Limburg chitchat: “I haven’t bought an original bottling in ten years“. This tweet (by OliverKlimek) I read on twitter the other day. Well, this quote matches quite well with a question I’m asking myself for weeks now: „Can I truly be a whisky geek if one of my favorite whiskies is an original bottling?“ Frankly this sounds a little bit polemic but it seems like some folks in the whisky scene tend to have that opinion. So I think it’s time to have a closer look into the world of independent bottlers.
That independent bottlings are the greater ones is a very popular opinion and there always was the myth that independent bottlers simply go to distilleries and snaffle the best cask out of warehouses, while the half-baked owners of those distilleries only sell average spirit. Well that’s pretty much not the case. In fact the ever growing market for independent bottlings is more and more fed with average spirit because it’s getting harder and harder for those independent bottlers to find and bottle good stuff. The reasons for this are obvious:
Firstly the world wide demand for whisky explodes these days. On this years Whisky Fair in Limburg, Germany, Antony McCollum from the independent bottler „Chieftains“ told us that last years demand has passed the numbers which were predicted for 2014. Nobody in die whisky industry anticipated such a high demand for scotch whisky ten years ago. The consequences are that the warehouses are getting more and more empty and the distillers hoard their stock for blends or their own bottlings.
Secondly the market for single casks itself pretty much disappeared. The big companies behind the popular blends like Johnny Walker or Chivas Regal have bought all distilleries they needed ensuring the constant flow of the required spirit. That’s the reason why Diageo who produces Johnny Walker owns over 30 distilleries.
On the other hand the big independent players like Gorden & McPhail, Signatory Vintage or Cadenheads have big warehouses which are more or less full of casks. But the snowballing international whisky markets will steadily increase and the demand for independent bottled whisky will follow. Sooner or later those big warehouses will fall dry since the supply of new casks abates.What do the bottlers do against these trends? Well, they mainly follow two strategies:
Firstly they go to the distilleries with their own empty casks and ask them to fill these casks with new make which then will mature in their own warehouses. But are those whiskies still comparable to those which were matured on-sight? What’s about terroir? Oh, I think that’s another story… And let’s remember 50% of the flavors a whisky gets from the wood in which it is matured in. If a distillery only sells their new make without having the hands on the the cask in which the new make will mature, they loose major influence on the resulting product. So it’s comprehensible that distilleries often do not want their brand name on final products of independent bottlers.
Secondly some independent bottlers already bought their very own distilleries like Gordon & MacPhails did with Benromach Distillery or Signatory Vintage did with Edradour. Alex Bruce from Adelphi reported that they are planing to build their own distillery. I think these examples are no coincidences, they pretty much highlight an ongoing trend.
All this will change the whisky market in different ways: The prices for independent bottled whisky will steadily increase and the average quality of independent bottled whisky will get worse.
Let me conclude and answer my question: Independent bottlers offer us whisky connoisseurs the opportunity to get hands on some really excellent whiskies, which otherwise would be lost in blends. On the other hand not every independent bottled whisky is excellent and beats original bottlings. Not least since the big players understood that the connoisseur market is asking for non-chillfiltered and higher strength whiskies these days.
Independent bottlers enrich the whisky scene for sure and it will be thrilling to see how the whisky industry will handle the increasing world wide demand and which role the independent bottlers will play in this future.