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Scotch Malt Whisky Society Plans Major US Expansion

A Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottle. Photo ©2016, Mark Gillespie, CaskStrength Media.July 20, 2016 – Sixteen months after acquiring the Scotch Malt Whisky Society from The Glenmorangie Company, the society’s new owners are making a major push to expand membership and sales in the United States, the world’s largest Scotch whisky export market by value. The SMWS has reached an agreement with Spirit Imports, the Florida-based owner of the SMWS United States franchise, to supplement the local marketing and sales effort in partnership with ABCK Corp., a marketing firm led by longtime spirits industry executive Arnaud Brachet. Spirit Imports will continue to serve as the importer for the SMWS single cask bottlings and provide member support, while Brachet will lead a new campaign aimed at increasing the Society’s American membership.

Spirit Imports has owned the Society’s US franchise for 23 years, and markets a number of other spirits brands including the Classic Cask series of whiskies, Millstone, SIA, and William Wolf Bourbon, while also producing the Whisky Extravaganza festivals in cities around the US. The company was founded by Alan Shayne, who continues to manage it today with his family, with Gabrielle Shayne responsible for most of the day-to-day operations of the Society’s US chapter. “We have so much going on within our organizations between Spirit Imports and the Whisky Extravaganza,” she said in a telephone interview. “It’s just pretty much the resources were kind of tight…there’s so much going on that we just haven’t been able to focus on that sector of the business.”

“Alan and Gabby Shayne have been wonderful partners and ambassadors for the Society for many years in the States, and we’re delighted of course that that continues,” SMWS Chairman Paul Skipworth said in a telephone interview. Skipworth cited Arnaud Brachet’s 25-plus years of spirits industry experience, including stints as the global marketing director for Veuve Clicquot and the US marketing director for Belvedere Vodka. “He’s got a wealth of experience, and really, putting the Shaynes together with him gives us an incredibly strong team and presence in the States, which comes to what we’re trying to achieve.” Skipworth plans to use ABCK to increase both membership and services in the US market by hiring dedicated brand ambassadors and increasing the number of “partner” bars where the Society’s independent bottlings are available to members nationwide.

Skipworth also pledged to increase investment in the Society’s inventory of casks and make more of its bottlings available in the United States. “The US market is the biggest premium whisky market in the world…there’s an amazing group of very experienced consumers in whisky who are looking to progress on their whisky journey,” Skipworth said. “Given that the Society has the largest selection of single cask Single Malt whiskies in the world, we think that we are really well placed to satisfy the demand from American consumers.” 

Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottlings on display at the SMWS Queen Street venue in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photo ©2013, Mark Gillespie/CaskStrength Media. Under the Society’s structure, a tasting panel based in Edinburgh selects casks to be bottled under the SMWS label. While all of the bottlings are available to members in the UK, operators of the 18 SMWS international chapters are able to pick and choose which expressions to import and sell in their markets. The US selection has also been limited by government regulations requiring that whiskies be sold in 750ml bottles instead of the global standard 700 ml bottles that the Society uses in all of its other markets.

The Whisky Extravaganza festivals have been the Shayne family’s main vehicle for promoting the Society in the United States until now, and that relationship will be the one major change Society members see immediately. The family will continue to operate the festivals separately from the Society’s US chapter, and the SMWS will become just one of many brands exhibiting at the events. The Society’s participation in those events is still being negotiated, according to Shayne, with a goal of reaching a deal in time for the first event of the fall scheduled for October 20 in Chicago.

In addition to the membership and marketing push in the US, the Society is also making a major investment in Edinburgh with a complete remodeling project of its Queen Street venue. The changes will include more public space, including a ground floor whisky bar and retail outlet that will make a selection of the Society’s bottlings available to non-members for the first time. Society members will have their own private room on the second floor with table service and guided tastings available. “It’s our intention for this really to be Edinburgh’s primary whisky destination and something that anyone who’s in town with an interest in whisky will want to see, said SMWS marketing and spirits director Kai Ivalo in a telephone interview. Plans are for the work to be completed by August 1 in time for the month-long Edinburgh Festival, which attracts thousands of visitors to the city each August.

Links: Scotch Malt Whisky Society | Spirit Imports | The Whisky Extravaganza