Production

Independent spirit

Independent bottlers have driven innovation in the industry. But what future do they have?Ian Wisniewski investigates
By Ian Wisniewski
Alongside a few pioneers such as The Glenfiddich and The Glenlivet, private bottlers were instrumental in helping to develop the malt
whisky market.During the 1980s, for example, various malts were only available from independent bottlers. But with more distilleries releasing a broader range of expressions, the market has completely changed. So, what are the current prospects for independent bottlers?But first let’s define independent bottlers as meaning anyone releasing malts under a brand name, while also stipulating the distillery of origin (distinct from companies bottling under a brand name with no mention of a distillery). A more literal definition could include owning a bottling
line, which applies to a minority such as Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory, Ian Macleod and Douglas Laing.A few independent bottlers, including Gordon & MacPhail, Douglas Laing and Ian Macleod, purchase new make spirit aged either at the distillery or a distillery’s centralised warehousing. It’s effectively a case of renting warehouse space during maturation.Extensive malt fillings, originally intended to provide a good selection of malts for use in blends, have provided independent bottlers such as Ian Macleod Distillers and Douglas Laing with a broad range of stock.“We’ve got 70,000-80,000 casks to choose from, that’s the reason we became independent bottlers, and we started bottling Chieftain’s Choice for Japan in the 1970s,” says Leonard Russell of Ian Macleod, which was formed in 1936. Similarly, Douglas Laing benefits from a filling programme established in 1948, with the company bottling single malts since 1998. Other independents purchase mature malts, which may then be bottled using a third-party.“We source the finest mature whisky. Buying en primeur there’s no guarantee the whisky would be good enough on maturity,” says Adelphi’s co-proprietor, Keith Falconer, who acquired the company this July.Berry Bros and Rudd buys mature casks for its independently bottled range, as well as one to two year old stock aged at distilleries.“I prefer this combination approach, and don’t have that much choice at present as it will obviously take young stock a while to mature,” says Berry Bros’ Doug McIvor, who deals direct with distilleries, as well as brokers.As sourcing stock also means agreeing terms, this raises the question of distillery attribution.“With some distilleries contracts stipulate labelling agreements, but agreements can also be quite relaxed. It’s a case of being sensitive,” says Ewen Mackintosh of Gordon & MacPhail.Fred Laing of Douglas Laing adds: “We have asked some distilleries to approve our packaging, on the basis that our fillings were originally intended for blends.” A pre-emptive approach can prevent independents from bottling malts under the distillery name, with certain malts only leaving the distillery after something extra has been added, turning each cask into a vatted malt.Meanwhile, some distilleries sell stock on the condition that the source is not revealed. Adelphi’s recent release of a 50 year old for example, was marketed as ‘The Whisky That Cannot Be Named.’ It was certainly an intriguing name, but intrigue in itself doesn’t guarantee sales.Nevertheless, “We’ve sold more than half the release of 501 bottles at £500 a bottle. We wanted to see whether the Adelphi name was strong enough to sell it at that price,” says Keith Falconer.This highlights the issue of an independent bottler’s own brand name acting as a quality assurance in its own right, but also the relationship between brand names in conjunction with a stipulated distillery.“Three years ago we weren’t stipulating distillery names, but using made-up names, to avoid any possibility of being contentious,” says Doug McIvor.“But what’s driving the malt market is knowing exactly what you’re drinking. It’s much easier to develop the range now that we’re stipulating the distilleries.”So, what are the main concerns of distillery owners?“No one can doubt that some independent bottlers made a critical contribution to the sector taking off in the 1980s and early 1990s, says Diageo’s director of Classic Malts, Dr Nicholas Morgan.“No one can deny that producers have a right to defend their reputation, and the reputation of their brands, by ensuring that only the best examples of their whiskies find their way into the bottle.“It has to be said, unfortunately, that many third party bottlings represent at best mediocrity, disguised in the threadbare clothing of variety and choice.“Another issue for many producers is that despite any formal trading arrangements and contractual agreements they may have, whiskies have had a habit of falling into the hands of people they shouldn’t.”A related concern for distilleries is to avoid proprietary releases being duplicated by independent bottlers. That’s fine, various independents want to do the same.“We work in tandem with distillery owners, and are sensitive to their products. It’s a complimentary thing, in most instances we bottle different ages and the types of casks could be different,” says Ewen Mackintosh.Leonard Russell adds: “If independent bottlers are going to increase their share of the single malt market they must avoid being parasitic. Our policy is to only bottle single casks that are not already being bottled by distilleries, and different ages, so that I’m adding to the choice.“Some people say you can get more interesting expressions from independent bottlers.”That also raises the question of innovation and new trends. “Our stock is laid down for maturation in sherry casks, and we're experimenting with various finishes including wine casks. Rum finishes have been working well, particularly the Laphroaig rum finish. The market place looks for something different,” says Fred Laing.But how do independent bottlers find the right balance between releasing unusual expressions, while also remaining within the parameters of the house style?“We always try to stick to a style which is representative of the distillery. Through our filling policy we are able to select casks which give consistent quality and style,” says Ewen Mackintosh. Doug McIvor adds: “As long as it’s a top quality cask eccentricity is fine, and as long as we can explain this to the consumer. Tasting notes on the back of the bottle are an important steer.” As the malt market continues to mature, and independent bottlers increase their assortment, it’s standard practise to segment a portfolio.Berrys’ Best, a range just launched by Berry Bros & Rudd, comprises three regional expressions, Islay, Orkney and the Lowlands. Bottled at 43% abv and not chill-filtered, this caters for entry level consumers. Berrys’ Own Selection, currently comprising 24 expressions, concentrates on more senior specimens of malt, typically single cask, non chill-filtered bottlings at 46% abv or cask strength.Douglas Laing bottles about 25 malts under the Provenance label, each a vatting of up to three casks, packaged with colour coded labels used according to which of the four seasons the spirit was distilled in, and bottled at 46% abv without chill-filtering. The Old Malt Cask range comprises about 130 single cask bottlings at 50% abv without chill-filtering, with about 20 malts in the top of the range Platinum Selection.Similarly, Murray McDavid’s top of the range is the Mission series, with Maverick the mid-way line finished in wine casks, while a core range features around 20 expressions. But when consumers choose between independently bottled and proprietary brands, can it elicit any snobbery?“I think the whole thing has evolved with the malt whisky sector,the understanding of independent bottlers is now much higher. Many consumers will now look specifically for independent bottlings as an alternative to the proprietary bottling,” says Ewen Mackintosh.Specialist retailers are a crucial arena where this is put to the test. But with more proprietary bottlings, and finite shelf-space, how has the line-up changed?“The range of proprietary and independent bottlings has probably grown in tandem. Consumers feel more reassured by a distillery bottling, though some independent bottler’s names also work this way. There are more reputable, and less reputable, independent bottlers,” says Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies."Serious whisky enthusiasts have a good insight and favourite independent bottlers, which can be perceived as offering better value for money compared to a proprietary bottling.“One extreme example of this is with one particular distillery, which recently increased the price of its 25 year old expression by 50 per cent, making it double the price of similarly aged independent bottlings from the same distillery."Meanwhile, diversifying is one way for independent bottlers to maximise their future prospects.Ian Macleod bought the Glengoyne distillery in 2003, Signatory acquired Edradour in 2002, and Murray McDavid purchased Bruichladdich in 2001. Owning Benromach since 1993, Gordon & MacPhail launched Benromach Traditional this March, the first bottling distilled under the
company’s ownership.So, what’s it like the other way round for independent bottlers owning a distillery? “We know other independent bottlers are bottling Bruichladdich. We’re not necessarily selling stock to them but believe there’s a place for their bottlings as well as the distillery bottlings, offering vintages or cask finishes we don’t offer,” says Andrew Gray of Murray McDavid.