Independent Bottlers – What Are They and Why Should You Care?
Signatory Vintage? Battlehill? Gordon & MacPhail?
When I got serious about single malt scotch, I wanted to try a bottling from every distillery. I’d spend half an hour at the liquor store looking up reviews for scotches I hadn’t heard of. I’d noticed bottles of Chieftain’s that I never paid any attention to. I was pretty sure there was no distillery in Scotland named Chieftain’s. I’m sure I’d looked past others as well: Signatory Vintage, Battlehill, Gordon & MacPhail.
It wasn’t until a trip to Total Wine & More in Kennesaw, Georgia that an employee told me about independent bottlers. I asked him to help me find Ardmore Traditional Cask. He told me that they didn’t have any but they did have a cask strength Ardmore 6 year in the Battlehill. I’m sure the confused look on my face told him he’d lost me. Was it Ardmore or Battlehill? Was Battlehill the Designer Imposters of whisky? I don’t want a knockoff scotch! He explained that Battlehill goes around to distilleries and buys up product the distilleries don’t plan to bottle themselves.
Why Wouldn’t the Distilleries Just Bottle It and Sell It?
We all know that distilleries don’t bottle every drop they distill. Otherwise, there’d be no such thing as Johnnie Walker blended scotch. By most estimates, nearly 90% of scotch sold worldwide is blended. Selling the majority of their product to blenders isn’t just a choice for most distillers, it’s their lifeblood.
Independent bottlers leverage what’s left. Even with thousands of barrels committed to blenders, many distilleries have plenty left to sell even after their official bottlings. Often, distilleries will reject barrels in the interest of consistency. Most consumers want the next bottle of Laphroiag 10 to just like the last one. And even cask strength and single barrel offerings are subject to review before they’re bottled. These leftover casks must be sold or dumped. Independent Bottlers are ready to step in and save that scotch!
So Why Should I Care About Independent Bottlers?
There are two major reasons to look at the Independent Bottlers at your liquor store: price and oddity. Independent Bottlers often offer a lower price on a comparable product from the same distillery –even if they can’t list the name of the distillery. As an example, there’s only one distillery on the Isle of Skye. If you see a bottle of Signatory Vintage Isle of Sky single malt scotch, you’re getting Talisker booze.
The other, more compelling reason is that because of independent bottlers, we have access to scotch that might never otherwise be bottled. My last IB purchase was the aforementioned Battlehill Ardmore 6 Year. Ardmore’s official bottlings are No Age Statement. It’s possible this is Tradition but it’s definitely not Legacy. It’s even more likely that this bottle is leftover scotch that was intended for a blender. In that case, this is the only way I’d ever get to taste it by itself.
A quick look at Master of Malt’s bottlings reveals some really interesting non-official options: a 14 year old Bruichladdich from a single bourbon barrel. A 23 year old single cask Aberlour. A 15 year old Speyside. There are even newcomers like That Boutique-y Whisky Company specializing in small batch bottlings with some pretty cool labels. So if you want to try something really different, the next time you’re on the scotch aisle, take a look at the independent bottlers. You might just find something that neither you nor any of your friends have ever tried.