Saturday, March 3, 2012

Whisky Clubs, Admission Denied, and My Solution

Thirty years ago, a few good men got together and formed a whisky club.  They liked whisky and decided to pool their resources, buy some bottles, find some cosy lounge area of a private social club, meet regularly, discuss and enjoy all things whisky.  Over time the club grew.  With many members, all paying fees, the club could buy expensive bottles, organize tours to Scotland, even organize a whisky festival and get a cut of the festival proceeds to fund the club.

A friend of mine, who was a former member, told me about the club and suggested that I should join.  I thought sure.  Where do I sign up?  But, the website offers no mailing address, no contact info (other than an email link), no explanation about how to join or anything else along those lines.  It also appeared not to have been updated in about 7 years, many bad links, and a "members only" login area.  My friend suggested I speak to the gentleman in charge of the club.

I approached the stout, greyish gentleman in charge of this whisky club, and inquired about joining.  This affable serjeant-at-arms type of fellow replied that membership was full and until someone left, I couldn't get in.  I was cool with that.

I understood that membership attrition at this whisky club was not at the same Wile E. Coyote plunging-off-a-cliff rate as say the latest multi-level marketing "No Money Down - Get Rich Quick in Real Estate" scam hatched by some slick Herb Tarlek wannabe that was infecting late night TV and hotel ballrooms everywhere.

Super Salesman Herb Tarlek of "WKRP in Cincinnati"

About six months later, casually, in an off-handed kinda way, over lunch I inquired once more.  "Nope."  I asked again after that and the answer was still 'no.'  And maybe I queried one final time, trying not to grovel, and the response was a bemused glance to the ceiling and a shake of the head.

To make matters worse, this past November I found myself seated at a whisky dinner that was attended by a member of this seemingly secret society.  At my table is a young lady around I would say 25 years.  I was relieved to see that women could be members.  I ask her what are her favorite malts?  She sputters a little and replies unconvincingly that she likes them all.  A couple more questions and I surmise she has some interest in whisky, kinda like I have some interest in watching reruns of that whiny harpie, Sarah Jessica Parker, on Sex and the City in my spare time (I don't think so).  What gives?

A couple of months later, another ex-member tells me he got out because his work schedule was too demanding, but also the organization had become increasingly formal and populated by a growing number of members who were not necessarily passionate whisky fans.  As an example, he told me about the stockbroker member who was working the room like Bill Clinton at a gala event for Miss America contestants.  Networking!  Bleh!

Problem:  Weighing all these factors in mind, I quickly realized that my chances of gaining admission to this rarefied whisky club in my home town was about as likely as I getting through the front door of New York's elite private club: Century Association (pictured left) or the Union Club of New York (not pictured, but you can click on the link and imagine the scent of red leather wingback chairs in dark burnished wood panelled rooms).  

Solution: I decided to start our my own whisky club!

Let's Keep it Casual
Of paramount importance for 'this thing of ours' (pronounce with Brooklyn accent), to borrow a phrase from another equally nefarious secret society, is to have a casual social function where whisky enthusiasts, whether they be novices or connoisseurs, can, in a relaxed, non-snobby environment, enjoy a dram and marvel at what a magical blessing it is.  Have some nice conversation, and basically a good time.  No need to burn a photograph of a Christian Saint in the palm of an initiate's hand while he or she recites Robbie Burns  poetry or at the very least, reads aloud the distillery tasting note off the back label of a bottle of Glenfiddich 12.

I do not want this club, I am putting together, to look like this:

A black tie affair at "The Union Club of New York"

Nor do I want the club to look like this:

A black leather affair at the Sons of Anarchy club house

I need a happy medium.  Not a psychic medium.  Just a happy medium. Shirley Maclaine need not apply here.

Money collected in support of a whisky club has the ability to take a laid-back meeting of some hapless whisky fans sitting on a couch, and turn it into a behemoth of corporate governance around a  bloody boardroom table.  Don't believe me?  That's ok.  That's why I like you.  You're a skeptic.  Here, let me bend your ear for a moment.

I have called together seven guys (no ladies because none I know want to be caught dead with us) that will meet at my house in two weeks or so with $100 each to hand over to use as start-up capital.  That means we have $700 to go out and buy: some whisky; Glencairn glassware; and maybe a couple of books on bourbon and scotch for the club.  At each subsequent meeting, attendees have to hand over $10-$20, in order to keep regular cash flow coming in to buy more whisky, books, glassware, snacks, etc.

If membership expands beyond the founding members, you got some serious cash coming in.  Who is going to collect and account for the funds?  Should that person be the same one that buys the scotch, books, etc?  Should the two functions be separated?  What about financial statements?  Do we need to review those at each meeting?  Maybe we need a treasurer?  Should the treasurer collect directly from new members or should an "admissions officer" handle that task?

Ok, you're starting to get the picture.  And as my mother always says, you get to see a person's true character by observing how they handle money in relation to others.  Is everyone gonna be on my wavelength?

What am I to do?  Let it evolve baby!  When I was a freshly minted 22 year old college, know-it-all graduate, I would tell you in exhaustive detail, a very linear solution.  We'd have a governance structure that would look like it came right out of the pages of some consulting accounting firm.  Well, I am not 22 years old.  I'm much, much older.  And as I get older, I am less structured and more intuitive.  In fact, I abhor structure.  It's all about gut instinct!  How this club evolves and how I endeavour to keep it from becoming as exclusive as Augusta National Golf Club cannot be explained, but it's gonna happen.  Because if need be, I'll call in a couple of hoods, along the lines of TV's fictional Sons of Anarchy motorcyclist enthusiast club 'Samcro', in order to enhance my powers of persuasion, and if necessary: a little Stalinesque membership purge!

Hey, a thought just ocurred to me.  Am I becoming exclusive like the other club that rejected me?


Jason Debly

P.S.  Sons of Anarchy is one helluva an entertaining show!  Watch it and you will be hooked by some great drama!

Copyright © Jason Debly, 2009-2012. All rights reserved. Any and all use is prohibited without permission except for the following images: (1) The Century Association front entrance photograph - photographer is Ashley Mungo who holds all copyright; (2) Wile E. Coyote image - created by Chuck Jones for Warner Bros. "Looney Tunes" series;  (3) WKRP in Cincinnati" screen shot taken from an optical disc - copyright holder is 20th Century Fox Television; (4) "The Dark Knight" full promotional image released by Warner Bros. Pictures who are copyright holders; (5) "Sons of Anarchy" promotional image made available by production company FX Productions via their website.  (6) Photograph of black tie affair at The Union Club of New York - photographer unknown - source of photograph is website of world renowned Florentine portrait artist Maria Teresa Meloni.  Note:  All images appearing in this article are for the purposes of nostalgia, education and entertainment.  Moreover, all images used are considered by the author to be significant in illustrating the subject matter, facilitating artistic/critical commentary, as it provides an immediate relevance to the reader more capably than the textual description alone.


  1. Jason, good luck with your club! Also, not sure if you did anything, but your blog feed is finally working. You'll be getting less pageviews now since I won't have to check your site everyday to see if you posted ;-)

    1. Hi! Ryan,

      Yeah, I played around with the feed a bit. Deleted it, reloaded and am glad to hear it is working. Thanks again for the heads-up on that issue.

  2. Good luck with the new whisky club. Being in Scotland the stuffy, formal variety are everywhere and have been in existence since the dawn of time. Scottish whisky sponsors alot of golf tournaments and I can see why; the 'exclusive' golfing membership seems the same tiring environment.

    I've been asked whether I'd thought about joining or if for some a gift membership would be appreciated. I'm not really into social networking which many of these meeting spots seem to facilitate. I'd rather drink with friends and if I meet someone with interesting conversation then so be it, fantastic.

    To assist your club if it requires any particular bottles that are overpriced or difficult to track down, then let me know. If you cannot find it in Scotland, then its not worth finding!

    I'll be visiting Tullibardine, Talisker and Edradour in the next month, with plenty of others to follow in 2012.

    1. Thanks for the offer to help source difficult to find bottles where I am. I may take you up on that if we run into that problem.

      I look forward to your posts on your trips to those great distilleries!

  3. This is an outstanding idea. If I lived anywhere near your location I would apply to join post haste.
    Sadly I do not but that just means I'll have to start my own.

  4. Awesome idea, Jason. Is NYC close enough to the part of Canada you live in to join?

    Seriously - it's an inspired concept. I need to identify the serious whiskey people in my area...

    1. Joshua, if you ever make it up my way, membership is complimentary!

  5. Not taking the Talisker tour this year although the worm tubs might be accessible this time around. I will be detouring across Skye to visit the distillery shop however...

    Interesting to see what your the club's inaugural bottle will be. No pressure.

    1. Yes, haven't decided yet. Mind you I do have a 21 year old Glenfarclas that I am itching to open.

  6. I'll eat my shorts if it's a bottle of Clan MacGregor. Incidentally, I think a review of that one would prove an amusing venture...although I'm not sure how much of a masochist Jason is. Although Lauder's was reviewed, and C.M might actually be a tad less bad (a tad) than Lauder's.

    1. Yeah, Lauder's. I am still emotionally scarred from that tasting experience.

      For lower end blends I would like to review at some point:

      - White Horse;
      - Black & White
      - Old Forrester

  7. Great idea. The perfect way to be able to taste a variety of outstanding bottles for relatively economical prices, while building and strengthening friendships. I wish there was a club like this around Philly.

    1. Whiskeywriter, you are just going to have to start your own club!

  8. Jason,

    Our small Southern California club follows your blog and appreciates your notes without exception. Your enthusiasm and deft hand with language is always enjoyable and informative. Keep up the great work !

    Our very informal club is in its thirteenth season this winter. It was constructed quite along the same lines as you described for your own intentions, and has evolved slowly from an original body of just three fellows. I am the leader and originator of the club. At one time we grew to a size of seven, and now are back down to four, which feels right for us at the moment. Lives change, interests change, and so did our membership. We are essentially a whiskey tasting group only; some guys participate with other combinations of folks to pursue interests in rum, tequila, gin, and wines. I've felt that this focus has preserved our club membership's interests and simplified our events.

    Key thoughts from our club are provided below for your consideration.

    We collect money for specific agreed-to group acquisitions and within that, for event acquisitions only. We have no dues, monthly or otherwise. We accumulate no cash inventory; we simply require personal integrity to fulfill with each member any financial obligations within a month of the group activity date. No one's failed to pay up yet (thankfully) that I've known of, but should that happen, we wouldn't have a member go into a deep loss. We feel lucky to have avoided much ongoing bookkeeping or treasury activities in this manner. "Leftover spirits" from communally-purchases bottles are owned by the event host; it's an ongoing incentive to be a good host. Personal bottles and samples of bottles are shared informally among the group as well, separate from group purchases. That helps too.

    We assemble primarily at each other's homes and usually in a dinner setting with wives/partners/dates. The host cooks the mains primarily, and the guests bring sides and dessert. The food is usually great, but not $200 per person tasting portion affairs. Themes are planned for the dinners, usually bi-monthly at this point; it was monthly early on. Some dinners are special in that the themes are largely of low interest to some members. If three or more folks don't wish to finance the bottles needed for the acquisitions, we don't group-finance the spirits for the event; it's up to the host to provide the bottles, if he wishes to hold the event anyway. We have two members who go gaga for ancient sherried malts, and most of the others have not been super-intrigued with paying the high prices for some of the bottles involved. C'est la vie.

    New Members
    We've allowed five new members to enter the group over the years, and we added them gradually after sitting with them for a few sessions to "test the chemistry among the others first." We've not needed to force anyone out of the crawlers yet, save for one somewhat-perfumed fellow whom we couldn't disuade the habit. Sad really, he had a great sense of humor about it but really no interest in changing his habits.

    Hope this helps.

    I wish you good luck with your club !

  9. I started a club similar to this in November 2010. The initial idea was that we would all pitch in money to buy expensive bottles that none of us wanted to purchase on our own. The obvious benefit is the monetary savings for each individual but also not buying something expensive only to find out it's not to your liking. That was the original intention anyways.

    I found out very quickly it was more interesting to focus on a unifying theme for each tasting rather than trying to purchase something expensive. The club is made up of my friends so they trust that as a recognized "whiskey nut" I will pick interesting and hopefully exciting selections. At almost a year and a half I think I've done a pretty good job, and have ideas for at least another year's worth of meetings.

    I find your plan for the financing of the club interesting. Because these people are all my friends I front the money to buy the bottles, and I get cash on the day of the event. Not everyone makes every event, and there are a few last minute cancellations, but on the whole it works out because I have learned to plan for these contingencies. I would never do this if these were strangers I did not know. I hope you write about the process you are about to go through. Hopefully it will inspire more people to do the same.

    1. Hi Allen,

      Thank you for your thoughts and sharing your experience.

      I will from time to time, give some updates on this venture of mine. See where it goes. I don't think money will be an issue. It's all about getting together and having a good time and discuss whiskies. Something only true malt nuts can do for hours. My wife likens my fascination with a four year old in a sandbox with pail and shovel



  10. I commend your decision to begin making your scotch hobby a social undertaking...while I would happily join the party, it'd mean more alcohol consumption for me, something I can find more reasons not to pursue than the opposite, but alas, the point of my comment is to direct you to a scotch club that's run out of Toronto...not knowing if they accept new members or not, you should at least have a look at their website, which is nicely presented, honest and entertaining reading for scotch fans regardless of location, experience or cash flow. I have no affiliation with this club whatsoever, but enjoy the thouroughness of the reviews and recommendations (for and against)that they so eloquently publish on a regular basis...kinda' the same reason I enjoy your blog. As we say 'round here, enjoy responsibly...

    1. I am in eastern Canada, about 13hours from Toronto, so unlikely I will be joining, even if they would accept me.

      As for their site, I like it. Straight forward tasting notes. Gotta like that!

      I also agree that one must enjoy alcohol responsibly. It's not about quantity, but quality in small measures.


  11. Good luck Jason! I'm sure that there are other people in your community as frustrated as you are--and from the sound of it, that elitist club would only have been a waste of time anyway!

    1. Yeah, they seem to be a fairly stodgy bunch. Nevertheless, there were some very knowledgeable members who I would have enjoyed talking to about distilleries they have visited, etc.

      In any case, I will survive.

  12. No worries Jason. If its meant to be, it'll happen. I for one learned a while back that you can't always plan everything out, because it never works out the way you think it will anyway. Good Luck!

  13. I too am in the process of starting a club up. Do you have a recomendation as to 501c-6 or LLC. Any othe "nuts and bolts" discoveries that you might have found out will be reatly appreciated.


    1. Hi Evan!

      Our club is not incorporated as non-profit or LLC. At least not at this point. I think initially we want to see how many people regularly attend and ante up a couple of dollars for whisky. If our club hangs around 10 - 12 people, we may not formalize it in the law. However, if we had a lot of people 25 plus, and the membership wanted it, then we might.

      I will probably post an update of the club soon.

      Please feel free to comment on how yours works out.