I have spent most of my life in Leith and love to take advantage of what Edinburgh has to offer, particularly food and drink!
Published November 3rd 2012
A unique atmosphere and an exclusive selection of whiskies
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society is an independent bottler of whisky and membership organisation that is open to the public to join. Details of membership and the workings of the society are covered in my earlier article here. This article is intended as an introduction to the original Society venue and its spiritual home (excuse the pun), the Vaults in Leith, Edinburgh.
The eponymous vaults that the Society sits above have a history that stretches back perhaps 800 years, though certainly documented from at least 1439 when the 'the grete volute of Villiam Logane' is mentioned in a charter by Patrick, Abbot of Holyrood. The Vaults were used by the monks of Holyrood to store wines upon which they had rights to import dues and distribution. This makes the premises the oldest building in Scotland (possibly Britain) to be continuously used for commercial purposes.
The building that we see today was erected by the Vintners' Guild of Edinburgh in 1682 and extended in 1785. The wine merchant family, Thomson, leased the building from 1753 and continued trading from it until 1960, when it was sold to Charrington United Breweries Ltd, later to become part of Tennent Caledonian, of brewing fame. Falling into disrepair through neglect the building was sold on again in 1983 to the current owners, the newly inaugurated Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
Today the Vaults building has been restored in traditional and well-appointed style. The cavernous Members' Room itself is bedecked in dark wood with open fires and leather sofas. The high ceiling sports a huge montage of images and words relating to whisky and the society itself - wonderful to gaze upon as you recline (or slump!). During daylight hours the dark red walls and carpet are contrasted by the huge windows, which let the light flood in. At night, the atmosphere becomes more intimate particularly on weekends when the place really comes alive with the buzz of chatter and laughter. The venue is very much in the mould of a 'gentlemans' club' but the atmosphere is more relaxed than stuffy. The Society has an eclectic mix of members, women comprise around a quarter of members and there is a wide range of ages.
The SMWS is, of course, famous for its single-cask, cask-strength, malt whiskies and whisky menus are available at the bar. Each cask is identified by a number and titles such as 'Capering on a riverbank' or 'Hairy-chested claymore wielding dram'. The characteristics are described in similarly flowery terms (emphasising fun over esotericism) and the region, cask provenance and strength are also detailed, (e.g. Speyside Lossie, 20 years old, refill sherry gorda, 53.1%). If this doesn't mean much to you the bar staff are always able to make well-informed recommendations. There is a helpful video here that provides more information.
Besides the hard stuff, a selection of wines, beers, spirits, teas, coffee and soft drinks is also available.
A seasonal bar menu is available all day serving a range of snacks and meals. You can eat from the low tables by the sofas if you wish, though there are regular dining tables and chairs available if you are tucking into a substantial meal. A sample bar menu is available here and, having eaten from it I can vouch for both quality and value.
Functions and events
The Society has function rooms that are currently free to hire for members events (for 2012 at least), catering can be arranged via the events team. These rooms often also double as venues for tasting events, which are sometimes themed e.g. Burns night suppers or film showings.
A Personal View
Personally I prefer the club styling of the Vaults to the wine bar feel of Queen Street (which I plan to review next). The building is steeped in history which permeates the atmosphere and it's a great place to while away a few hours, whether it be a quiet Sunday lunch with the papers or with friends on a Friday or Saturday night out. The staff is informal and friendly though never less than attentive and knowledgeable about the products on offer. The Vaults is a unique location, the perfect venue for the business of the SMWS and I feel privileged to belong. I can't recommend it highly enough.