Independent Bottlers – Unsung Heroes of the Scotch Whisky Industry
Whiskies that are bottled by agents other than the distillery that produced them are independent bottlings, a concept associated more with Scotland than elsewhere.
The history of whisky is a fascinating tale of wars, smuggling, murder and ‘horse-trading’ not just in Scotland but in Ireland and even the US. Long before official whisky distilling licences were issued, most whisky production was carried out as clandestine operations. Likewise, long before the Independent Bottler was registered, whisky was bottled from cask by enterprising individuals other than the distiller.
A symbiotic relationship exists to this day between Scottish distilleries and Independent Bottlers on a scale not seen elsewhere. In the current environment of high demand it is difficult to understand why a distillery would supply their precious liquid to an outsider when they could just as easily sell them in the market themselves. The truth lies in that the economics of whisky production has not always been a rosy one.
As recently as the 1980’s and up to the 1990’s, there were frequent insolvencies, mothballing and sadly demolition of stately distilleries. Independent bottlers with healthy cash reserves and good forward vision for the industry helped mop up the glut that existed in the market then. It should also be remembered that well before this downturn, most malt distilleries often produced whiskies to be sold to Blended Scotch Whisky producers such as Chivas Brothers and Johnny Walker as the backbone of their blended whiskies.
As many malt distilleries were small operations without marketing capabilities, Independent Bottlers stepped forward to help absorb the excess casks, particularly during tough times, by bottling the malt whiskies under their own brand names. In most cases, and with permission from the distilleries, the names of the distilleries were also prominently highlighted. Hence, prior to the 1950’s when distillers began to experiment with single malt bottlings, this product range had already been in the market thanks to Independent Bottlers, albeit on a smaller, non-commercialised scale.
How do independent bottlings stack up to distillery bottlings? While Independent Bottlers spend far less on Marketing, does this translate into offering better product value for the customer? Up to about 30 years ago, the packaging of several Independent Bottlers was rudimentary and even downright crude. Although we now see some very smart Independent Bottler bottle presentation, their relatively small production levels - often limited to single cask – do not justify big budgets for Marketing. It is only now with the current uptrend in whisky demand that the awareness of Independent Bottlers in general have extended beyond the borders of Scotland, and hopefully this will help channel some resources to their Marketing efforts.
As distilleries have perennial production cycles, a standardised colour was imperative for consistency as well as for aesthetic reasons. Caramel colouring was permitted to ensure colour uniformity from batch to batch. However, for Independent Bottlers whose production sizes tend to be small, particularly their single cask batches, the need for colour consistency was deemed to be less important. The visual appeal of some non-coloured bottlings was very weak and perhaps not as appealing as their richly coloured counterparts but they reflect the true nature of the spirit without an artificial façade. This is appreciated by most whisky aficionados.
Chill-filtering is a process whereby the temperature of the spirit is reduced to about 5 ̊C before it is passed through a filter. Chilling brings out into suspension minute compounds of lipids that cause a slight haze in the liquid. This is especially obvious if the alcoholic strength of the whisky is on the lower end of the legal limit of 40% ABV. As the scale of Independent Bottlers batches was small, the economics of chill-filtering was inhibitive. Chill-filtering ensured that even when the whisky was diluted with water, the spirit would always remain clear, an important attribute for many mass produced commercial brands. There is however a bright side to non-chill filtered whiskies as the process extracts a significant amount of flavour and textural material from the spirit. Many connoisseurs of fine whiskies are not bothered by the clouding of “Scottish mist” in their glass as they would rather savour the full experience of the whisky as it was made.
Unless a whisky is marketed as having an exceptional provenance or is linked to a significant historical event, it is not a viable proposition to market single cask whiskies with very limited yields of only 150 to 650 bottles. Compared to distilleries, Independent Bottlers who hold relatively smaller stocks of whiskies have business models that are more suited for working with single cask whiskies. With limited or no marketing required, Independent Bottlers have been able to popularize this category and have now established a reputation as a reliable source of single cask whiskies. The quality criteria for single cask bottlings are far more stringent than that of standard single malts - which are a blend of many casks within the same distillery. To be a standalone whisky without embellishments from other casks, single cask whiskies would need to be in very fine balance. With an excellent cask at hand, it would also be a shame to average down the quality of such a cask by blending it with lesser whiskies.
Despite what single cask whiskies may offer, their finite nature tends to eliminate them from the less specialized whisky establishments. Thankfully though, for many whisky hobbyists and dedicated whisky establishments, this exclusive and limited quantity feature stimulates their interest as collectors. This in part fuels the industry.
Variations between casks are part and parcel of the product category. Cask contents may share the same origins, age, provenance, wood etc. and can taste similar but are never identical. Regardless, the trend with many whisky consumers is appreciation and acceptance of the differences each cask offers.
Does age matter?
Independent Bottlers are not as restricted as distillers on fixed aged releases – for example 12 years, 15 years or 18 years – as their bottlings are based on the maturity of the cask rather than standardized aged statements. This optimizes the quality of releases, sometimes holding back whiskies that are already aged but have yet to reach its potential and on other occasions releasing surprisingly good whiskies that are young. The age statements of these whiskies could look something like 11 years, 27 years or 39 years. The point being, Independent Bottlers have more flexibility when it comes to age statement releases.
The labeling of whiskies by vintages has been around for some time but primarily for special releases in the super premium range. As Independent Bottlers have the advantage of flexibility, they have been able to adopt this format more readily even for the more affordable whiskies, bringing added choice to the masses.
Matured whiskies that are dumped out of cask are approximately 60% ABV. As the compounds that cause clouding in whiskies are usually dissolved - giving a clear appearance - at alcohol levels above 45%, most non-chilled filtered whiskies are bottled above this level. As there is no legal limit to the maximum alcoholic strength that a whisky must be bottled at, small batch whiskies and particularly single cask whiskies are often bottled without dilution. This classification of unreduced spirit packaged direct from cask is termed “cask strength”.
Due to the different rates of alcohol evaporation each cask experiences, the final alcohol strengths will differ, and once again this is not an issue for the Independent Bottler’s more customized products. In recent years more distilleries have jumped on the bandwagon to release high alcohol strength bottlings to capture this segment of the market.
Each mature cask has a unique flavour profile, but when variation from the house style is too wide, these casks may not be usable by the distillery for their standard bottlings. These casks that may contain superb whisky in their own right are often sold to Independent Bottlers. They are then either packaged as single cask for a consumer base that is more accepting of the variations in casks or used by some of the more established Independent Bottlers for their own blended labels.
Blending is the highly skilled art of combining more than one whisky for a concoction that is better than the sum of its parts. This expertise is either passed down over generations or performed by highly trained and experienced professionals. Being so, only the more reputable Independent Bottlers are capable of creating quality blends consistently.
Instead of using the ubiquitous pot stills that are icons for malt whisky distilleries, grain whiskies are produced in column stills. These industrial stills are housed in factory-like buildings and bear no resemblance to the quaint and often historic stone structures and pagoda roofs that we have come to identify with malt whisky distilleries. There are only a handful of grain whisky distilleries in Scotland but that is sufficient to generate a volume of grain whisky many times over the total produced by all the Scottish malt whisky distilleries combined. Grain whiskies are distilled from a gelatinised mash of mainly corn and wheat together with a smaller measure of malted barley. They are cheaper to produce than pure malt whiskies due to lower material cost and the use of highly efficient column stills. Grain whiskies are not well marketed as whiskies onto themselves but are produced primarily as the other component in Blended Scotch Whiskies. Several Independent Bottlers have taken advantage of this gap in the commercial supply of this category of whisky to end consumers with bottlings of their own. This has been instrumental at bringing awareness to an otherwise unknown style of whisky.
Without a doubt, Independent Bottlers bottlings are not just considered interesting merely as a curiosity. They have opened up a very broad range of styles otherwise not available through the more standardized distillery bottlings. However, by their very nature as a non-producer of the beverage there is a constant challenge for Independent Bottlers especially these days to secure healthy inventories of whiskies of different maturities for current and future bottlings. It is not surprising then that several have sought to purchase their own distilleries.
Cask & Drams Magazine
13 November 2015