Independent whisky bottlers harness the flavour of original single malts and offer us an alternative take. In the world of Scotch whisky, single malts are seen as the star performers. Their number – and stature – has grown over the past decade, in both volume and value, driven by the scotch distilleries themselves, eager to showcase their individuality, quality and excellence. Each distillery produces a unique style of single-malt Scotch, with its own personality, and as such, single malts from across Scotland’s whisky-making regions have become highly sought after, particularly expressions matured and bottled for sale by the distillery owners themselves, known in the trade as ‘own-bottlings’.
Yet within the world of single malt, there is another layer: that of the independent whisky bottlers. In contrast to distillers releasing their own expressions, where consistency is key, independent whisky bottlers are seeking one-off casks, or small batches, that are a snapshot of an individual distillery, to age and bottle themselves. They are often produced by small-scale outfits, including wine merchants, who handpick casks of individual single malts from those maturing across Scotland, bottling them under their own labels. These are the bootleg bottlings, the liquid equivalent of illicitly taped live recordings, loaded with energy and personality. The base spirit is exactly the same, but the maturation – be it the cask type or length of maturation – are down to the independent whisky bottler.
Nearly always limited in number, often showing off incredible detail about the cask type and vintage on the label, independent whisky bottlings tend to be ‘louder’ than the official releases, which weigh in mainly at 40–46% ABV, with a leaning towards their whisky’s natural cask strength.
In short, independent whisky bottlings provide the drinker with something unique, a contrast to the consistency of a regular distillery’s release. However, just like going to see a great artist live, it can be a bit of a gamble. Do these quirky offerings match up to the quality of the official releases from distilleries carrying the same name, outstripping them with sheer, dazzling personality? Or are they a mere facsimile – an artist stumbling on to the stage with a little too much alcohol in them and not quite hitting the high notes of their consistent recordings?
Consultant editor Joel Harrison and whisky editor Colin Hampden-White look at ten independent whisky bottlings from across Scotland and one from Northern Ireland, from some of the most famous names in the world of whisky cask curation. They have paired each of them with an official distillery bottling, comparing the key qualities of balance, flavour and personality, to gauge how independently bottled single malts fare in providing a characterful alternative in your drinks cabinet.
Distillery originals vs Independent whisky bottlers
A Highland whisky famous for its waxy note, this release from the distillery has rich fruit overtaking the waxy notes, allowing ginger cake and spice to play freely. Sweet-yet-salty palate of almonds and nutty praline; very well constructed. A Highland malt with a sea view that tastes older than it is. 46%
The Whisky Exchange, 21 Years of Friendship, Clynelish 21-year-old
Sukhinder Singh of The Whisky Exchange has a legendary nose for a cask, and this bottling shows it off to its fullest extent. An exceptional nose of sandalwood, dry fudge, desiccated coconut and gorse notes moves to blood orange and prunes on the palate, with all the waxy notes you could ever want. Cherry drops and cinnamon on the finish. One of the best examples not only of an independent whisky bottler but of single-malt whisky, full stop. 57.6%
Glen Elgin 12-year-old
A Highland malt that is traditionally known for being full of heather honey and richness, this distillery release delivers all that – but an unexpected back note of delicate, wispy smoke adds real depth and complexity through smoked cherries and summer fruit compote. Probably the most surprising original distillery bottle in the lineup.
Berry Bros & Rudd, Glen Elgin 12-year-old
A single cask finished in a Pedro Ximénez sweet Sherry cask. The natural cask strength elevates the toffee notes in the spirit, giving dark berries and red fruits. The palate is toffee apple with honey, and there is dry spice on the finish. An absolute corker of a whisky for those who want to take their time over a dram. 58.9%
This distillery produces its spirit in an unusual balance of stills, and the result is a meaty whisky known as the Beast of Dufftown. Those bold notes are captured effortlessly in this proprietary bottling, full of rich summer fruits, buttery rye bread toast and gingerbread sweetness. There is also a hint of autumnal forest floor. Excellent. 43.4%
Gordon & MacPhail, Mortlach 15-year-old
G&M is famous for buying spirit and maturing it in its own casks, resulting in consistently high-quality releases. This Mortlach gives all the boldness that is expected from the distillery, with a touch more fresh ginger and a hint of green herbs. Surprisingly well matured for a whisky at this age. 46%
The famous Irish distillery was given a licence to distil in 1608 and today makes a smooth, triple-distilled single malt. This 16-year-old has notes of mocha, with macaroons and cocoa nibs. A simple, easy-going and drinkable single malt, it is packed with summer fruit and has a hint of mint on the finish. 40%
Scotch Malt Whisky Society 51.20 (Bushmills) 17-year-old
The SMWS ventures outside of Scotland for this single cask matured in ex-bourbon barrels. It gives a fresh, zesty note, with gooseberry and earthy tones. There are wine gums on the palate, with some hints of the famous Bushmills tropical fruit just hiding away in the background. A good example of a Bushmills single cask. 55.2%
Glen Moray 21-year-old, Port wood finish
Glen Moray has made single malt accessible with a range of entry-level cask-finished releases. This step up to old aged Scotch, finished in Port wine casks, works brilliantly. Rich and unctuous with hints of barbecue sauce, sweet tea and linseed oil, it has a big note of heather honey on the finish. Very complex, yet utterly sessionable. 46.3%
Scotch Malt Whisky Society 35.271 (Glen Moray) 25-year-old
Cryptic numbers are given to each of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society single-cask bottlings, and Glen Moray is distillery number 35. This cask shows buttery notes with old leather, pipe tobacco, praline and griddled pineapple. Hints of honey-glazed ham and malty notes combine for a baked-peach finish. Two exceptional-value single malts from the SMWS and the distillery. 56.4%
A most unusual distillery to see in single-malt form, this house release is a new addition to its slowly growing range. Lily of the valley, vanilla, lavender, sandalwood and fresh pine are there, while baked apple and touches of cinnamon appear on the palate. A rare opportunity to try something so unusual, and well aged. 47%
Cadenheads, Authentic Collection, Fettercairn 31-year-old
Based in the remote port of Campbeltown in Scotland, Cadenheads has shops dotted around the UK, including one in London where its gems can be found. And this is one: funky, big and bold, with peat and peach and hints of rosemary and basil. Utterly unique, utterly tasty. 54.7%
The Glenrothes 18-year-old
From a distillery that sits in the heart of Speyside, this release has spent all of its life in Sherry-seasoned oak casks, yielding a big, bold, sweet and unctuous note, with plenty of Christmas cake flavour and hints of blackcurrants and red cherry. The finish is akin to the top of a crème brûlée. A little sweet, but very drinkable indeed. 43%
Gordon & MacPhail, Glenrothes 11-year-old
G&M delivers a whisky that has a great character of butterscotch and honeysuckle, with a distinctly floral note that adds an element of interest beyond the distillery’s own bottling. This is a great example of how whisky doesn’t have to be old to be complex – well balanced and surprisingly tasty. 43%
Aultmore is part of the Dewars family of distilleries, and this 12-year-old Speyside malt was launched in 2014. It shows off the core distillery characters on the nose, with a surprisingly zesty, estery note of pear drops and coconut. A sweet palate gives fudge and cocoa. Manuka honey comes through on the finish, the star of the show. 46%
Cadenheads, Authentic Collection, Aultmore 13-year-old
A single bourbon cask from Scotland’s oldest independent whiskey bottler, this was matured for a full 13 years in a former bourbon cask. The result is a richer version of the distillery’s own release, with rich notes of cream soda. Stewed apples on the nose lead to butterscotch on the palate and dried banana chips on the finish. 56.5%
From a distillery with unusual, old-style ‘worm tub’ condensers, this edition gives rich notes of fresh ginger, backed up by the sweet foam of banana penny sweets and a palate that mixes a nutty Sherry note with hints of ripe plums. It hits the sweet spot between a dram to be savoured and one simply to drink. Excellent balance. 46%
That Boutique-y Whisky Company, Craigellachie 10-year-old
This independent whiskey bottler is known for its fun, cartoon-driven labels, and this liquid matches the playful nature of the bottler. Custard Creams give way to rich toffee, some hints of bonfire embers and a note of manuka honey. This is a bold whisky that takes water well and delivers a honey note on the finish. 50.3%
From the Flora and Fauna range, where Linkwood owner Diageo shows off all its individual distilleries, this release is as light as the marshmallow and lemon meringue pie that lead the aromas. There is fresh kiwi fruit and honeysuckle on the palate, along with tablet and orange creams. A good-quality, solid single malt. 43%
Berry Bros & Rudd, Linkwood 13-year-old
A single cask from venerable London wine merchant Berry Bros & Rudd, this edition is consistent with the distillery release, yet with a bigger hit of alcohol, being bottled at cask strength. This gives it a greater sense of confected fruits and bitter orange. The balance of lightness and complexity of flavour of this indie release shows what an overlooked distillery this is. 58.4%
This article is taken from the spring 2021 edition (Issue 7) of our quarterly magazine which focuses on wine, spirits and good living, with vivid imagery and insightful articles. Click here to find out more.