Putting their stamp on it. PATRICK LECLEZIO ruminates on independent bottlings.
First published in Prestige Magazine (June 2017 edition).
The whisky industry is a strange and fascinating beast. It is virtually unique, which is largely why its output inspires such passionate devotion (also because it’s tasty I guess). Elsewhere, in more dour pastures, the usual expectation is for an organisation that puts out a product to have produced it itself, or at a minimum, in this specialising era, to have conceived and designed it and perhaps contracted out the actual production. Not so with whisky. Despite being rigidly conventional, and cosseted by tradition in many respects, the industry is also extraordinarily nimble in others, nowhere more so than with what’s known as independent bottling. Tiny in volume, colossal in variety, it’s a microcosmic snapshot of how the industry operates, and of what whisky’s all about.
Independent bottling is the practice by one party of further producing, and then marketing and selling, whisky that was initially produced by another party. This sounds a bit clumsy, but unavoidably so. At this point, before throwing these terms about any further, it may be worth contextualising what is meant by “production of whisky”. If one reduces this analysis to identifying discrete opportunities to add meaningful value to the final output – which is a must for any party like an independent bottler trying to insert itself into the process, then I’d suggest that there are three broad stages: distillation of the new make (being the entire process culminating in distillation), maturation, and vatting or blending or timing. The independent bottler is not involved in distillation, in imbuing the liquid with its nature (at least not for its independent bottlings), but can be involved in the other stages to a greater or lesser extent, the grooming of the liquid into whisky. Funnily enough, though a moot point in that it doesn’t influence the whisky, the actual bottling is in most cases done by another third party, or perhaps even by the producing party.
The origins of independent bottling date back to the dawn of Scotch whisky’s big blockbuster brands, when grocers bought liquid from distillers to create their own proprietary blends. Some of these evolved into the multiple-distillery-owning behemoths that dominate the industry today, others into what we’ve come to know as independent bottlers. We owe a debt to many of the latter in particular for sheltering and nurturing the malt whisky flame along the way. There was a time when single malts were only available, virtually, from independent bottlers, and it was probably their cultivation of this niche into something significant that prompted the big distillers to follow suit. This prescient attentiveness, when no-one else was much interested, means that the older, more established independent bottlers have stocks of some of the oldest malt whiskies in existence. In 2015 Gordon & MacPhail issued bottlings of a 75 year old Mortlach, the oldest whisky ever released, a record they had already held with the previous releases of two 70 year olds, a Mortlach and a Glenlivet. If you’re in the market for old Scotch malt whisky, generally at much more reasonable prices than equivalent distillery offerings, independent bottlings will provide a rich potential source.
There are many other advantages aside from its aged stocks and favourable costs that independent bottlers proffer to the whisky lover. The mechanisms by which liquid is traded amongst the big distillers (for their blends) and the smaller operators like independent bottlers are largely shrouded from public view, but certain deductions can be made. Distillers sell to independent bottlers for commercial reasons of course, but also for whisky reasons; if, for instance, individual casks are judged to be excessively outwith the parameters of the house style it may be deemed preferable to get rid of them. The ensuing independent bottlings play the same role as that often underlying the deployment of vintage malts: manifesting variations of standard expressions that can be both interesting and compelling. The phenomenon of “teaspooning”, which is undocumented but popularly believed to be true, is an interesting corollary to these trading practices. Distilleries wanting to sell their liquid without lending their names to the independent bottlers in the bargain are reputed to add a teaspoon of a different malt to the cask being transacted, a rather messy device considering that it also prevents the whisky from being sold as a single malt. The Westport blended malt for instance is understood to be Glenmorangie with a hint of Glen Moray.
The biggest boon though of independent bottlings is that they are small by definition. Whilst these organisations can and do accumulate for making blended malts and blended whisky, the similar stock to which they have access tends to be of relatively reduced quantity. The implications are twofold: firstly, as I’ve already alluded to, they put out a lot of small volume expressions of differing styles, constitution and flavour. An explosion of variety. The big producers have their limited edition and experimental forays, but they’re by and large focused on their larger variants. If variety is the spice of life, then independent bottlers are pivotal to extending the range of our whisky experience; secondly, with little to underpin their liquid, the romance and backing of the distillery is arm’s length at best, independent bottlers often live and die by the sword – there’s no cushion so they need to constantly be adding value, providing something more, something different, something unique. It’s a huge stimulus for innovation and distinctiveness. Compass Box’s Spice Tree is a great example, as is the company as a whole, of this observation in action. The liquid is bought ready matured (ten years old), but then extra matured for two years in varying bespoke casks (the key constituent being the heavily toasted French oak heads), and finally intricately woven together by their blender. It’s a cohesive injection of accelerated complexity and willed variety that is interpreted on the nose and palate as sweet, spicy and rich.
The beauty of the independent bottling continuum is the multiple layers of opportunity that it offers to add value and apply a core competence, thereby prompting the introduction of new players and products into the mix. The Checkers Liquor Private Barrel Company has specialised in bringing elusive single casks, which would otherwise rarely be seen here, to the South African marketplace. Single casks are a precarious business. There’s no place to hide – as there could be in a vatting or a blend. It’s either good or it’s not. In this light even something as seemingly minor as the selection or timing of a cask for bottling by a private bottler represents pivotal value – especially when integrated into a holistic plan for the product. The latest expression, a judiciously selected and well-timed Glen Scotia 10 year old, is very good indeed, with a juicy, bursting flavour of tropical fruits and sweet spices. If credence is needed then this whisky delivers in spades.
In many senses the whisky industry, despite its conventions and traditions, has been ahead of its time, and nowhere more so than in the sphere of independent bottlers. There is something very modern and vibrant about the focus and specialisation that they have demonstrated. Without their existence the industry would be much diminished, and we’d be shy of many wonderful whiskies. Let’s look forward to travelling the new paths they’re forging on our continuing whisky journeys. May the dram be with you.