Who the heck are they?
Independent bottlers (abbreviated as “IB”) are suppliers of whisky (or sometimes, rum) that they do not distill themselves. Independent bottlers tend to purchase casks of whiskies from the original distilleries (e.g. Glenmorangie Distillery), and then they bottle and sell the whiskies under their own house brand (e.g. William Cadenhead).
This is from an original bottler (OB), Glenmorangie Distillery.
If you encounter your favourite single malt whisky sold under the label of an unfamiliar brand, you might have encountered a whisky released by an IB. There are numerous brands of independent bottlers.
Well-regarded independent bottlers include Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead’s, Douglas Laing, Thompson Brothers, Compass Box, Scotch Malt Whisky Society, That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Signatory Vintage, The Single Cask and Blackadder. This is just to name a few!
Unlike original bottlers (i.e. distilleries themselves), independent bottlers they do not have to follow a particular house style or flavour guideline in the way they mature their whiskies.
Producing whisky is a very financially intensive project for original bottlers. Heavy investment is required upfront. It can be expensive to market their single malt. And profits may only come many years later - the distillate must be matured in casks for a decent number of years before they can be ready to sell to consumers.
From a business perspective, independent bottlers help original bottlers meet their overheads at the beginning of their project by buying some of their new make (essentially “pre-whisky”- a high-proof colourless spirit made from distillation). When the whisky has come of age, the independent bottlers are then free to re-sell the stuff to consumers under their own brands.
Independent bottlers also provide a great service to whisky collectors and aficionados by providing access to whiskies from long-closed distilleries. As time goes on and distilleries close, independent bottlers who retain stock of old and rare whiskies (think cult ghost distilleries like Port Ellen and Brora) become archivists of the old whisky world and pleasantly surprise people with “new” releases from now-silent distilleries. Kinda like how “new” music albums are posthumously released by late musicians.
Independent bottlers also helping people discover new distilleries and flavour styles. There are many great distilleries not well-known to the general consumer. Reputable independent bottlers can act as a good bartender to recommend good distilleries that do not receive the consumer attention they deserve. And unlike distilleries that are constrained by branding guidelines and a house-style to ensure that their whisky always exhibit “that signature Macallan style”, independent bottlers are not so constrained and can bring to consumers special styles of whiskies that do not follow what we would conventionally expect.
Why should I care? Should I try IB bottles?
Independently-bottled whisky (and not to forget, rums) ought to be on the radar of both hardcore aficionados and casual drinkers.
Serious whisky fans would want to have access to special editions and rare bottles from either closed distilleries or distilleries that rarely release their own single malts (e.g. Glenburgie or Miltonduff), or well-known single malts that are matured in a unique style (care to try a bourbon-matured Macallan?).
Casual drinkers would certainly enjoy the wider variety of styles provided by independent bottlers. But the one big thing that would appeal to new drinkers is the fact that they are generally more affordable than original bottles direct from distilleries.
Independent bottler whiskies are a little less visible to the general consumer’s eye, but they’re an overlooked category we all ought to explore. Dive into several bottles these IBs to get a more colourful whisky adventure without breaking the bank!