The founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SWMS) is to receive a significant lifetime achievement award for services to Scotch Whisky at a national awards celebration which takes place in a few weeks’ time.

Pip Hills will be presented with the Dr Jim Swan Award at the 4th annual Scottish Whisky Awards in recognition of his trailblazing efforts to create what is now the world’s largest whisky club with over 35,000 members. 

Hills famously started the Society when he drove to Speyside and collected a quarter sherry cask of Glenfarclas which he shared with a few friends. The friends became a syndicate who bought casks of malt whisky for their own enjoyment and then proceeded to uncover the superior taste of full-strength, unfiltered whisky straight from the cask. 

In 1983, they opened their syndicate to the public and created The Scotch Malt Whisky Society. To house their Society, they bought The Vaults in Leith, which remains home to the SMWS to this day.  Hills retains his card, marked member number 001, and despite leaving the Society in the late 1990s, is widely credited as its entrepreneurial founder for his idea, vision and drive to make the Society a success.

Alan Wolstenholme, Chair of the Judging Panel, commented,

"Without Pip's pioneering vision, almost forty years ago, whereby he enabled enthusiasts to participate in sampling single casks of malt whisky from a wide range of distilleries, it is unlikely that today's widely available offering of single malts from an ever-expanding number of distilleries, would exist.

“His enthusiasm for promoting Single Barrel Malt, the most traditional and highest quality type of Scotch, has helped Scotch Whisky continue to be front and centre as the number one whisky of choice around the world.”

In retirement, Pip Hills is a successful author and regularly speaks at SMWS events.  He has recently spoken for the Society in Paris and plans to travel to the USA next year to deliver a number of speaking engagements as part of the Society’s 40th anniversary in 2023.

Pip Hills commented;

“Well, it’s rather amusing to be receiving a swanky award when for many years I think I was the most detested man in the whisky industry, for we were expanding at a time when they were declining.   However, these days, I am immensely proud of what the Society has achieved in Scotland and around the world.  In particular, I am impressed by the quality of the staff of the Society: they are smart, knowledgeable and self-confident without being condescending. They are warm and friendly and great ambassadors for Scotch Whisky and for Scotland.  I look forward to receiving the award and seeing some old friends at the event.”

David Ridley, Managing Director of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, commented;

“Having Pip return to the fold within the SMWS, the whisky club he founded in 1983, has been a huge personal pleasure for me, everyone at the Society, and of course our passionate membership – especially as we look ahead to our landmark 40th anniversary and reflect on where we came from and our origins with Pip and his pals. His vision, curiosity, adventurousness, dare I say even bloody-mindedness, about doing something that the wider industry at the time said was impossible, are all part of the Society’s ethos – as much today as they ever were. Pip continues to inspire us and all our members with his stories, his passion and his imagination. His contribution to the wider whisky world is immeasurable, as is his contribution to the sheer joy to be found in sharing incredible whiskies between members and friends around the world. Lang may his lum reek!”

Pip Hills will accept the award in front of over 300 leaders from the Scottish Whisky industry at the 4th annual Scottish Whisky Awards which takes place on 30 November 2022 at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre. Book your table today.   

Pip Hills, by Pip Hills.

Founder of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society

When I was young, I was obsessed with mountaineering. As a student I made the first ascent of the outside of the Scott monument and was briefly put in jail for my trouble.  I nearly died in a fall and while recuperating shifted my obsession to philosophy, which I studied for seven years at Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities. I then went straight for a bit and became a civil servant: an Inspector of Taxes, no less. Having learned about money courtesy of the Inland Revenue, after nearly five years I left and more-or-less by accident found myself with a large and successful professional practice as a poacher. I had a lot of friends in places high and low (some very high, some very low indeed). In 1977 I assembled some friends to bid for the STV licence at the Independent Broadcasting Authority, for which we raised £7.5 million with which to buy the incumbents. Somewhat to my relief (I don’t watch television) we didn’t get the licence. After the STV business (which brought a lot more friends) I discovered the finest malt whisky at a small farm in Aberdeenshire. Inspired, I formed a syndicate of friends to buy a quarter cask of Glenfarclas, for which the demand was so great – among friends of the friends – that we formed The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and brought single-cask, unfiltered  whisky to a world whose interest in Scotch whisky was declining.

This story has been covered in my 2019 book, “The Founder’s Tale” in which I recall the Society’s early history, growth of membership, and attempts at global domination.  Its success was achieved in part by some remarkable publicity in which the Society was featured in high readership newspapers in the UK, the USA and France.   Whisky fans were impressed by the quality of the whisky and the story behind the Society and the membership base grew at a tremendous rate.   The strategy for The Society was to be an advocate for the appreciation and promotion of Scotch whisky in its purest form.  Our early work created widescale appreciation of the single cask, now sold worldwide as a mainstream prestige product across the Scotch Malt whisky industry.

Foolishly, I left the management of the company to others, seeing my job as being to promote the excellence of the product and expand the membership of the Society. By the mid-1990s the overdraft caused alarm at our bank, which threatened foreclosure. Enemies gathered (I had acquired a lot of those) and my head was the price of a rescue. Fortunately, I had lots of other, more amusing, things to do and have since written three books which have met with approval. The Society went through two changes of ownership over the next two decades. In 2018, I was approached by the current management, who asked if I would consider returning to the fold. I met the new people, liked them a lot, and did so. Now I swan about, talk to Society members at grand functions and drink a lot of very good whisky. I am recently back from Paris and there is talk of a tour of the USA next year as part of the Society’s 40th anniversary celebrations. Having reached the age of 82, I view the future as evidence that there is no such thing as natural justice and do so with equanimity.

About the Scotch Malt Whisky Society

The Scotch Malt Whisky Society started life in Edinburgh in 1983, founded by Pip Hills and a group of his pals who shared a passion for the discovery and appreciation of whisky in its purest form – drawn from a single cask. We’re now the world’s largest whisky society, but that passion and nose for sensational spirits still guides everything we do.

The exploration of flavour and sharing our discoveries is what we’re all about. Our members enjoy exclusive access to whiskies hand-picked by our expert Tasting Panel, from over 150 distilleries in Scotland and beyond. We bottle them at cask strength and offer a constant variety. How you drink them is entirely up to you.

As hosts of the world’s most entertaining whisky experiences, we also bring our members together to share their passion, at tasting events, festivals, at our Members’ Rooms and international partner bars.

About The Scottish Whisky Awards

The Scottish Whisky Awards were created in 2018 with an objective to promote Scotch Whisky at home and abroad.  Created by KDMedia, the Edinburgh based event company, the programme is chaired by Alan Wolstenholme, formerly of Wm Grants and the Scottish Distillers Association.  Each year, the programme welcomes approximately 300 whiskies into the competition which are tasted in a live blind tasting event involving 30 expert judges.  In 2022, the awards announced that 165 whiskies have progressed to the finals.  The results will be announced on 30 November 2022 - St Andrews Day – at an industry dinner which will celebrate the winners and announce the ultimate award of the night, The Scottish Whisky Distillery of the Year which is kindly sponsored by Bruce Stevenson Insurance Brokers. In 2019, the awards created the Dr Jim Swan Award for services to Scotch Whisky.  The award, created with the approval of the family of the late Dr Swan, seeks to highlight the achievements of an individual involved in the whisky industry to promote Scotch whisky at home and abroad.  In 2021, the award was presented to Sheila Birtles, a former colleague of Swans and co-creator of the world’s first flavour wheel which has now been adopted worldwide by whisky and other drinks.

Photography: By Mike Wilkinson