On the SMWS, festival bottlings and handling demand

The Scottish whisky festival season came and went, and we were all in lockdown. No gatherings, just videoconferencing. No queues at distilleries, just order baskets on webpages.

Perhaps that increased demand? People knowing that they wouldn’t get to a tasting or Member’s Room to taste the festival whiskies?

Perhaps it’s just the ever-increasing demand hitting a point where the SMWS infrastructure can’t cope anymore.

It doesn’t matter which.

What matters is that it made people angry.

Angry with bottle flippers who are preventing other members from experiencing the whisky. Angry with the website, which has long been unable to handle the peaks of demand. And perhaps angry with a world in which “investment grade whisky” is apparently - unfortunately - a phrase we had to invent.

Whilst people are angry, I think that the SMWS has handled the fallout from the failure better than in years past. A survey was sent out which asked for opinions - I don’t recall that happening before, and I think that’s a good first step.

Much of the immediate comment online was around the website and its deficiencies - with talk of bottle reservations, or queuing systems. The website was where people had bottles disappear from their baskets, so the website was the problem. An understandable progression of thought.

Having given the matter some time, I’d like to just make public my thoughts.

The website is, plainly, inadequate. But no technological solution exists for this problem. The problem is not in the shopping basket or in the web infrastructure. It is in the market itself.

The whiskies are single cask. They are of a very finite supply. There is no hope of satisfying all those who would like to drink it with the current bottling methods.

We therefore have the simplest of options to consider for high demand bottlings. Do we value it more as a drink, or as a bottle?

As a drinker, I say the best solution is to move to smaller bottlings. A 10cl bottle can be shared amongst four people adequately, and would increase supply sevenfold. A 20cl bottle would increase it three and a half times. I’m not convinced at all that a 35cl bottle would be worthwhile - merely doubling supply seems to be aiming our sights too low.

25ml or 50ml miniature tasting kits don’t allow adequately for sharing, and sharing is central to the enjoyment of whisky for many of us.

The only group that a 10cl/20cl bottle hurts is whisky clubs, who may have to coordinate amongst a few of their members to try to get enough for a tasting. Which is regrettable, but that’s a tiny part of the market.

I am of course also assuming one bottle per member even with these smaller bottles. Because we’re ultimately fighting constrained supply, not a website.

Alternatively, if we value the tradition of 70cl/75cl bottlings that the market (and auction sites?) is used to, then we can seek technological solutions that will still see people complain that they couldn’t get the whisky. And nothing will truly change, except it will sell out that little bit faster with fewer hiccups.

We, as members and whisky drinkers, have to decide what is more important to us. A bigger bottle, or experiencing the whisky at all.