I am not now, nor have I ever been a member of a private whisky club. I am a proud Scotch Malt Whisky Society member, I’ve attended tastings hosted by the Companions Of The Quaich, and private events like the Ypenburg Whisky Festival, but have never claimed official membership amongst any particular intimate collective of whisky compatriots. My lack of extended, hands on experience with such clubs only intensifies my desire to learn more, and to perhaps fly my own flag as leader of a merry band of malt mates some day.
In the meantime, I felt it would be a wise course of action to consult some experts in the matter, and reach out to representatives of some of the more prominent (in social media circles at least) whisky clubs across Canada and around the globe, to gain some insight and understanding about what turns a handful of whisky loving friends into and honest to goodness Whisky Club.
I’ve consulted the heads of the Toronto Whisky Society from Toronto, Ontario, Wee Rock Whisky Club from Salt Spring Island, B.C., Smoke and Dirt from my home base of Victoria, B.C., and my old friends Whisky Club Ypenburg from The Hague, Netherlands, for input about what makes their clubs unique, and advice for those wishing to join or even start a club of their own. I’ve asked the same questions of each club, and present their answers as written below, with only minor edits for space and clarity.
In What Year Was Your Club Founded?
Toronto Whisky Society: The Toronto Whisky Society was founded in 2016 by a small group of whisky reviewers who met through Reddit’s Whisky Network, and at the time had about 2000 online whisky reviews under their belts (now at around 3500!).
Wee Rock Whisky Club: Founded in about 2004…though we didn’t have a name. We just drank whisky.
Smoke and Dirt: We began on December 1, 2012.
Whisky Club Ypenburg: We don’t have an exact founding year. I was already hosting tastings at my home in 2012, but the name Whisky Club Ypenburg was first coined in 2014.
How Many Members Did You Begin With? How Many Do You Have Currently?
TWS: We initially had 12 members who had met through Reddit, and decided to invite more, primarily via Reddit’s /r/canadawhisky subreddit, to join. Numbers grew to about 30 early in 2017, and again expanded in December 2017 to 50, with a current wait list twice that size, as people began messaging us through our website.
WRWC: [Started with] four members. We have about 40 active members, though we have some fringe members who attend when they can, but have relocated away from the coast. Over the last year of tastings, 35 different members have been in attendance.
S&D: Started out with 4 founding fathers (formalized through a signed Terms of Reference that hangs in my garage), followed up by an additional newfound father (addendum to the Terms of Reference was signed and also hangs in my garage), and since then a new unofficial newfound father, and around 20 people in total now.
WCY: That’s a bit hard to answer, since we don’t have an official starting date. But the first BYOB I organized had an attendance of 3 (including myself) . When the first themed tastings started (around 2014) we had around 15 members. Currently we are sitting around 50 members.
How Often Do You Hold Tastings?
TWS: In 2017 we held 8 events, and are planning approximately the same number for 2018.
WRWC: We have held 4 tastings over the past year, and usually aim for 3-4 formal tastings with a few more informal gatherings during the year.
S&D: Tastings are held between 1-3 times per year. We also regularly attend the tastings of other whisky clubs in the area, and we’ve met nearly all of them via Twitter.
WCY: My wife allows me to organize a maximum of one tasting per month, and we don’t do tastings in summer. In 2017 we had 8 regular tastings, and three BYOB events (a new years dinner in Dordrecht, a Summercamp in Zeeland and, of course, the infamous Ypenburg Whiskyfestival). For 2018 it will be around the same.
Briefly Describe How The Average Tasting You Hold Is Organized:
TWS: Our events vary in size and type, from ambassador-led tastings to custom line-ups of independent bottlings sourced via travel. Any entry costs for events are on a break-even basis, to minimize the cost to members and make it as accessible as possible.
WRWC: This last year, we have held tastings in a different format than we had previously. I would source 4-5 different bottles with a total price of around $600. I would run the tasting advertising the bottles and between 12-16 people would be in attendance, each member paying $35-40. Another member would create elaborate tasting mats that are sponsored by a local company. I’d prepour 3/4 ounce samples. Members would bring something to share, usually food, but sometimes a starter whisky or a post-tasting dram. About half of each bottle would be consumed over the night. At the end of the year, we held a heels party in which we would taste four new whiskies, but the cost was $90 as each person would go home with a heel. At the night’s end, we drew cards to see who would choose first to last, Ace first, Deuce second….
This is similar to how we used to run our tastings. I would source 8-12 bottles, close in price, usually aiming for about $90-120 averaged out. There would be one spot for each bottle, and as in our previous tastings, everyone would bring something to share. These bottles would all be prepoured and sampled completely blind by our attendees, so when they decided to choose a bottle based on the luck of the card draw at the night’s end, they did so based entirely on taste.
S&D: Each tasting is usually a bit different. Our traditional method is simple, where everyone brings over whatever they have in their cabinet, and we open pour all night. These meetings tend to get noisy. Other tastings we have held include a highlight structured pre-purchased lineup with $100 admission getting 10 1/2 ounce pours, followed by cards drawn and heels brought open by everyone.
[A]nother format was everyone brings a bottle in a certain price range, those are all poured 1/2 ounce blind by the host, and then heels are brought home and determined by cards drawn. [L]ately we’re doing shared bottles, where everyone pitches in for a bottle in the $175-$250 range to be shared by all.
WCY: Our club is blessed with some of the most passionate whisky enthusiasts of the Netherlands (and Belgium) as its members. The theme and line up of each tasting is determined by one of our members and the bottles are sourced from their private collection (and we have some members with insane collections). The price of a tasting should be enough to cover the cost of the poured whisky (so, since we pour 20ml drams. purchase price of the whisky / 700ml * 20ml). We work with two seasons (spring and fall), which are planned per season (4 tastings per season). Ideas for themes for tastings are submitted by members. As a location we use my living room in Ypenburg, The Hague, which seats 15 people per tasting.
Can You List 2 Or 3 Of The Most Memorable, Interesting Or Unique Bottlings Your Club Has Tasted Together?
TWS: Some of the most memorable bottles we tasted this year would be our own custom bottling of a 21yr Tobermory single cask, a 43yr Speyside single cask from the Whisky Agency, and the full Northern Border Collection from Corby (you can find details of each of those on our website).
WRWC: Some of the most interesting bottles we have tried over the years include: Amrut Spectrum, a single cask Amrut from a peated port pipe, an 11yo Clynelish from Murray McDavid, Highland Park St Magnus, Bruichladdich PC5, SMWS G5.3.
S&D: Most recent unique bottle was an Old Malt Cask Highland Park 23 YO, bottled in 2007. Most unique bottle of all time was at the Victoria Whisky Festival a few years ago, where the Canadian Club rep was pouring something brought up by a fellow from San Jose known as The Ardbeg Project, and it was a Canadian Club bottled in something like 1937. It was stored perfectly. Other gems include a 35 YO Port Ellen, and the recent Bruichladdich Black 5.1 was a big hit.
WCY: That would be very hard to answer. We have had a lot of high end tastings with a lot of very special bottles. But I can name a few of my own favourites: Bunnahabhain 1973 The Whiskyman (Ugly Faces), Bunnahabhain 1968 The Whiskyman (Music Label), Tobermory 1972, Parker’s Heritage Collection 8th Edition.
Any Words Of Advice For Newcomers Looking To Found Their Own Whisky Club?
TWS: Don’t bite off more than you can chew and grow slowly, do it for the love of whisky – don’t start a club if your goal is to make a profit, and the key to success is the relationships you build with people in the industry and other whisky fans and influencers.
WRWC: Go and have fun. Good people with good whisky makes for some fun times. Add good food, some frivolity and good common sense to keep everyone safe, and it should all work out. It is about community being created through a common interest. Do not tolerate drinking and driving. Make it conditional.
S&D: Join Twitter; make sure that [you] avoid all snobs; purchase glass vials and do sample swaps as much as you can; and most importantly, create your own Club logo through a website like Fiverr, and print [a] custom #lapelpin for everyone in the Club. Instant laughs and street cred at the same time. Last piece of advice is to check out the micro distillery boom that is everywhere lately. Our Club has bought into 3 separate futures casks, and it is a great point of excitement and discussion amongst the lads.
WCY: First of all, try to find a buddy or two from the start [s]o that you can discuss, bounce ideas of each other and you don’t have to do everything yourself. It would also be wise to think about how to keep it interesting for all members (from the occasional drinkers to the whisky geeks), I think that is the hardest part for a successful whisky club. Maybe mix up the levels of tasting: one high end, one intermediate and one entry level tasting, or combination of this in one tasting. But where would you source the bottles for the high end tasting? And what would you do with the remaining part in the bottles? It would be great if you have some ‘whisky geeks’ in your club who are willing to share some bottles at cost. Also think of ways how to communicate, and keep it alive. For us it is mainly done via a Facebook group; it is easy, it is quick and everybody can join in. But the downside is, not all members are on Facebook and we have to communicate to them through other channels.
Finally, If Whisky Lovers In Your Area Are Interested In Joining, How Should They Contact You?
TWS: If anyone wants to contact us about joining TWS, they can follow the link on our contact page and fill out the membership application form. If distilleries wish to contact us about doing a review of a bottle, or if an individual, company or group want us to lead a tasting for them, they can use the contact form to email us!
WRWC: Yes, please contact me. We are always looking to expand our community. Best way is to send me a note through Twitter @weerockwhisky, but firstname.lastname@example.org usually works, though it is not checked regularly.
S&D: We love to accept new members, and best way to contact me is via this Twitter account – @SmokeandDirt
WCY: I’m sorry. Unfortunately we don’t [accept] new members since a year or so [ago]. As said previously, we only can seat 15 people per tasting, and if the club gets bigger than it already is, too many people would be disappointed per tasting.