It can be difficult to keep up with which Scotches are made by which distillers; it seems like there are only a few Scottish distilleries and yet there are a huge number of Scotch brands! Part of this is because many whisky distilleries make whiskies under several brand names (and then there is the issue of blends…) but independent bottlers definitely create most of the confusion. Here are a few things that every Scotch single malt lover needs to know about independent bottlings.
- Independent does not equal better or worse. There are great independent bottlers and ones that are not so great. Much of this depends on the quality of the whisky from the distillery they are working with. An independent bottler usually buys casks from a distillery and then finishes them in their own style. No matter how great that finish is, they are beginning with the same main ingredient as the corporate distillery itself.
- Independent bottlings tend to be more expensive… and rarer. You might wince a little at the price of an independently finished bottle, but keep in mind: they are working with extremely small batches and often paying immense attention to the finish, using a variety of specialty ingredients and casks. Because they are working in such small batches, a particularly good whisky will jump in price quickly and sell out before you know it. If you find an independent single malt that you like, you better buy a lifetime’s supply quickly!
- Independent bottlers often contain whiskies from rare and defunct distilleries. It is not unusual for a distillery to sell off its stock to an independent bottler when they go out of business. This allows them to liquidate highly resalable product and is also an opportunity for the independent bottler. If you are interested in a distillery that is no longer in business, you may be able to buy some of the independent bottlings left and sample the products for an idea of their style and terroir.
- Independent bottlers encourage experimentation in the whisky world. We are all lovers of tradition, but there is a time to try new things as well. Because independent bottlers are usually working with very small amounts of whisky, they can afford to take a risk by trying new processes. This can yield some amazing products, which forces the established distilleries to change it up a little. While tradition is important, remember that not too long ago, aging in ex-bourbon casks was nouveau.
- Independent bottlings are usually better marked. If you are wondering whether an unfamiliar bottle on the shelf is independent or simply a distillery you have never heard of, pay attention to details. Independent bottlings usually contain a lot more information than core expressions. They will tell you not just when the whisky was bottled and how much alcohol is contained within, but the type of casks, the number of bottles released in the run, and often more.
This may be a little confusing, but keep in mind that you do not have to be an expert in order to appreciate the fine points of independently bottled whisky. While knowing a little background certainly helps, it is not essential to pleasure. However, knowing roughly how the process works and which independent bottlers use particular distilleries can definitely help you to know ahead of time what to expect from any given independent malt.