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What do the Scotch Malt Whisky Society distillery numbers and label colours mean?

The distinctive Scotch Malt Whisky Society bottles sport colourful labels and numbers but no distillery names - their master brand ambassador talks us through why this is.

Published: May 20, 2020
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Members of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society will be familiar with the dark green bottles, coloured labels and distillery numbers - but do you know what they mean?

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has been a club for whisky fans since the 80s, which offers members access to single cask whiskies.

Set up by Pip Hills, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) was born at a time when a single cask or single malt was not on-trend. In fact the entire industry was on its knees in a recession - a downturn that wouldn't change path until recent years.

But since that time the SMWS has become a popular social club with bars and members worldwide - and a huge range of whiskies to be sampled. But do you know what the label colours and numbers mean?

The SMWS master brand ambassador, John McCheyne, spoke recently on our podcast Scran, about the society history and the meaning behind the label number and colours.

SMWS history

"Our society started in 1983 in the teeth of a whisky recession," says John. "There was a whole economic recession but whisky was suffering as well. It was a man called Pip Hills who started the society off and it was a very brave thing to do at the time - I think people thought he was mad.

"But the idea was to celebrate the individual flavours that single cask single malt can bring to people - and it was always all about getting members together, about gathering and discovering these fantastic flavours together."

What do the label numbers and colours mean?

The SMWS whiskies fall into categories of flavour profile, which are: young and spritely (light purple label), sweet fruity and mellow (darker purple), spicy and sweet (very dark purple), spicy and dry (yellow), deep rich and dried fruits (orange), old and dignified (maroon), light and delicate (light blue), juicy oak and vanilla (darker blue), oily and coastal (dark blue), lightly peated (very light green), peated (green) and heavily peated (dark green).

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The numbers donate which distillery the cask has come from and goes way back to the start of the society, as John explains. "When we started in 1983 there wasn't as much single malt around then, in fact if you look at the Harrods retail guide in 1981, they said that only one of every 100 whiskies they had for sale was a single malt.

"When we went to the very first distillery, Glenfarclas, in 1983, they were nervous about us putting their name on the bottle because people didn't know so much then (about single malt) as they do now, so they'd maybe get confused about the flavour of that casks versus the Glenfarclas proprietary expressions, which are a mix of casks.

"So we developed and use the numbering systems to allow people to concentrate on the very individual flavour in that bottle, because if we put Glenfarclas or Glenlivet on the bottle people might expect that proprietary expression that they drank last night or last week.


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"Because of this, the numbers work well," says John. But what do they stand for? "One dot one was the first cask from Glenfarclas, so 29 dot 234 is the 234th cask from distillery 29 (Laphroaig).

"Following the development of the internet, people can look up what code is attached to which distillery and a lot a lot of people do. But the whole ethos behind the numbering is that you're not influenced before you drink the whisky, by what you think is in the bottle."

The whisky from the SMWS has always been approved by a tasting panel before it is bottled for members, and it's this panel that come up with the creative names.

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"That's where the tasting note comes from, which can sometimes be very expressive," John says. "The bottle is given a name to reflect the tasting note but people will get different things from the whisky and no-one should be concerned about that."

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind writes for The Scotsman on all things food and drink related as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.

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