Independent Bottling | Blog #23

G’day everyone,

An interesting week for me with some quality time spent at Rockyview General, where thanks to some additional time on my hands I am reclined in my uber adjustable hospital bed getting this blog into my iPad.

The sad part of course is that hospitals are ‘dry zones’ and even with the infiltration of a Glencairn by my wife, alas I could not fill it with anything but good old H2O.

Tasted in a Glencairn at full strength (pretty hard to water down water). Very clear with no perceptible colour or tiny floaties. Poured into the Glencairn straight from the Water dispenser. One of those big stainless steel units that has one spot for water and another for ice. I would have had a few cubes in it but the ice dispenser was not working. Fancy motion detection pouring system though – high tech.

Nose: Very clean and watery – good filtration used in this water

Taste: Clean and refreshing, no from-the-tap chlorine off notes here. The kind of water that leaves you thinking you want some more. Definitely high quality stuff.

So onto this weeks topic “Independent Bottling”

The purchasing of independent bottlings especially in North America has until recently predominantly been the bastion of whisky clubs, whisky geeks, collectors and a very small percentage of consumers in the know.

The fact that most Independent Bottlers only release very limited amounts also creates this exclusive market.

Since discovering independent bottlers, when I started representing A.D. Rattray in 2006, I have tried a lot of different expressions from different companies.

Gordon & Macphail, Signatory, Cadenhead, Samaroli, Blackadder, Wemyss, Murray McDavid, Douglas Laing, Adelphi, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Duncan Taylor, and a few other smaller independents.

There are less than 100 bottlers that do anything consistently and for the North American Market that number drops considerably especially in the US where 750ml bottles cause a lot of independents to forego it altogether.

Independent bottling is sometimes seen as “inferior” and not worth collecting or buying compared to their “distillery bottled” cousins.

Let me spend just a little time trying to dispel that belief. Distillery bottling by nature, especially their consistent brands include 100’s and sometimes 1000’s of barrels to make any particular expression. In this mix you have everything from outstanding casks to at best mediocre and sometimes well hidden some truly diabolical casks. Everything gets put together and the skill of the Master Distiller is to consistently get a similar flavor profile. This is still awesome whisky and it is truly incredible that some of the larger distilleries can produce the same product by the 100’000’s of cases with a fantastic level of consistency.

Distillery bottling by nature, especially their consistent brands include 100’s and sometimes 1000’s of barrels to make any particular expression. In this mix you have everything from outstanding casks to at best mediocre and sometimes well hidden some truly diabolical casks.

Think about your favourite whisky. Where does it come from and how much do they make a year. Is every bottle consistent or are some batches better than others?

Independents on the other hand, apart from proprietary labels that they produce to be ongoing, bottle mostly single cask offerings. Single Cask Single Malts can be absolutely amazing and occasionally downright awful. However I have found that generally speaking given that independents live and die by their reputation for quality most do truly try to only release really good casks. Some are better at it than others of course and are sought after by whisky nerds and collectors. So imagine you have the task of choosing a barrel from 100 on a list knowing that it needs to be an exceptional expression of the distillery with balance and flavor to match. Sounds like a simple task but requires not only a skilled palate but also skill in making sure the price matches the whisky.

Single Cask Single Malts can be absolutely amazing and occasionally downright awful.

Distillery bottlings especially older versions have generally been much more expensive than independent bottlings but in recent times that has all changed. The scarcity of old malt and the increasing markets have allowed independents to value their whisky as though they distilled it themselves and charge accordingly.

Duncan Taylor and Gordon & Macphail have both broken the barrier in the past few years charging in the 10’s of thousands for some of their extremely rare and special drams. This ceiling was once a bastion of only the most well known distilleries.

In this new market if you want old whisky from popular distilleries then expect to pay big bucks.

Having worked with several independents over the years, I can attest to the fact that a lot of consumers would like to try a single cask before buying to make sure that it is a good one. Because of the inherent rarity of each barrel’s offerings i.e. most bourbon barrels only producing 200-300 bottles it is not always possible to get a sample first. One then has to go by the reputation of the independent but even then regardless of how careful they are inevitably some less than stellar barrels sneak through all the quality controls. These are the exception rather than the rule however.

In most cases when I have experienced consumer aversion to a particular bottling it is more the flavor profile of the distillery itself than with the cask in question.

If you are not yet converted to trying Single Cask Single Malts then I urge you to start down the path. Embrace all that whisky can be from the delicious large production staple to the tiny single barrel.

Get out to an independent tasting as soon as you can. Single casks can be a revelation and whisky path changing event.

You definitely don’t want to miss out.

Send in your favourite Single Cask experience and you can compare notes with my 17 year old A.D. Rattray Cask Strength Sherried Macallan experience (yummy).

Next week we get back to basics with a look at 40% whiskies and why they can be just the ticket.

See you then,

Cheers!

Jonathan

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