Monday, February 19, 2018

Don't Judge A Book By Its Cover - Independent Bottlers - Part #1

Recently a fellow whisky enthusiast and I had a conversation about Independent Bottlers and why some Scotch fans seem to pass on “their” whiskies.

Indie Bottler; Gordon & Macphail. 12yrs Caol Ila botteling
As always, I will never tell anyone what to think or feel! but what I will do, is to offer my honest opinion on the matter, and offer those of you who are not familiar with the Independent bottlers and their methods, a chance to hopefully get a deeper understanding of them, and then leave it up to you, to form your own opinion.

Now, do some people really turn their blind eye to the Independent Bottlers? Well, some do! I know my fair share of people who will never buy a whisky there isn’t an official distillery bottle, and some people who felt that way until they finally tasted a whisky bottled by an Independent Bottler.

I have heard a lot of different explanations to why people avoid the Independent Bottlers offerings. First and foremost, there seems to be a wide agreement that Independent Bottlers offerings are from casks that simply didn’t pass the test, and that’s the reason the distillery didn’t want to use it and sold it to a second party. Another explanation is, that the “younger” whiskies, that some of the Independent Bottlers have in their lineup, are a completely turn off.

Truth be told, I really don’t get those arguments. Most Single Malts is made by marrying different cask and batches together, to achieve a consistent flavor profile, and modern age distilleries are more than able to control the outcome of their whisky. In regard to age statements on whiskies, most distilleries today are carrying NAS whiskies in their portfolio, that often range between 5 – 7 years and whisky fans don’t really seem to have any problems buying those, have they? Furthermore, most Independent Bottlers state the distillery that they have sourced the whisky from, so if the cask was indeed of a “lower” quality, it would not only reflect badly on the Independent Bottler but also on the distillery itself.   

If you take a good hard look at the Independent Bottlers offerings you will discover that their whiskies often are bottled at a significant higher abv, than a lot of the official distillery bottles, often even bottled at Cask Strength (meaning that there haven’t been added water to the whisky) and a lot of those offerings are Single Casks. By bottling a whisky at Cask Strength or at a high ABV diminution the output for the distillery, or in this case, the Independent Bottler. This is also the reason, why you often pay a bit more for a Cask Strength whisky in comparison to a whisky bottled at the, by law, minimum alcoholic strength of 40% ABV.

Indie Bottler; Signatory. 8yrs Craigellachie bottling
Well, I’m under the impression that there’s another explanation – and one most “whisky fans” would rather not talk about - to why some doesn’t buy the Independent Bottlers offerings. Among whisky fans there are a largely growing number of highly collectable individuals who spend their hard-earned money and free time to track down, limited distillery offerings, or are looking to complete their collection of bottles from any given distillery, and they seem more concerned about the package and the collection itself than the content of the bottle.

I know that some argue the case, that whisky from a Single Cask, bottled at cask strength is “purer” in its form, because a Single Cask represents the true nature of the whisky because it hasn’t been watered down or married together with other casks from the same distillery. Other seems to believe that marring casks together, to create a distilleries distinct flavor profile, is where the true art lies, and not all Single Casks are suitable being bottled as they are.

Personally, I’m the more the merrier kind of guy, because why have one over another if you can have them both?

Indie Bottler; Douglas Laing's Big Peat - Feis Ile 2017 edition
There are roughly 120 distilleries in Scotland who produces single malt whisky. Around 40 – 50 of these markets their malts under their own name, the rest of them strictly produces whiskey for blended malts, and that’s where the Independent Bottlers steps into the picture and select casks from distilleries, that other vice would have been blended together with 20 – 40 other casks to create blends such as Chivas Regal, Johnnie Walker e.g. So, without the Independent Bottlers we wouldn’t have been able to taste these unique single malts.
Single Casks, high abv whiskies, Cask strength, double matured/cask finished whiskies and ages that varies from the official distillery bottles – young as well as old - are all in my opinion great opportunities for the consumers to see how age, abv or a Single Cask influence a whisky, and that’s exactly what the Independent Bottlers offers its customers. Personally, I love Cask Strength whiskies because it gives me the opportunity to be my very own personal "master blender", and bring a whisky down to my preferred taste. Another thing I really appreciate about the Independent Bottlers is that they very often don’t chill filtered “their” whiskies and doesn’t add E155a coloring. Not because I believe I can taste a different when E155a caramel coloring has been added, but simply because I don’t like anyone to fiddle with my whisky like that. The non-chill filtered method on the other hand… OH Boy, don’t even get me started. But I believe that topic is a matter for an article of its own.

I’m aware that a lot of Independent Bottlers have seen the light of day over the years, and it takes some time to figure out where the real hidden gems are, but I know for a fact that they are out there, often sold at a fraction of what an official distillery bottle would cost you, now it’s up to you to find them.

Stay tuned! In a week from now, we are going to take a closer look at the Independent Bottlers work methods.

Article and photos by: Hasse Berg