Olaf Meier: 20 years of whisky mastery

Many of you will have been fascinated by one of Olaf Meier’s passionate tasting sessions. Our SMWS ambassador is a fountain of knowledge, driven by a limitless number of whisky stories, who now finds himself celebrating his 20th year representing the Society. Despite having more than two decades of whisky experience, Olaf started his journey with humble beginnings, as Duncan Gorman finds out.

Back in 1983 the whisky landscape was completely different to what we know today. Single malt was relatively rare, distilleries were closing down as markets crashed, and blended whisky dominated the shelves.

Not only was this the year that Pip Hills founded The Scotch Malt Whisky Society and changed the world of whisky forever, it also saw our future SMWS ambassador Olaf Meier taste his first ever Scotch.

“The only thing I knew about Scotch were the blended whiskies, Bell’s and Famous Grouse,” he recalls. “In June 1983 a friend invited me to his home in Scotland. We had a wonderful meal and after that the gentleman said to me: ‘And now you must have a dram.’ I had no idea what a dram was. Very quickly I found out it was a glass of whisky, and that was actually the first glass of whisky I ever drank in my life. As it turned out, he poured me a 21-year-old Springbank, which isn’t a bad start into the whisky world, and of course it was wonderful.”

Little did Olaf know that first sip of single malt would change the course of his life forever. This year we celebrate Olaf’s 20th year working with the Society, where he first served as a whisky sales manager, before becoming an ambassador and a chairperson of our prestigious Tasting Panel. Although Olaf has had an incredible whisky career, filled with an amazing collection of stories, experiences, and drams, his expertise didn’t come overnight. In fact, Olaf was a member of the Society for almost 12 years before he bagged his first job at The Vaults in Leith, and he put in some solid ‘research’ before then too.

Olaf on tour in China in 2023

“I knew nothing about whisky,” he admits.
“I remember being in a bar looking at unpronounceable names like Clynelish, Royal Lochnagar or Dalwhinnie. So basically what I did is I just went to the bar, looked at the labels and said I’ll take the second from the left or the third from the right. Before it was in my glass the locals spoke to me and said: ‘Oh, you know your whiskies then?’

And I said: ‘Of course I know my whiskies!’ I had no idea what I had ordered, but what I realised was every whisky was different. I had no idea why, but they were different.”

Those who have had the pleasure of attending one of Olaf’s memorable tastings might have heard him proudly claim that he is the Society’s first ever international member. It’s an impressive accolade, if you overlook the notorious trick he played on the Society.

“Back in 1992 I read an article in a German magazine saying there was a club in Edinburgh which does single cask whiskies,” he says.

“Immediately I thought, this is my sort of club, so I phoned these people up to try and join. They said: ‘What’s your address?’ I still lived in Germany at that time, so I said: ‘I live in Germany.’ They said: ‘Well, sorry sir, you can’t become a member because you have to have a British address,’ because the Society was purely UK-based then.

“I hung up, but I wasn’t giving up that easily. The next day I phoned up again and someone else was on the phone, thankfully. Again, I gave my name but this time I gave a random British address which didn’t exist. I made sure they didn’t send anything to it and said I would collect my membership when I come to The Vaults.”

“And so I became a member of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and I’ve been a member ever since.”

Once Olaf got his foot in the door with his first Society job, his whisky career snowballed: “I always say I was an ambassador before ambassadors existed in The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, but then that really became my main job. When I then started to work for the Society, people also asked me to join the Tasting Panel and I said: ‘I don’t know what the Tasting Panel does.’

“Then they said: ‘The Panel are the people who decide which whiskies we’re bottling, because every cask is different and we have to ensure the quality of every cask, and you would be one of those to decide. It took me one nanosecond to decide if I wanted to be part of it. Here I am 20 years later, still part of the Panel and now for the last 13 years, one of the chairpersons of the Panel.”

But after all this time, what is it that keeps Olaf coming back year after year? He explains: “Having been a member now for almost 32 years, an ambassador for 20, and a chairperson of the Panel for 13 years, it’s really almost in my DNA nowadays. It’s my home-away-from-home, as we once called it. I have grown up, or should I say grown old, with the Society. It’s just fascinating to see how the world has changed, how the whisky world has changed, and how the Society has changed.

“The more you know, the more you don’t know, and that’s the beauty about it. It doesn’t matter if you started a year ago, or if I started 30 or even 40 years ago. There’s always something else to discover and it’s that journey that’s so much fun.”

Olaf will be joining us at our 30th anniversary event in Berne on 12th October!