It was the middle of a Chicago heat wave. 98 degrees and 100% humidity. The air was as thick as a hot mash. Perfect drinking weather for some smoked beers, imperial stouts, and some of the finest Scotch you can imagine.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) out of Edinburgh, Scotland has created an entirely unique business model and customer experience through its Scotch membership program. In their view, too much of the Scotch-buying public is influenced by brand disproportionately to taste and quality. Some of the oldest and most respected brands in Scotland are owned by large corporations who spend enormous amounts of money of advertising, exporting, and brand building, while small family distilleries toil away in obscurity despite making some of the world's greatest Scotches. This creates a drinking consumer that's ill-equipped to explore the world of Scotch beyond the brands to which they are most loyal, and develop a self-directed palate that can be their guide. The SMWS aims to change all that. They call dibs on single barrels from a wide variety of Scottish distilleries, conduct taste tests to determine the best and most interesting, and release each one under their private label with only a numerical code for the distillery and barrel from which it came. The SMWS drinker has no knowledge of whence any particular Scotch comes, and therefore relies on the expertise of SMWS and their own palates to guide them on their journey. The result is an unbiased interpretation of the Scotch's quality, flavors, and evocative spirit. And while the drinker can never purchase another bottle of that particular Scotch, they are a better informed, more capable, and ambitious Scotch drinker for the experience of just that one bottle. The SMWS is creating a new generation of thoughtful consumers.
They aim to bring this mission to other shores as well. Georgina Bell (Georgie), is an ambassador for SMWS and is traversing the US with boxes and boxes of some of the finest Scotches her homeland has ever produced. In addition to connect with America's existing Scotch circles, she's seeking out another burgeoning culture in American beverage aficionados — the craft beer drinker. Despite years of consolidation and homogeneity in the beer world, it's America's craft drinkers that have pushed back the bland corporate tide and started exploring what the world of beer has to offer. The sophistication, vocabulary, and expertise that America's craft drinkers developed in such a short amount of time is unparalleled in the beverage industry. And with a solid home-base, these drinkers are re-engaging with all sorts of craft products, from wine, to coffee, to distilled grains. Craft beer is the conduit through which an American beer drinker will re-discover the world of exceptional food and beverage.
In collaboration with Chicago-based photographer and designer, Nathan Michael, I was happy to offer some American hospitality to our Scotch-bearing guest, Georgie, by providing an inspiring space, audience, and craft beer pairings alongside her Scotches for an evening. We gathered at the Land & Sea Dept., home to the creative team behind many of Chicago's best restaurant projects such as Longman & Eagle and Parson's Chicken & Fish, as well as serving as a home to artists and makers, including Cody Hudson. Located on the far west side of Chicago in a non-descript industrial corridor, Land & Sea is a hub of design, art, and woodworking, and served as the perfect gathering place for our crew of 20-or-so fellow artists, designers, writers, coffee roasters, brewers, and friends.
Solemn Oath Brewery started us off with E-Ville, a spicy brown ale with chocolate, caramel and a hefty roast with a citrusy hop bitterness. SOB's Paul Schneider presented the particular merits of E-Ville, focusing on the story of its grain bill, appropriate for a Scotch tasting, and helped us all start connecting a common vocabulary. There was no easing in to things on this night. With sweat dripping from our brows, and large industrial fans trying to push the soupy Chicago air through the space, this beautiful beer did the job of preparing our palates for the deep, earthy sweetness of the Scotch that was to come.
Georgie paired Scotch 35.61 with E-Ville. Full of fudge, toffee, and demerara notes (a type of natural brown sugar), 35.61 is aged in a bourbon barrel, bringing plenty of wood and spice, alongside some pineapple and juicy notes. With a splash of water, it opens with more of a botanical, herbal quality and a bit of bitterness in the aftertaste.
The next pairing put Greenbush's Retribution ale made with brown sugar, raisins, and honey alongside SMWS 30.71. Retribution's deep, dark sweetness was a perfect platform for 30.71's burt, buttery flavor and dried cranberry finish. Aged in a sherry barrel, 30.71 has a sparkling ruby color in its highlights and tasted best at full strength.
By the third pairing, Georgie had saturated our minds with a beautiful vocabulary resonate with some of the most sophisticated beers on the market, but also completely in its own world with words like "boat-builder's workbench" and "Christmassy," evoking the aromatic apple logs, chimney soot and roast pork of the British holiday season. Phil Kuhl or Wirtz Beverage poured out tastes of Ballast Point's Victory at Sea — a velvety imperial porter with loads of vanilla and coffee. In recent years, Victory at Sea has become Ballast Point's avant-garde, inspiring a festival devoted to this beer as a platform for flavor experimentation.
Phil also poured Ölvisholt Lava from Iceland, one of the newest beers in the Vandberg & DeWulf portfolio. Lava is a smoked imperial stout with plenty of booze and sweetness in the flavor profile. With glasses full of Victory at Sea and Lava all around, Georgie opened her last bottle, the SMWS 29.128 — a heavily smoked Scotch that drank like a meal. Balsamic glaze, grilled meats, leather and timber all jump into the nose. With a splash of water, it opens up like a bonfire with citrus like burnt limes. It's hard to believe that anything could have re-awoken out palates after Lava, but 29.128 was like a smelling salt for the tongue and spurred an entirely new round of inspired opines on the worlds of beer and Scotch. And finally, Deschutes' Black Butte Porter Anniversary 24 closed out evening. Its dark chocolate and dark fruit like a soothing salve on our spirits.
From toffee to pineapple, herbs to cranberry, wood to bog smoke, Georgie took us on a journey of the growing craft distillery industry in Scotland through its unbiased flavors. We may never know the brands or barrels we drank that night — and that's entirely the point. Like many of life's greatest lessons, the long way is often the best way. Rather than shortcutting a description with a style name, or bookmarking a brand in our minds— our table of curious drinkers relied on an unending vocabulary, our palates, and the SMWS to guide us home. We are all better for it.
A huge thanks to Land & Sea Dept., Paul Schneider of Solemn Oath Brewery, Phil Kuhl of Wirtz Beverage, Georgie Bell of SMWS, and of course Nathan Michael for saying "hey, wanna do a beer and Scotch pairing?" Everyone came together and made it an incredible night. Already looking forward to the next one.