar, lots of light coming in through the windows and tables not too close together. A limited food menu is available as well; I believe the food comes from another establishment downstairs. The Members’ Room was mostly empty when I got there but by the time Billy arrived shortly thereafter it had begun to fill up. By the time I left a few hours later it was completely full. I believe there was an event of some kind going on in the Tasting Room and so I did not get a look at it.

The only whiskies on offer at the bar are, of course, the SMWS’ own releases. Luckily, there are so many of these that you are highly unlikely to wish for more. Prices are quite reasonable for a pour and are in 10 tiers—marked by letters on the bottles—from £5.10 to £28.50 a pour. I’m not sure how this goes if you are not with someone with a beard as prodigious as Billy’s but we were given tastes of a number of things before committing to pours, and we also got tastes of a few bottles that weren’t yet released. The bartenders are very well informed about the qualities of the whiskies and made very good recommendations based on specified characteristics.

Now, I wish I could tell you everything we drank. However, while we certainly had more than two whiskies, I only seem to have photographed two of the bottles. The whiskies were very enjoyable but the conversation was even more so and I was not bothering with taking notes or otherwise obsessing over the whiskies—I save that for when I’m drinking alone. For the last 45 minutes or so of my visit we were joined at our table by John McCheyne, SMWS’ Brand Ambassador for the London area. Now, I’m usually temperamentally suspicious of Brand Ambassadors but John was capital company and regaled us with stories of his visits to Islay from the 1980s on and with his views on people who are too doctrinaire about how whisky should be enjoyed. Drinking good whisky is always nice; drinking it with other people who enjoy drinking it is even better.

Launch the slideshow for a quick look at the space. Scroll down to see what’s coming next.

Oh yes, I ate some food as well. I’d hoped to try the “Meat and Cheese Board” but it was not available that evening. Instead I got the “Famous Venison Scotch Egg” (very nice with gherkins and cranberry chutney) and the “Dorset Crab with Mayonnaise on Toast” (also very good).

This is now the second time I’ve had a drink with Billy in London. The first time was at Milroy’s when I was in the city for a week in 2016. Somehow we never got together when I was there for three months in 2017; it’s always the way: when you’re in town for an extended period there’s no urgency to making plans and the next thing you know you’re on the plane going back. Though I’m not sure when I’ll be in London next, I look forward to drinking with Billy again and I will not say no if he proposes a return to the Members’ Room.

Next up from this trip to London: lunch at Ottolenghi in Islington. But before that I’ll have a report on a very good Indian meal in the Twin Cities South Metro and another Bombay report.

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