I know this thread has been dead for a while now, but it was actually the thread, which made me want to register, and as the topic is rather relevant to me I will go ahead and recount my experiences.
So as I mentioned in my intro post, I have recently returned for a rather lengthy stint, over three years, in mainland China for work. Although a beautiful country as you might imagine a good dram is a rather hard thing to find, especially if one was moving around the countryside rather than spending time in the big cities.
As a little background I was a SMWS member in London a long time back, say 7 years ago, before I started traveling for my job. And back then I not only purchased their bottles I also visited their venues, and participated in tastings from time to time. So although I would be first to say that I didn't use the society to the full of the extent I could have, I certainly had a good time. Incidentally I am desperately looking for a SMWS bottling, the G5.3, for my grandfather so if you have a bottle spare drop me a line.
I am now split between two, or even three, cities, spending the majority of my time (say 25 days of a month) in Eastern Europe. Luckily however there is a SMWS chapter here and they even do tastings and have a bar/venue right in the city center. So I decided to attend a tasting to see how things fair…
The email contact was very pleasant, and I promptly received a brochure for the next tasting, along with payment information. As a non-member I would have to pay roughly 35% more than if I was a member. Fair enough I though, and awaited the tasting.
The SMWS chapters venue is rather impressive, considering the surroundings: a very tidy, if perhaps small, modern whisky bar right in the city center. The tasting went well, I cannot say that everything I heard was a revelation to me but I did learn one or two new things, and really enjoyed two of the whiskys we tried. And after the tasting there was opportunity to chat and indulge a little more in the whiskys. A very pleasant atmosphere indeed.
Now for the not so great parts:
1. The venue is not actually owned by SMWS, nor is one purchasing from SMWS, but rather from a separate intermediary, who as you can imagine adds their percentage on to any and all prices. Meaning you everything from a dram at the bar to a bottle after the tasting is approximately 40% more expensive than in the UK.
2. There were no bottles to purchase after the tasting! As I mentioned I was somewhat keen on two of the bottles, both Islay, and we were told in the tastint brochure that there would be a couple of bottles of each for sale after the tasting. When I got to one of the organizers though I was told that from the whiskeys that I was interested in all the bottles were sold/reserved before the tasting. GREAT! So basically the tasting is like giving me something I like and then telling me I can never have it again. Superb.
3. To add insult to injury the ‘society bar’ (not operated by the society at all) had several bottles of the one of the whiskeys I wanted, surprising since I was told ‘there are not more bottles anywhere’ by the organizer. And the bar manager was happy to sell me a bottle… for tripe the price. Hurrah!
4. The delay! Here I mean the delay in the whiskeys you taste. We tasted whiskeys, which were released in the UK around 6 to 12 moths ago. So Unless you pre-reserved (as mentioned above) there is no way you can expect to buy anything worthwhile you taste. I mean if there are bottles left over in the UK after 12 months it must be a pretty gnarly bottling indeed.
5. The final negative of the evening was how the organizers and the person condicting the tasting kept treating the attendees. We were constantly told how “rare” and “special” SMWS bottlings were sine they were single cast and never to be repeated etc etc. We were force fed this doctrine throughout the evening as if everyone there was drinking a single malt for the first time. I don’t like such force sale tactics, especialy when the insult me intelligence/experience. A couple of times I really felt as if I was at one of those ‘seminars’ for older people showing, and force selling, the newest/greatest set of pans.
Overall I don’t see the point of joining an international SMWS chapter. The membership gives you nothing: without a membership you can still attend tastings and buy bottles after the tasting just paying around 30% more for the privilege (for the tastings the difference is about 7 pounds, so not much at all). And since tastings have are once every two months and I don’t see myself buying bottles frequently (nor are many available, remember there were 10 bottles available in all available after this tasting) so I imagine that year in year out I would sent the same amount with or without the membership abroad.
The SMWS Overseas membership, where you have a SMWS UK membership (and can buy from their website as long as you can provide a UK mailing address) and can also attend any SMWS function anywhere in the world as a member (ie paying slightly less) seems interesting, however I am still waiting for the details on how that works exactly from SMWS.
Anyway those are my, rather long, two cents. I would discourage anyone to join the local SMWS chapters outside the UK as they are not managed as well as the UK branch (non-society venues, a great delay in bottling tastings, and vastly limited bottle availability) and they certainly are more expensive they anything in the UK (from a dram at a venue to purchasing a bottle).