As The Scotch Malt Whisky Society celebrates its 40th anniversary, Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan takes a trip back in time in the company of founder Pip Hills, to the remote farm where his whisky epiphany took place.
I’m in deepest rural Aberdeenshire, a vintage lemonade bottle of Society whisky in hand, taking it back to the place it all began. In the company of the people who made it happen.
Duncan and Catriona (K) McArdle may not be names that mean all that much to most Society members. But without their friendship with a certain Pip Hills, and their move to Denmill farm in the 1970s, we wouldn’t be here telling the story of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society on its 40 th anniversary.
As Pip explains in his book The Founder’s Tale: “If K’s grandfather hadn’t gone pearl fishing in the Torres Strait, I don’t suppose she and Duncan would have had the wherewithal to buy their little farm. And I wouldn’t have gone to visit, and we wouldn’t have mowed the barley, and I would never have met Stan. And if I hadn’t met Stan, I might never have had the least interest in whisky.”
That was in 1973, and Duncan and K are still here, even if Stan Barnett isn’t. He turned out to be the neighbouring farmer to the incomers, who put on quite a spectacle when they resurrected an ancient combine harvester to take in their field of ripe barley.
“Duncan and K, along with the farm, had bought an enormous pile of rusting machinery, including a combine harvester,” says Pip. “I thought, ‘Well, maybe we could get this to go’ to harvest the barley. We got the engine to run, and then Duncan tried various levers, as I recall.”
“I didn’t have a clue, I don’t think I’d ever been on a combine before this,” admits Duncan. “But we made it out to the field, then stopped and thought: ‘Wait a minute, what do we do now?’”
What the three of them did was bring in the barley in their own somewhat erratic style. Their efforts caused much amusement among the local farming community, who came to look at this old combine harvester weaving its way around the fields.
“They would all get out of their cars and lean on the fence and watch those townies and remark on the fact that the combine didn’t go in straight lines,” says Pip. “But we got the harvest in, and then it started raining and scarcely stopped for the next six weeks. A lot of the people who had been laughing over the gate began to wonder whether perhaps the townies knew something they didn’t.”
As Pip says, Duncan and K’s standing in the area was perceptibly improved, and they started to receive more social visits. One of those who started calling was Stan Barnett, a neighbouring farmer who took to visiting every Saturday lunchtime, along with a lemonade bottle of whisky in hand. This wasn’t any old whisky, however. It was drawn from Stan’s own sherry-matured quarter cask, which he bought each year in a special arrangement with Glenfarclas distillery. When Pip paid a visit, Stan shared a dram with him. It was a whisky epiphany – an epiphany that would start to ripple out beyond this isolated farmhouse in Aberdeenshire, to the New Town of Edinburgh, across the UK – and ultimately around the world. The ripples continue to reach further and further afield, as people get their first taste of what we now know as ‘Society whisky’ – whisky in its purest form; once sampled, never forgotten.
“What Stan shared was without doubt the finest whisky I had ever tasted,” says Pip. “I had had no great liking for whisky, I must say, but I tried this stuff, and I thought it was wonderful. It tasted just astonishing and quite unlike any whisky I’d drunk before.”
The revelation led to what Pip calls a ‘good idea’ – to get hold of some of this whisky for himself and his friends in Edinburgh. Pip pressed Stan to reveal more about the source of this mind-blowing malt, and thankfully Stan was happy to share his knowledge, and even put in a good word for his new pal.
“I called Glenfarclas and enquired as to the possibility of buying one of their fine sherry quarters,” says Pip. “I was in luck: one of their customers had recently died and had inconsiderately left no-one to inherit his annual cask. Stan’s recommendation carried weight, indicating that I was a serious and respectable person, despite being a Lowlander. I went hotfoot back to Edinburgh and spoke to those of my friends who had expressed an interest in joining with me in the pursuit of the < good idea>.”
You probably know the rest of the story, and how Pip’s ‘good idea’ grew arms and legs. The cask was purchased and shared with friends. Friends of those friends started calling in for a taste. Pip’s phone was ringing off the hook. Further epiphanies were had. And ultimately, in 1983, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society came into existence.
As Pip reflects on the purchase of his first cask: “It did not occur to me that there might be consequences, other than a very small increase in the sum total of human happiness, which nobody could say was a bad thing.”
Just how significant the increase in the sum total of human happiness may be up for debate, but for anyone who’s had the pleasure of sampling a Society whisky, we all have Pip’s epiphany with Duncan, K and Stan to thank. For those of your who haven’t experienced it for yourself – what are you waiting for?
Watch our video of Pip's return to Aberdeenshire where it all began, below: