Independent Bottlers: Who are they, how did they come about, and what do they offer the whisky community?
Imagine it is 1848 in Scotland and you are a man named William Matheson.
You have decided to pour all your savings into a whisky business despite your wife’s protestations. You built a distillery and name it Glenmorangie Distillery. Although you had a really good feeling about this, your wife ignored you for three weeks.
It is 5 years into your distillery’s operation. You struggle to bring in enough revenue to cover your overheads and satisfy your wife. Yes, your whisky is decent, but you could only sell 3-year-old Glenmorangies at the moment. Older age statement whiskies would require more years of ageing- and that would have to wait.
At the same time, a man in a monocle, top hat and immaculate moustache named William Cadenhead approaches you. He is obviously rich because he has a monocle and a top hat. Somehow, the man is happy to buy much of your young whiskies in bulk and at a reasonable price. You have no idea what he intends to do with your whiskies, but you sell it to him without question. You need the money to cover your distillery operation.
Decades pass and your son has taken over the business. One day, he notices an unfamiliar whisky bottling with the “William Cadenhead” label. The label claims it is a 45-year-old "Distilled at Glenmorangie". You are too senile to remember ever selling your whiskies to Cadenhead. Your son wonders, what on earth happened?
The answer is that independent bottlers happened.
What are Independent Bottlers?
When Glenmorangie Distillery releases expressions under its own brand, the whisky comes in the familiar Glenmorangie bottle. This is referred to as whisky from an “official bottler” or “original bottler” (or OB).
On the other hand, an “independent bottler” (or IB) does not distil its own whisky. They are third party companies that purchase whiskies from distilleries, and then sell the whiskies under that third party brand (e.g. Cadenhead’s). 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.
How did Independent Bottlers come about?
Why would OBs be willing to sell their whiskies to IBs only for IBs to later on re-sell the stuff and compete with themselves? The answer really boils down to economics. It is actually quite expensive to successfully market a single malt. Many distilleries’ whiskies are commercially unviable to be bottled on their own, and marketed and retailed as single malt. For this reason, you might not have heard of Strathmill Distillery, Miltonduff Distillery or Glenburgie Distillery.
Before the 1990s, demand was moderate and the whisky industry wasn’t as profitable as it is today. Many distilleries could not make ends meet and had to close. By financial necessity, OBs have to sell their young whiskies to IBs just to make some profit.
Fast forward a few decades to the 2010-2020s, the times and tides have changed and whisky has been in ever increasing vogue now. The same IBs who purchased whiskies in the 1990s now open their warehouses for consumers to re-explore some of these old malts, many from closed distilleries.
What do independent bottlers offer?
Although IBs are not the original distillers of whisky, they provide a great service to the whisky community with plenty of benefits.
They help us discover new styles
Firstly, unbridled by brand guidelines or requirements to adhere to a distillery’s signature characteristics, they are able to bring to us special styles of whiskies that do not follow what we would conventionally expect from the distilleries that produce them. They are also able to bring to the spotlight distilleries that do not enjoy the limelight (or marketing budget from big brands).
Many have tried a Johnnie Walker scotch. Yet much fewer of us are familiar with Clynelish Distillery, which produces the bulk of the constituent whisky for the Johnnie Walker Gold Label blend. The above release by IB, Thompson Bros, shines a subtle spotlight on Clynelish Distillery. The label does not reveal the distillery’s name, but simply states that the single malt was “Distilled in Sutherland”. Curious drinkers who want to find out more would run a web search for “Sutherland, Scotland” and learn that this is where Clynelish Distillery is based.
Providing access to closed distilleries
A group of long-established IBs are self-appointed archivists of the whisky world (think of Gordon & MacPhail, William Cadenhead’s). In the days of yore, these IBers collect excess whiskies from various cash-strapped distilleries with too much unmatured stock. Several decades go on with OB bottles opened and distilleries closed. IBers then become curators of old, rare, increasingly valuable bottles, and the stewards for the legacies of long-dead distilleries. Every now and then the market is pleasantly surprised with “new” releases from now-silent distilleries. Kinda like how “new” music albums are posthumously released by late musicians.
Most of us would not have heard of Willowbank Distillery from New Zealand, because the distillery had closed about 25 years ago. That Boutique-y Whisky Company (TBWC) has a reputation for skilful blending, interesting caskings and a good eye in unearthing rare quality whisky from silent distilleries. TWBC recently made this Willowbank expression – a very rare find – available to consumers. What a treat!
Interesting, innovative remixes
The above generally describes the practice of more traditional IBs. In the 2000s a new group of creative and sophisticated IBers have also sprung up to dabble as music DJs of the whisky world (think of Compass Box, Thompson Bros and TBWC) to release blends or innovative caskings- “remixes” if you will- of the stuff made by the OG established distilleries.
“Remixes” or reinterpretations can produce very interesting whisky styles not envisioned by OBs. When blended well and marketed well, these are extremely well-received by consumers – sometimes better received than the OB bottlings of the corresponding distilleries.
Compass Box is yet another IB that is highly respected for its skilful blending of whiskies and innovative maturation techniques. Its famous Spice Tree expression is a blend of single malts from Clynelish, Glen Moray, Tomatin and Balmenach distilleries, and has intense notes of baking spices. Controversially, the intense notes of baking spices were achieved by Compass Box’s “avant garde” maturation technique of using French oak inner staves inserted into the maturation barrel to infuse those flavours.
The use of this maturation technique actually got the IB in trouble with the Scotch Whisky Association. More on that here.
What other advantages do IBs provide?
The host of benefits they bring to us go on and on. To name a few other potential features:
- IBs are (usually) a little more affordable than OBs
- IBs provide a wider range of age statements
- IBs do not slavishly stick to a distillery’s signature styles (care to try a bourbon-matured Macallan?)
- IBs provide access to either closed distilleries or distilleries that rarely release single malts (e.g. Glenburgie)
- IBs are usually single cask or cask strength bottlings
Independent bottlers are sometimes a little mysterious
The Whisky Exchange's Black Friday single malts are all from undisclosed distilleries
Sometimes, IBs label their bottling as a "Speyside single malt" but do not reveal the originating distillery. Perhaps they are trying to be mysterious. More often, it is because the original distillers prohibit the use of their distillery names by IBs to minimise competition.
Although most distilleries don't mind their names appearing on IBs, some distilleries are more cautious. They can prevent IBs from using their names by using special contractual provisions in supply contracts.
More cunning distilleries "teaspoon" the whiskies that are sold to IBs - that is, to add just a teaspoon of another single malt whisky into the cask. This makes it illegal under Scottish and EU law for the IBs to call that their bottling a single malt from that particular distillery.
This is why there are hardly any IBs of Glenfiddich, Balvenie or Glenfarclas in the market.
This is also why the Scotch Malt Whisky Company prefers to release whiskies without ever mentioning the names of the distilleries on their labels, always using a SMWS code instead. More on the SMWS codes here.
IBs will always remain relevant
The modus operandi of IBs seems fairly similar. Step 1: get your hands on casks. Step 2: add value to them in some of the ways listed above. Step 3: bottle them for sale. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. The playbook is a tale as old as time- or at least as old as William Cadenhead’s IB company that was founded in 1842.
IBs are less visible to the public’s eye. But if you dive deep enough into the world of whiskies and fall in love with limited edition releases, you’ll sure enough end up at the bottom of a bottle of one of these IBs.
There are a great number of IBs, some of the most recognizable of whom have been family-run for generations, such as Douglas Laing or Gordon & MacPhail, others started out as importers and distributors, such as Intertrade, Moon Import and Samaroli, and a small group even owning their own distilleries, such as Cadenhead’s (which owns Springbank Distillery) and Adelphi (which owns new distillery Ardnamurchan).
We haven't even scratched the surface of indies in Asia and how they provide a vital service of bringing whiskies from Scotland and distribute them across Asia. But we'll keep that for another day.
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