Ask any whisky lover what whisky springs to mind when you mention Scotch, and the chances are that they will name a bottle from a major distillery – think The Macallan, The Glenlivet, Glenfiddich or Lagavulin.
Across the whisky loving nation, hundreds of bottles are released annually from the big giants of distilling. But alongside these whiskies that come direct from distilleries – known as own bottlings – are a whole litany of releases that also come out under Independent Bottlers.
This arena tends to be looked at by whisky connoisseurs after they have taken a stab at trying most of the whiskies found on shelves from the main players. But it can take a while for people to dip their toe into the world of independent bottlings – after all, one could go on trying new releases directly coming from the distilleries themselves for years, given how many are available.
But the world of Independent Bottlings offers the avid whisky lover something a little different than those coming from the distilleries.
To start, a high proportion of whiskies from Independent Bottlers are released at a higher ABV, or alcohol by volume, usually at what is called ‘cask strength’. In short: it is bottled directly from the cask of whisky in which it was matured, without any water being added before bottling. This gives whisky aficionados the chance to try something more raw in some ways, as the whisky has simply been put in a cask, left to mature, and then bottled without anything coming in the way.
It also, in some senses, offers better value for money – when a distillery adds water to the whisky before bottling it, the consumer is essentially paying partly for water in the bottle. When it is bottled straight from the cask, the consumer has the option of adding water to bring it down to an alcohol strength that suits them, leaving the dilution to be done at home rather than beforehand.
The vast majority of independent bottlings are also done as single cask releases.
This means that you get the opportunity to try a whisky which is the result of one individual cask. While most people who drink single malt whisky can initially think that is what they are getting when they drink this style, they would be incorrect – it’s a commonplace fallacy to think that single malts are the product of one cask when actually they are blends. The difference between a single malt and a blended whisky is that a single malt is the product of one distillery and only made from malted barley, but it will still always be a ‘blend’ of hundreds of different casks from that one distillery so that the brand’s master blender can create a consistent release each and every time. A blended whisky, on the other hand, is the product of whiskies from numerous distilleries made from both a barley base and a grain base (usually wheat but sometimes corn, distilled on a column rather than a pot still), but which is also made by a master blender to taste the same way each time.
A third category – the single cask, which most independent bottlings are – is just the product of one cask from one distillery, meaning every time you have a single cask whisky it will change. In some ways it is a truer version of the whisky but it also allows the drinker to have a bit of fun as each time you buy that single cask whisky, it will in turn be slightly different because no two casks mature whisky in exactly the same way – it’s like a surprise box for the tastebuds.
So who creates these independent bottlings and how do they work? One of the interesting and unique aspects of the Scotch whisky industry is its foundations sit very much within the blended whisky world that has always been based on ‘swaps’.
Looking back to the Scotch whisky boom of the late 1800s, many distilleries that were producing spirit were doing it to satisfy end customers who would purchase stock to make their own blends in house. This is where the great blended whisky houses – think Johnnie Walker, Teacher’s, Grant’s – all came into being: they would purchase (or sometimes make, in the case of Grant’s) a number of different whiskies and then blend up their own special releases for their own customers, usually in their own premises like grocery stores, before they were big enough to make a name for themselves globally. In order to make this happen, whisky companies had to sell to ‘competitors’ or swap casks, so they could have a variety of flavours to work with when creating blends because each distillery’s style is slightly different.
It meant that over the years, the Scotch whisky industry became used to working with its ‘rivals’ but it’s also one reason why the industry has long been seen as one of the friendliest to work in – even today, the big blending houses all buy whiskies off of each other so they can create a consistent product. Just because you are making a blended whisky for Diageo does not mean you won’t use whisky from another company if the style you are after is produced at a distillery owned by a competitor.
This ethos is very unique in as much as most other countries’ distillers are far more precious about their own whisky stocks – in Japan, for instance, the big distillers create a number of different styles in their own distilleries rather than swapping between competing factors in order to create their blended whiskies. This is an important idea to keep in mind seeing as the vast majority of whisky consumed globally is blends, rather than single malts or single cask whiskies which make up a tiny fraction of sales.
In Scotland, therefore, there came a tradition of companies buying casks from one another and along the way, a number of major companies were established which focused on holding onto and maturing casks of whisky to one day release under their own brand names.
The tradition not only helped give the marketplace something different but many times it also allowed the Scotch whisky distillers to have an influx of cash in hard times – some of the independent bottling houses today will own thousands of casks of whisky, all of which will have brought money into distilleries when they were either just getting off the ground or had too much stock in challenging times like the late 1980s and desperately needed cash to stay afloat.
Some of the major players such as Gordon & MacPhail – established in 1895 – are renowned for their capacity to care for casks for decades, leading them to have released some of the world’s oldest single malt and single cask bottlings ever, such as an 80-year old Glenlivet which hit the market in September. Others such as Berry Brothers & Rudd – London’s oldest spirits merchants – would sell whiskies to their high class customers alongside precious items like tea and coffee from their St James’s postcode in the 1800s, before eventually focusing solely on wine and spirits as they do today. Long established Cadenheads is well loved for its down to earth approach – no fancy packaging, but very high quality spirit – while in Italy, one of the world’s most famous independent bottlers called Samaroli is sought after by collectors the world over for having released some of the most incredible single cask bottlings ever from the likes of Bowmore and Glen Grant. These can go for tens of thousands of pounds at auction if you’re lucky enough to see one pop up.
One of the most famous outfits where consumers can try single cask bottlings is via the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Founded in the early 1980s by a chap named Pip Hills – who bought a cask of Glenfarclas and decided to bottle it with his mates for fun – the Society operates in numerous countries globally as a private members club, with all of its single cask whiskies released at cask strength, with no colouring or chill filtration. It’s an excellent spot for the whisky lover to get geekier and really explore the flavour profiles of an individual distillery.
A plethora of younger, independent bottling houses have sprung up over the past decade to help satisfy the whisky consumer wanting a snapshot look into a whisky distillery, and many bottlings will sell out almost immediately upon release.
And while independent bottlings can often be more expensive at the outset than regularly released whiskies from big distillers due to the fact they are bottled in smaller amounts at a higher cost to the producer, they offer the whisky consumer an exciting look into the famous names that are so well loved, but from a different perspective than one gets from the average supermarket shelf purchase.