|Duncan Taylor hand bottling one of their single cask whiskies.|
There is a lot more to this than a simple blog so you will have to excuse me simplifying the discussion. In a nutshell, the big companies do not like independent bottlers, and even the small distillers, in fact anyone with a distillery, does not like IBs. IBs feed off the reputations of the distilleries to a certain extent (ask anyone which cask is going to sell faster, a Glentuachers or a Macallan - easily the Macallan and that is simply due to reputation) and the distillers see this is as an intrusion to their market share or niche.
There are a number distillers who are also independent bottlers; Springbank/Glengyle, Edradour, Bruichladdich, Benromach & Bladnoch (and of course Moet Hennessey owners of 2 distilleries and also owners of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society). The interesting thing that occurs when an IB becomes a distiller is they immediately prevent any of the whisky from their new distillery being sold to other IBs. Double standards? Well yes and no. Would I do the same? If I could afford to, hell yes.
And here is the overriding issue; if this becomes common place then what future for the IB? Should there even be IBs?
At the moment, we have a real mix of casks being bottled from a multitude of distilleries. Never in the history of whisky has the choice been greater and this is in a large part due to IBs. It is annoying to the large companies who spend millions each year placing their brand only to find that the best scores for their whisky go to a cask bottled by an IB or a really bad cask gets out there and affects the reputation.
|St Magdalene Distillery, Linlithgow closed 1983|
(To buy bottles of St Magdalene click here)
Distillers are also now protecting brands that were otherwise quite readily available. Whiskies like Aberlour, Glenlivet, Benromach, Bruichladdich & Macallan are going to become quite scarce and command a hefty premium.
So how many distilleries does that leave the IBs for the future? Hard to say, but I would guess in the region of 40. Sounds like a lot, but it isn't. In my 10 years working for IBs (including my own company) I estimate that I have bottled whisky from nearly 100 different distilleries, narrowing the choice down to 40 will make a huge impact on the longevity of IBs.
I don't want to end on a complete downer though. I think the IBs have a hugely important part to play and a part I wish the distillers would pay heed to. Take Amrut Distillery, makers of probably the finest Indian whisky there is. Until Blackadder bottled one of their casks (specifically chosen by Robin Tucek who has at least 20 years experience in picking single casks) which was given exceedingly high praise and marks from the Malt Maniacs no-one had really heard of them. Now they are on everyone's lips. (http://www.maltmaniacs.org/2008-whisky-awards.html#Amrut-IB)
Ardbeg, silent for a number of years, was almost completely written off had it not been for the slow but steady stream of casks bottled by the IBs. Once it had re-opened by Macdonald & Muir it was and is a huge success - thanks to the continued interest made possible by IBs. What was the thanks the IBs got - availability of casks was taken away.
The IBs have their fingers on the pulse of the malt whisky zealot; they can bottle casks of whisky that leave big distillers scratching their heads, whilst the malt drinker purrs in delight. I will relate a small story of this; I was invited on the Malts Advocate Course at Royal Lochnagar. We tasted a few casks that were deemed unbottleable. One of them was an ex-Sherry butt and it was superb. To the large distiller though, it was not within their peramaters of acceptability - didn't fit in their 'recipe'. To me, a malt drinker, it was pure heaven. Some of the so-called 'off-notes' were what made it different and exciting.
IBs are also the main draw for regular festival-goers. Imagine a whisky festival without IBs - dull thought isn't it! Imagine the Malt Maniac Awards withouth IBs - very dull. Grain whisky would still be completely ignored if it wasn't for IBs (and you have to include Compass Box in this as they are also an IB). IBs spread the word, keep interest alive, bottle small quantities for clubs, societies, fairs, charities etc (try and get Diageo to bottle 100 bottles for your next whisky festival?!).
Until the distillers realise this and allow greater access to whisky (rather than a select and priveleged few) the future for IBs is certainly murky and I hope you will agree that the whisky world will be much less interesting without Independent Bottlers.
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