Tag Archives: Gordon and Macphail

When nurture trumps nature

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.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky p1

As it appeared – p1.

Prestige JUN 2017 Whisky 2

As it appeared – p2.

 

 

Glenfarclas tasting and independent bottlings

I was privileged during the weekend to be invited by a good mate to taste a very special whisky; special because it was intrinsically so, and also because it’s a vintage dating from the year in which his late brother was born.  We drank a toast in remembrance – rest in peace Warren.

The whisky in question was a Douglas Laing independent bottling of Glenfarclas that had been distilled in 1967.  It’s part of their Old Malt Cask range, comprising uniquely of single casks all bottled non-chill filtered at 50% abv (sometimes referred to as “the golden strength”).   They have their reasons but it seems restrictive to me.  What would happen if the cask strength for a particular older cask was below 50%?  Worrying, but I only let this view into the abyss deter me momentarily.

Malt that's more mature than me

This is a whisky that was wholly matured in sherry casks, so I was expecting resinous, raisiny, leathery, tannic flavours, and I was conscious that at 42 years old it might be overly oaked.  It turned out to be a tight, well-integrated, balanced whisky, purposeful and sure of itself, and without any excessive wood influence.   Over and above I also identified some nutty aromas, restrained sweetness, and a bit of spice on the palate and finish.  The only drawback was that I had anticipated something more vivid.  The cultivation of tasting ability is a progressive exercise and I’ll admit that mine is still a work in progress, so I may well miss some subtle flavours, simply through lack of experience and education.   I’m not going to get too hung up about it – I don’t want to transform myself into either an anorak or a Hilton old boy (the dark sides of the dram) – so I’ll just trust my instincts:  good, even great whisky, made even better by the company in which I enjoyed it, but not animate enough to be spectacular.

This experience also prompted me to reflect on the whole concept of independent bottling, which I think is fascinating.   Typically an independent bottler would secure new-make spirit from a distillery, mature the spirit themselves, and then release a single-malt under both its name and that of the distillery.  Duncan Taylor, and Gordon and Macphail are two such well known examples.  Some bottlers do not associate their single malts with the distillery of origin, either on the insistence of the distillery (to prevent dilution of their brand name) where this has sway, or so as not to be committed to a specific source of supply.  In certain circles these are known as bastard malts, but I find this descriptor unfairly disparaging.  I’ve tasted some that are simply magnificent.  Some distilleries have employed practices such a teaspooning as a deterrent.  It sounds kinky but disappointingly isn’t.  The most famous practitioner is Glenmorangie, reputed to add a teaspoon of Glen Moray to spirit that they sold to blenders – under the name “Westport” – to prevent it from reappearing later as independent bottlings under the Glenmorangie name.  Curiously I’ve seen Westport labelled as a single malt, and not a blended/vatted/pure malt, so either someone is taking a chance, no-one is too bothered about the teaspoon, or the story is a myth.

Completely unrelated

Fascinating indeed.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – whisky appeals to me because of its integrity, its complexity and its variety, and independent bottlings really contribute to that variety.  They allow for a wide range of different products to be crafted from the same new make spirit.  Unfortunately availability is scarce in SA – the upper end of the market is not mature enough, and the process for bringing new liquor into the country is a contortion of epic proportions.  These add up to be a roadblock for niche products.  There’s hope however: SA is today the 5th largest export market for Scotch whisky (4th if you don’t count Singapore), and the premium segment continues to grow.  Hopefully the dynamics will change as we continue to leap forward.