The Wide World of Independent Whisky BottlersBy Amanda Schuster
Have you ever come across a bottle of whisky with a label that isn’t the label you’re used to seeing. And the price tag is hundreds less than what you’re used to seeing from that distiller? Welcome to the world of independent cask bottles.
INDEPENDENT BOTTLES–A PRIMER
Independent bottlers are companies that buy casks of whisky, usually Scotch, directly from distilleries. Depending on what’s in the cask — how mature it already was when purchased — they might bottle and release it as is. But more commonly, they tend to age them further in their own warehouses. Usually they are further matured in ex-bourbon barrels. But sometimes they spend additional time in special casks such as ex-sherry, port, wine, rum or even alternative whisky finishes. These whiskies can be offered at a fraction of what a distillery edition would be, since the overhead costs are eliminated. They’re only dealing with the whisky, the barrels, and the packaging.
Exclusive Regions Lineup / Photo Credit: Exclusive Regions
The label will give you details on what’s in the bottle. The independent bottler will have its name front and center. The distillery where the product was produced will often, though not always, appear next. Often these will be single cask releases which are bottled at cask strength. Pay attention to dates on the bottle. Read the fine print. The bottler will often provide many details on the bottle itself and even further detail on their websites. Occasionally the bottler will give the whisky a name of its own. Such is the case when they create their own blend of several distilleries, but sometimes they are not contractually allowed to provide the name of the distillery.
RARE BOTTLES FROM CLOSED OR SELDOM SEEN DISTILLERS
This can be a new and exciting way to taste your favorite whisky, but it’s also an opportunity to try something more rare. We might remember the 1980’s as a fun-filled decade flush with twinkly pop music, flashy cars, and personal excess. But for Scotch whisky, it was a wretched time. As a result, a dismaying number of distilleries were closed for good by 1984 for economic reasons. Many independent bottlers acquired casks from long shuttered distilleries. For instance indies like Hart Brothers, Signatory, and Gordon & McPhail have released whisky from Port Ellen, an Islay distillery which tragically closed in 1983 but has a huge following among aficionados. Other “ghost” distillery releases to look out for are Brora, Caperdonich, Little Mill, Imperial, Glenury, Inverleven, Dallas Dhu and Glenugie, among lots of others.
MacPhail’s Collection Range / Photo Credit: Gordon & MacPhail’s
Given the cask finishes and frequently long naps in the barrel, what you’re tasting is not necessarily what the distiller/blender of these whiskies may have intended. But having a dram is a fun way to take your taste buds on a trip back in time. Do keep in mind that the label will tell you when the whisky was bottled. This will give you some indication of the whisky’s age, but better to see an age-statement on the label as well. The whisky may have been held in an inert container prior to bottling otherwise.
OTHER INDY BOTTLERS TO CONSIDER
Solid independents such as Samaroli, Master of Malt, and Single Cask Nation put spotlights on single malts that are more commonly found in well known blends, such as Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal and Ballantine’s. Tasting these malts on their own, you really have to wonder why Glenburgie, Glen Elgin and Dailuiane don’t have a bigger following. Since these are the less sought out whiskies in the range, they tend to be among the best bargains in an independent’s portfolio. Exclusive Malts has a large selection as does Douglas Laing & Co. The latter has a wide range of single casks and regional malts made with something for everyone no matter your budget.
Exclusive Malts Lineup / Photo Credit: Exclusive Malts
TASTE BEFORE YOU BUY
The good news is that many retailers tend to have a sample bottle open for customers with serious interest in purchasing the whisky. It never hurts to ask.
If you find yourself in Edinburgh, you must visit Cadenhead’s on the Royal Mile. This retail shop has their own whisky selection under their label. And even better, they have almost every single one open to sample before committing to a purchase. The same goes for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. They are an international members club with flagship venues in London, Edinburgh, and Leith so you may consider joining.
Cadenhead’s Lineup / Photo Credit: Cadenhead’s
Many fine whisky bars with large selections will offer selections by the glass to try as well, sometimes as part of flights. And of course, independent bottlers can be found at booths at the big whisky shows such as Whisky Live and Whiskyfest. Yet another reason to purchase a ticket.
Something to consider is most of these whiskies are limited editions that were only bottled from a single barrel. If you find one that intrigues you, this may be your only opportunity to score some. Many die-hard enthusiasts will buy two bottles – one to drink and one to save. Ah, isn’t that the life?
Curious to find out more information about independent bottlings?