Wednesday, 6 April 2011

A whisky world without independent bottlers?

Duncan Taylor hand bottling one of their single cask whiskies.
I was asked at the Danish Whisky Messen ('festival') in Kolding whether there was a long-term future for independent bottlers. That's a tough question actually. Short-term, yes, but long-term? For those of you who don't know what I am talking about, independent bottlers are companies who buys casks of whisky and bottle them under their own label and more often than not use the distillery name to identify the contents.

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)
I personally can't see this availability from IBs continuing. For one, very good reason, certain stocks will simply no longer be available. In the next few years we will see the last of Port Ellen, Brora, St Magdalene, Rosebank, Glen Mhor, Littlemill etc etc. The total number of distilleries with whisky available is going to get considerably smaller (about 80-ish). Of those, certain distilleries never release casks; Oban, Lagavulin, Talisker, Springbank, Glenmorangie, Ardbeg etc. (In some of these cases it is simply because they can sell, usually as a single malt, all they can make and therefore have no need to sell or swap casks).

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. (

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.

I'm currently drinking:

...actually, nothing, I'm giving my body a rest after some over-indulgence recently.

I'm currently reading:

You're either a fan or you're not. Later on in the month I'll be writing a blog on why I am such a fan of Stephen Fry. Early days in the book but so far loving it.


  1. Hi Dave,

    I agree with most of your points but there is one thing I must point out:

    Very recent there has been an indie bottling of Edradour, from their NEW period, that was bottled by The Ultimate in The Netherlands. Its an 8 year old so they do sell some casks every now and then... Of course, it could be bought by Ultimate from a private cask owner, but there might be options in there...

    Maybe the decrease of available casks will make IB's look abroad more often. Japan, USA, Canada, Australia all produce good whisk(e)y of which (almost) no Indie bottles are available...

  2. You never know what you've got until it's gone.

    On another note, the white on black makes my eyes hurt.

  3. Hi Sjoerd,
    The Ultimate is owned by the importer of Signatory/Edradour so there is almost certainly a special arrangement there. Edradour is a bit different really due to its size - it would be unrealistic to suggest they have spare casks lying around.

    As for the rest of the world. Japan casks are rarer than hen's teeth and none I know of on the 'open market', America is also almost impossible and much of the other distilleries make too little (not to mention distribution costs). Irish would be great but again, liked a closed shop.

    Thanks Martin, I'll have a play with the settings.

  4. The only IB I know that works with American stock is Cadenhead's. They have bottled some casks of Heaven Hill.

    I hope indie bottles will survive, since they always offer the best value for money. Especially a little bottler called Creative Whisky something :)

  5. Hi David,

    I'm surprised it has taken this long for someone to raise this question in public. I've been thinking about this myself for quite some time now, since it started to show that most distillers could sell all their spirit themselves.

    you're absolutely right that many IB are sold on account of the name on the bottle, but on the other hand I feel that the big players fear of getting the reputaion ruined is exaggerated. At best we're talking maybe 300 bottles from a cask from time to time - and IMO that's not enough to spoil your image - in fact they should be grateful to get their name out there to show that they can make a product like that also (in case of the good casks, that is!)

    I feel that (whisky)world will be a much poorer place without IB's... Most of my own bottles come from IBs, since it gives you the best variation within a single distillery, when you dont want to settle for e.g. an age variation.

    ...and I think your example with Lochnager is spot on! it may be cracking whiskym but it doesn't fit the profile - Lochnagar here display what I like to call the Mcdonald's effect - you want the food to taste the same in every restaurant across the world - therefore we're not serving the tasty stuff!

    I may see a bleek future for you guys, David, but hang in there... I for one, would very much miss IBs


  6. Great post

    Sometimes you hear things that is against the rules. Dennis Malcolm of Glen Grant told me that they started filling casks for Gordon and MacPhail again after they got split away from Pernod/Ricard


  7. Interesting Steffen - if you associate any independent bottler with Glen Grant then it is G&M so clearly they are not bothered with brand association or dilution. Here though you have a big distillery making a lot of whisky and the largest independent bottler ale to buy large quantities.

    I think the lesson here is; win the lottery...

  8. There are still indie Ardbegs and Laga's out there, some bottled by a certain award-winning online retailer, for example #cough# :)

  9. Also, we had Amrut back in 2005 - but you're right, no-one cared until the MM's did their thing.

  10. Hi Tim,

    thanks for the comments and yes there are still a few Lagavulin's and Ardbegs (although you're not allowed to call them that are you?). How you are able to get these is of course none of my business (I would venture it has to do with the buying power of TWE...) but my point is that for the most part these malts are out of bounds for IBs.

    Perhaps if all IBs went down the route of not naming the distillery then more doors would open but I doubt it.

    I don't want to sound too glum though. When I started CWC quite a few people told me 'there's no future for IBs and you won't get any casks etc' and I've been going over 6 years. Supply is often cyclical so the slump at the moment may reverse in a year or two.

  11. You're doing a great job, David. Of course some distilleries are always going to be harder to get hold of than others, but we're not the only ones who get them. Adelphi get some great stuff and bottle it under their 'Breath of..' labels - There's a terrific Breath of Islay 1999 just out from one of the south coast distilleries that no-one's ever supposed to get. Not naming the distillery removes a lot of the producer's objections.

  12. Yeah - this may well be the future. I have absolutely no problem with this as I stand by each and every cask I bottle regardless of name, age, rank etc.

  13. Besides Cadenhead did Ian Macleod Distillers Ltd a, for as i know, one time bottling of 3 casks of bourbon known as "Two Bobs".

    With Benromach as an IB do you mean G&M?

    Would the distilleries sell as much whisky without IB as they do now with IB's.

  14. Hi Bas, yes Ian Macleod has bottled bourbon but it is still quite rare for this to be done.

    Its a very good question about how much whisky would be sold. Certainly the big independent bottlers sell a lot of whisky (1000s of casks each year) and of course they all started small but in a time when distilleries were comfortable selling direct. Without that allowance from the distillers, the smaller IBs won't have the opportunity to get to the point where they are selling 1000s of casks each year.

    The main issue is that the large distillers will not even talk to the small IBs. Surely there is a common ground where all are satisfied?

  15. I think the people who wont sell to indy bottlers make a GREAT mistake- They are actually undermining the scottish whisky business.
    If the future will se a huge drop in the number of availbale single cask bottlings from indies and a drop of distilleries availbale I reckon a lot of the entusiasts engagement will decrease

    These entusiasts, which includes myself and other writing here, might not be very important by themselves, but as a group we have been great ambassadors for Scottish whiskies. Spreading the word, spreading the whisky.

    Loose the whisky and loose a lot of our engagement

    Indepent bottlers are also the best marketing a distillery can get. I often discussed this with distilleries people who say the opposite, but frankly, I think it's like arguing with a wall, and they don't have the faintest clue

    Or maybe they just wear their company masks...

    One argument they put up is they can't control the quality of the indies bottlings and that they put bottlings out that doesnt keep the quality

    Well this do happen, but seen on a general level the bottles released by indies are as good and as bad as distillery OB bottlings can be. And I got the experience to say that. And I doubt the people within the industry I argue with can match my (or any other of you geeks reading this) experience with indie bottlings

    I actually prefer indie bottlings so there you go, but the gap is small :-)

    Free marketing, yes. I bet the marketing people at Glenlivet is clapping their slim clean office fingers these days with all the mentions they get from G and M releasing a 70yo

    I wonder how much Glenfarclas is going to cheer when a 70yo Glen Avon, Glen Gordon or MacPhail's is released (or whatever name GandM use as their Glenfarclas label)