Scotch whisky: distillery originals vs independent bottlings

How do independently bottled single malts fare against Scotch whisky distilleries’ own releases? Joel Harrison and Colin Hampden-White compare the Indies with the classics

Words by Guy Woodward

Photography by Facundo Bustamante

Scotch whiskies - independent bottlings
Single malts are regarded as the finest examples of their craft, but independently bottled whiskies offer an alternative take on your favourite drams

A fascinating comparative tasting of Scotch whiskies, pitting original distillery bottlings next to independently bottled counterparts, has thrown up some intriguing results.

In the latest issue of Club Oenologique, consultant editor Joel Harrison and whisky editor Colin Hampden-White took 10 independent bottlings from across Scotland – and one from Northern Ireland – from some of the most famous names in the world of whisky-cask curation. They paired each with an official distillery bottling, comparing the key qualities of balance, flavour and personality, to gauge how independently bottled single malts fare as a characterful alternative.

Scotch whiskies – independent bottlings
Independently bottled whiskies often take distilleries' core ranges and release them at different ages for added personality

Single malts are seen as the star performers in the world of Scotch. Each distillery produces a unique style with its own personality, and as such, single malts from across Scotland 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: the independent bottling. In contrast to distillers releasing their own expressions, where consistency is key, independent bottlers are seeking one-off casks, or small batches, that are a snapshot of an individual distillery, to age and bottle themselves. 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 bottler, and often lean towards a higher, natural cask-strength ABV.

In short, independent bottlings provide the drinker with something unique, a contrast to the consistency of a regular distillery’s release. However, like going to see a great artist live, it can be something of a gamble. Do these quirky offerings match up to the quality of the official distillery releases, 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?

Glen Elgin – and the Berry Bros' independent rendering – stood out, but it was the Whisky Exchange's independent bottling of a Clynelish whisky that stole the show

“The comparison between whiskies matured and bottled by the distillers themselves, and those chosen to be liberated from cask by independent bottlers highlighted the strength and depth of flavour that can be seen from an individual distillery,” said Harrison. “Each bottling on both sides had poise, structure and flavour, with the indie releases providing a raw, louder, often more visceral experience, playing off against the consistent, constructed and clear distillery versions.”

Often it was the independents that stole the show. Among the top scorers was The Whisky Exchange’s 21 Years of Friendship take on Clynelish’s original (tasted alongside the Clynelish 14 Year Old), which outscored the distillery version (96 points) thanks to a stunning 99-point score. Berry Bros’ bottling of the Glen Elgin 12 Year Old also bested its distillery counterpart, albeit by just a point, scoring an impressive 98. Among other high scorers was the Cadenheads rendering of an Aultmore 13 Year Old, from its Authentic Collection, which reaped 97 points, versus 92 for the 12-year-old original.

The full results of the tasting, with the tasters’ full verdicts, can be found in the new edition of Club Oenologique, on sale now.