Whisky 101: Part 4. Independent Bottlers
When you're relatively new to this hobby, a visit to a whisky shop can be a daunting prospect. Even the poor unfortunate souls that haven't yet acquired a taste for the king of drinks are relatively well acquainted with the big brands that fill supermarket shelves, but walk into a specialist retailer and you could be met with walls of bottles carrying names you've never heard of. Even more confusing, you might see familar names on unfamiliar labels. If so, congratulations! You've just discovered the fascinating world of independent bottlers.
Despite huge growth in the single malt whisky sector, global sales of scotch whisky are still dominated by blends and a majority of distilleries are owned by huge corporations that also produce various blended scotch brands. In order to maintain the correct stocks for their various recipes, these companies will buy, sell and trade casks of whisky. Sometimes they deal directly with a competitor, other times they go through a broker but it all results in a quantity of casks becoming available for sale. An independent bottler is simply a business that will buy these casks with a view to releasing the liquid under their own label.
Once familiar with this concept, a whole new playground becomes available to the consumer. Independent bottlers can offer an alternative take on the whiskies we think we know well, or they can introduce us to spirit that is normally gobbled up by the Johnnie Walkers of the world. Their product is often released in small batch or single cask form and frequently bottled at higher strength, without the use of chill filtering or caramel colouring (See Whisky 101 Part 3). Prices have been on the increase in recent years but indepedent bottlings can offer comparatively good value for money when viewed alongside official distillery releases, regularly including an age statement in the era of the no-age-statement whisky. Sometimes they even decide against, or are contractually forbidden from naming the distillery in which the spirit was produced and choose instead to create a whole new brand like Smokehead or Port Askaig, both Islay single malts from undisclosed distilleries, bottled by Ian Macleod and Elixir Distillers respectively.
Where Independent Bottlers can truly thrive is in the celebration of the unpredictability of scotch whisky. It is said that no two casks are alike but huge brands like Glenfiddich or Macallan are relied upon by millions of loyal customers to produce the same product again and again. They must depend on the incredible skills of the master blender, to recreate the same flavour profile in each batch. For independents however, there is no such pressure. There is no "house style" that must be achieved with each release. They need only focus on reaching the level of quality required to satisfy a relatively small amount of consumers.
Despite this apparent advantage however, the market has become a difficult place for independent bottlers in recent years. A global boom in single malt whisky has led several big distillers to guard their stocks like never before and there simply isn't the same availability of good whisky as there was a few years ago. Hundreds of casks are drained and bottled on a monthly basis still, but the variety on offer to the consumer seems limited, with a plethora of releases that carry the names of Diageo's workhorse blend-fodder distilleries like Teaninich, Auchroisk and Benrinnes. Nothing wrong with that of course, those whiskies can be excellent and official bottlings are scarce, it's just that things have become a little bit... samey.
This difficulty in acquiring stock is further exemplified by the sheer amount of independent bottlers who have taken steps towards becoming distillers in their own right. Wemyss Malts now own Kingsbarns in Fife. Glasgow's Clydeside Distillery is owned by Tim Morrison of A.D. Rattray. Adelphi are readying spirit from their Ardnamurchan distillery. Morrison & MacKay are distilling away at Aberargie and Islay's ninth distillery at Ardnahoe was the work of Hunter Laing. Not long after Douglas Laing announced the development of their own distillery in Glasgow they went out and snapped up Strathearn in Perthshire, seemingly out of nowhere. Even Gordon & MacPhail, one of the oldest independent bottlers in the country now own Benromach and have submitted plans for a second premises on Speyside.
Quite what all this will mean to the independent bottling scene in the long run is anyone's guess but for now at least, there remains an abundance of options out there for the curious consumer and we at The Quaich Podcast encourage you explore as much as possible. There are bargains to be had, and great drams to be savoured. Have fun.