Whisky is a vast world, and not even the most experienced connoisseur can claim to know every single detail of it. But therein lies the beauty, for one can always be surprised despite the years spent researching distilleries, tasting whisky and buying bottles to collect. And speaking of the unexpected… Independent bottlers are definitely one of those factors in the whisky world that keep bringing fresh news to whisky lovers on a regular basis.
Every year new bottlers pop up with a story to tell, forgotten casks to disclose, and whiskies with the most bizarre finishes. In short, independent bottlers bring that extra spice to the whisky tradition. But how did independent bottlers come into being? Who are they? And why choose to buy an independent bottling (IB) instead of an original bottling (OB)?
Continue to read this article to find all the answers to these questions and more.
Come along. Let’s dive into this corner of the whisky world together.
What is a whisky independent bottler?
Let’s start with the fundamentals. Who exactly are independent bottlers and what do they do?
Put simply, independent bottlers are companies that buy casks of whisky, usually Scotch, directly from distilleries. Hence, they create their own bottle designs and labels, and they sell them.
OK, maybe that’s too simplistic an explanation. Let me start again.
Original Bottlings and Independent Bottlings
When it comes to whisky, you can choose to purchase an original bottling (OB) or an independent bottling (IB). The former refers to official bottlings, thus whiskies that have been distilled, matured, bottled and released by the distillery. You can find their bottles in supermarkets and whisky specialist shops (depending on the bottle quality).
As for IBs, these are whiskies selected and bottled by independent companies and sold under their own label. Once they buy the cask from the distillery, they can decide to bottle it straight away cask strength or decide to experiment a little bit, letting it ageing more or finish the product into another type of cask (ex-bourbon, ex-rum, Barolo…the combination are infinite as the possible outcomes!). What does this mean? you can find the most peculiar expressions that otherwise the distillery itself would not have been able to provide for a variety of reasons (number of bottles too small to maintain a profit, brand reasons, and so on). Not to mention all the casks recovered from ghost distilleries, or rare ones left to mature years and years before hitting the market with a big ‘SURPRISE’ that blows everyone’s mind.
But it was not always so. In truth, the reason why independent bottlers came into being was to provide single malts to a niche consumer base at a time when blends were dominating the market unchallenged. Let’s have a trip back in time!
The History of Independent Bottlers
Between the 19th and 20th centuries, blends were the most popular variety of whisky to be found. However, single malt enthusiasts were still out there and represented a significant clientele to satisfy. And when the public demands…some very clever fellow always responds. This is how independent bottlers come into being, carving a niche for themselves by bringing whiskies to the market as single malts.
Gordon & MacPhail, together with Cadenhead, were the first known independent bottlers (and still exist today). Soon, many followed.
Distilleries were happy to make business with independent bottlers, as it meant they received an instant cash flow by selling young casks. On the other hand, independent bottlers and connoisseurs also had their share of positive outcomes: the first bought their whisky cheap, and the second bought it at a good price.
As a thriving single malt market was rising, along came the two World Wars to halt it all.
Whisky after WWII
Only Gordon & MacPhail survived the time of the two World Wars. On the other hand, the distilleries (Macallan, Bowmore, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie) started to market their Malt Whisky by themselves.
In the meantime, seeking to offset the heavy debts following WWII, Britain increased its duties on whisky at home and pushed the industry towards export. However, the European market had many restrictions. Hence, the majority of this export transition was in the US led. By 1970 the USA represented 42% of the world market for Scotch. While the majority of the demand was for blended whiskies, the distilleries started to step into the single malt market too and began to establish their core range bottlings.
What about independent bottlers? Was it the end for them? Quite the contrary, as they started to experiment more. With their specialist knowledge, independent bottlers acquired individually selected casks from the distilleries and took control of the maturation process deciding how long to let the whisky mature, the type of warehouse, the type of cask, and the finishes. Hence, the independents were able to showcase once again styles of whiskies that the distilleries, concentrated on the mass market, could not. Once again, they had a reason to exist in the whisky industry.
In the 1980s that a new, important independent bottler, Signatory Vintage Ltd., entered the market. In contrast to the established Gordon & MacPhail, the new company concentrated on Scotch Single Malts exclusively. But just when they were about to thrive, the whisky landscape changed once again.
The armchair bottlers
In the 1990s, a whole bunch of greedy small bottlers flooded the market: it was the origin of the “armchair bottlers”. These companies actually knew nothing about whisky. They simply saw a business opportunity and took it. Hence, they start to buy and sell casks from unknown sources, without even tasting what they were selling (they didn’t even care actually). The results were mediocre projects and a mediocre spirit. Needless to say that most of them didn’t last a year.
However, the audience is not that clueless. With time, just as quickly as they appeared, so quickly they disappeared.
Nevertheless, this somewhat tarnished the image of the business, and many distilleries decided to stop selling their casks in the 2000s. Hence, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich, Glenfarclas and Balvenie, strictly forbid their names to be used on IB labels. And in the summer of 2002, even the big company Diageo decided not to sell casks from their Malt Whisky distilleries to independent bottlers anymore.
How then, independent bottlers survived?
A new era of independent bottling
Just when it seemed that independent bottlers no longer had a place in the modern whisky world, the historical IBs turned the tables again.
Gordon & MacPhail bought the Benromach distillery. Ian MacLeod bought Glengoyne, and Murray McDavid, an aspiring new independent bottler, bought Bruichladdich, and Signatory acquired the small Edradour distillery.
What about the very small ones?
Incredibly, in an era when the whole world is connected and everything travels twice as fast, small independent bottlers have once again won their own little space. Buying from small bottlers, more often than not, means not only getting a (very) limited edition bottle but also unearthing little hidden gems. The whisky fan can experience the pleasure of being surprised by the world of whisky again.
But what does it mean to be an independent bottler today?
What Independent Bottlers do today
Well, let’s start by saying that everything became far more complicated, starting from the actual cask-purchasing process. Finding good quality whisky at the right price has become a challenge, and there are several reasons for this price escalation.
Whether due to the revival of whisky as an investment asset, hence greater market demand, Brexit, the recent pandemic crisis, and many other political, economic and social reasons, whisky has inevitably become a high-value product (read “very pricey”).
Not to mention the possible logistical and duty issues when you decide to ship or transport whisky.
Yet, in spite of all these difficulties, independent bottlers still endure and continue to offer quality single malt to whisky fans. After all, there are still many good reasons to buy from them.
Why you should buy from Independent Bottlers
Independently bottled whiskies have many points in their favour when compared to official bottling releases as part of a distillery’s core range. Now, by saying this, we certainly do not mean that one is superior or inferior to the other. There are simply different reasons to buy from one or from the other.
In the list below, we have analysed some of these points.
A wide range of cask strengths and age statements
Independent whisky bottlers usually bottle quality single-cask whiskies at that cask strength. This means that they do not add water to dilute the whisky, thus giving it a higher alcohol strength.
As we said, some distilleries prohibit the use of their brand name on any independent bottle labels. But does it mean that there aren’t whiskies from these distilleries out there? Absolutely not! These rare whiskies are marketed without identification of the source distillery, hence they are often called “secret bottlings”.
The fun part of these bottlings is to pick up the clues given by the independent bottlers to discover the name of the distillery. It can be in the form of a geographical location, regional or historical name, or represented in the form of a code. You just have to look very carefully…
A range of unusual finishes and full cask maturation
In the world of Independent Bottlers, the range of different flavours and tastes is huge. Indeed, while the distilleries have to release their products with consistent taste profiles, Independent bottlers can release their products simply when they choose. They are able to release small batches or single casks which can vary from release to release giving a unique flavour to each collection. They also can decide to purchase a cask and let it finish mature into another type of cask. Some types of barrels used include rum, sherry, port, and wine. In short, there are clear advantages to their flexibility in flavours and release dates.
Independent bottlers can offer unusual whiskies from distilleries without an official bottling series
Independent bottlers can bring to you single malts that you can find in well-known blends (Johnnie Walker, Chivas Regal, and Ballantine’s). Let’s just say that after you have tasted these malts, you will wonder why some distilleries do not release single malt expressions under their own name, as they are incredibly delicious!
The chance to buy rare whiskies from long-lost distilleries
If you purchase whisky from independent bottlers, you might discover some pretty rare bottles from closed or seldom-seen distillers that are hidden gems, including, for example, Port Ellen, Caperdonich, Little Mill, Dallas Dhu, and more.
Moreover, independent bottlers simply allow you to explore a wide range of whiskies from distilleries that no longer exist, as they managed to purchase a cask or two from what was left from the warehouses. All in all, a real taste of history!
Do you enjoy buying whisky from independent bottlers? What is your favourite one?
Share this article on your social media and tag your favourite independent bottler company to let them know they own your heart!
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