Posted 15 December 2022 by Matt / In Group Tastings
The core motivation behind independent bottlers has never been to sell whiskies at prices considerably discounted over distillery’s own outputs. That fondly remembered scenario of inexpensive IB releases is now steadily moving out of focus for current day drinkers – but at the same time perceptions that this pricing disparity was *always* the case are actually something of a distortion. And indeed, down the line I suspect we may well all look back on the period of time when IB bottlings were relatively ‘cheap’ as something of an oddity – a gilded age unlikely to be repeated.
Yes, yes. Pipe down at the back. I know you all think that IBs can offer whiskies at lower prices because they don’t come with OB corporatisation – big marketing, big advertising, countless global reps. If in doubt, blame the marketeers. Sure – but whilst those factors are certainly relevant to both costs and conversely to reach of whisky (which is rather the important benefit), they pale into insignificance when it comes to the breath, depth, availability and therefore the pricing of the stock itself. And it is the changes to these stocks and in turn the changes to the industry’s mentality and its willingness to supply 3rd parties that has had, and that will continue to have seismic impact on what IBs can physically bottle – and entirely relatedly - the prices that they are able to charge.
The generation who discovered whisky towards the end of the 90s and into the new millennium will likely remember it as a time when many official releases were priced….how shall I describe it?.....particularly competitively. Even the modern-day unicorns were comparatively cheap back then: Black Bowmore 1964 1st edition - £80, Bunnahabhain 1968 Auld Acquaintance - £100. Consider the price differential between those RRPs and entry level whiskies of the same period (I’m going to suggest in the region of £20). Now look at the current market. Whilst entry prices have generally only risen to around £40-£50 – ultra-premium wotsits are frequently positioned at 10-20 times those prices. Time machine anyone?!
During the same period IB releases were not by-and-large substantially cheaper than their OB cousins - particularly once you consider the oft-times higher ABVs and the always avaricious government’s share – indeed many were actually more expensive. When you look at the margins involved back then, there’s was just not as much scope as there potentially is now. Nor was there as many enthusiasts clamouring for bottlings. But that situation changed as the 90’s morphed into the 00’s and a readily available 3rd party supply was greeted with both a rapidly growing and interested customer base - and stemming from this - a desire from the larger players to start the ball of premiumisation rolling. A ball that would gather considerable downhill momentum.
The rest is current history – only now with far fewer casks in circulation and therefore an inescapable increase in pricing from independent bottlers – especially those not sitting on pre-existing stocks to draw from.
So, if I don’t believe that being cheap was ever (or should be?!) the modus operandi of independent bottlers – what is?
For me, the purpose of independent bottlers existing and thriving has always been that of discovery.
I cannot being to rationalise how many distillery and spirit styles I first experienced and learnt about through independent releases. The number is countless. And as a backdrop I did this at a time when the wider industry was primarily concerned (far more so than today) with bulk single malts. My exhilaration in finding unique, one-off, wonderfully characterful whiskies stemmed almost entirely from independent bottlers who had resolved to discover them in the first place. And whilst I have always sought to appreciate the artistry of OB releases alongside the planned happenstance of IB releases – I daresay that I’d likely not be the whisky geek that I am today without the existence of independent bottlers. Discovery and development are very different beasts.
The notion that IBs only get to select from the dregs of the industry is similarly as false as the idea of permanent cheap pricing as any type of predetermined design. Independent’s have been the cog in a much larger machine who have the patience, tenacity and raw interest to dig through hefty volumes of casks. It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that despite all the flimflam from distilleries about them constantly monitoring all their inventory – the truth of the matter is that at the largest scales, only the ends of a parcel of casks will ever be sampled. The middle bulk will either be accepted or rejected based on this assessment. And it is then the independent bottlers who mine these cask haystacks for the diamond-tipped, gold needles.
Similarly, though nowadays sadly far less a frequent occurrence was independent bottlers’ abilities to access casks from distilleries passed into history. If you look up Port Ellen on Whiskybase you’ll find 1244 entries as of writing. Only 48 of these are listed as official OB releases – and virtually all of these are from either Diageo’s Casks of Distinction or Special Releases series – far from the cheapest of exploration points. Independent bottlers did – at a time – offer a shopfront into closed distilleries that enthusiasts could discover – and I daresay that many a cult closed distillery has earned its cult status not from it simply shuttering its doors, but from the independent bottlers who have kept a flame alive for it in the years since.
Discovery is a process - not just for bottlers, but also for drinkers themselves and to my mind it is (over and above the period when pricing was largely inverted) the most potent of traits that IBs have to persuade people of the breadths and depths that whisky possesses. And I'll always be eternally grateful to have been in the right place and the right time to be persuaded!
If you’re interested in learning more about the world of independent bottlers, you’re always better off learning from someone who has lived and breathed it. And you’re currently in luck as David Stirk (who knows more than a thing or two) is crowdfunding for a new book that charts both the history of independent bottlers and his personal journey through this strange and continually changing world. I strongly recommend you go check it out.
Anyhow, I’ll leave you today with a miscellany of Watt Whisky reviews covering all of the bottlers' last two releases that have been sitting on my sample desk for far too long. Let’s see what there is to discover today…
Blair Athol is often positively associated with sherry cask maturation – mainly due to its weight spirit (shorter ferments), however over the last few years I’ve been seeing an increasing number of wine cask experiments released from indie bottlers. A far cry away from its usual sighting – as a 12 year old ex-bourbon featuring in Diageo’s Flora & Fauna series.
This Watt Whisky release was originally matured in a hogshead before being reracked into a red wine barrique for a finishing period of 16 months. Bottles (there were 301 originally) are still available over at The Whisky Exchange for £65.95.
Nose: Foam strawberries and milkshake powder alongside raspberry fool. Icing sugar, asides of liquorice, aniseed and a vinous leafy quality provide some additional support. The addition of water reveals some pastry notes however it also swiftly reduces the definition of the whisky.
Taste: A meeting of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries alongside wafer biscuits, shaved chocolate and green leafiness. The cask influence emerges strongly through the development – pepper, chilli and mentholated oakiness. Reduction introduces berry and vanilla yogurt creaminess alongside touches of char – but again there’s a loss of overall clarity. The chosen bottling strength offers far more shape and expression.
Finish: Medium with chalky tannins, effervescent oakiness and residual berry sweetness.
It will not come as any surprise to regular readers that this Blair Athol is not my tempo. But all-in-all it holds up perfectly decently at the delivered strength, avoiding commonplace wine cask tribulations such as over acidity and high tannic volume. However, reducing the ABV offers no benefit whatsoever - and whilst it doesn’t over-exert the cask influence, it does feel rather subtractive from the whole experience. Of course - wine cask perverts will likely score this higher.
When it comes to Craigellachie I frequently see folks expressing sentiments of ‘one bitten, twice shy’. I get it. Particularly at younger ages years when the naturally sulphurous make hasn’t had time to properly settle out. However, a good whisky from this distillery can often celebration not only a seriously weighty mouthfeel, but also an attractive propensity toward bright fruitiness and delicate floral motifs.
Nose: Plump rich sherry full of redcurrants, morello cherries and a selection of fruit teas. Milk chocolate, sponge cake and rice pudding add creaminess which is tempered by cinnamon ball heat, leafy freshness and chamois leather. Dilution offers oven-baked buns, brioche rolls and asides of balsamic strawberry.
Taste: A thick delivery with just a few edges of brass polish and doughy youthfulness on the arrival. Orange rind and scattered red berries join toffee sauce, whilst gingercake sits alongside leatherette. Just a touch of struck match reminds us of the distillery in question. Water here reveals an oh so juicy composition with additional fresh berries (redcurrant and strawberry) alongside baked-apple sweetness and golden syrup.
Finish: Medium and sustaining the sherry cask berries and cherries through to the end.
6 year old Craigellachie is potentially the stuff of nightmares – such is the sporadic and unpredictable awkwardness of this heavier style distillate. But this Watt Whisky pick turns out to be far more of a pleasant dream with an attractive balance between cask and spirit and tons of appealing juicy sherry character. I found water to be highly beneficial here in terms of broadening the composition (and expressing the fruity core) – aim for around 52% - but nevertheless if you’re prepared to let go of your pretentions (both about age and this distillery’s oft-times distinctive make), I think you’ll likely be as pleasantly surprised as I was.
Well this is an oddity – a 14 year old Glen Spey that has been additionally matured (for 14 months) in an ex-Islay cask. Outside of that, Glen Spey is a real workhorse distillery – and of the four Rothes-based sites, it receives by far the lowest level of enthusiast recognition. IMO it’s only really independent bottlers that keep any interest in this distillery as a single malt in its own right going.
Nose: Dirty martini olive brine, coal tar and smoked meats sit with potato salad, gravel and preserved lemon. In the background, medicinal wipes, graphite dust and wet soils. The addition of water offers green apple slices, white grapes and cold cream together with a sense of firm sea breeze.
Taste: Fruits first – apples, limes and pineapple. Then a surprisingly big peat complement – fireplace ash, bandages and tinctures and brine together with jelly sweets, pine needles and leaf mulch. Reduction here is interesting – smoked lemon, white chocolate and forest floors together with pumice and shingle.
Finish: Short to medium and offering apple gel, eucalyptus and residual ashiness.
You could easily be forgiven for thinking that this Watt Whisky Glen Spey had been created from peated distillate as opposed to merely being matured in an ex-peated cask – the influence on the spirit is colossal. Despite usually favouring distillate character over maturation influence I can on occasion be persuaded otherwise. This is one of those occasions. Characterful, concentrated and bottled at a spot on ABV. Very nice – great success.
Got some recent skin in the Orkney Distillery game, so particularly keen to see Watt Whisky’s latest edition from this distillery. This time around we have a vatting of two hogsheads that were matured separately, blended and then put back into their original casks to marry. I.E. a bit of patience in creating an equilibrium better the two vessels.
Nose: Bright and sweet heathery honey and golden syrup alongside brioche and buttered toast. Red apples and cask-driven vanilla sit with an ethereal suggestion of wispy hillside smoke. Reduction adds a breezy character together with crackerbread, straw and flax.
Taste: Tangy apples and white grapes join burnt heather whilst cask char and mentholated oak are tempered by lemon zest and crème patisserie. Water pushes forward the cask with vanilla and touches of cream toffee whilst also broadening the fruit complement by introducing pear slices and clove-studded orange.
Finish: Medium with light floral smoke, touches of salinity and lingering orchard fruits.
Solid, if linear Highland Park that drinks well both at its delivered strength and when reduced. The distillate quality shines through throughout – so you can’t go too far wrong here.
A perennial Dramble favourite. Simple stuff – 12 year old Ardmore disgorged from a single barrel and bottled at 57.1% ABV. Again, currently on The Whisky Exchange’s website for £81.45. And yes, before you comment, Ardmore *is* getting increasingly expensive for bottlers to purchase as stocks of other (read Islay or island) peated makes head into the price stratosphere.
Nose: Moss, reeds and flax together with moist earthiness and the merest hint of smoke – damp, earthy and almost burnt mushroom-like. Baked apples, lemon tart and fir cones provide a welcome lift. A peaceful Ardmore in some ways compared to a lot of IBs which have been heading down a far more firmly peated route of late – but nevertheless, this isn’t lacking or ill-defined in anyway. Dilution expresses a more medicinal aspect with touches of floor cleaners admixed with apple and lemon juices.
Taste: Whoomp! (there it is). Far firmer on the palate. Tart cider apples and gooseberries alongside lemon gel – all enlivened by leaf mulch, iodine, tarry smoke, bitumen and touches of balsamic sharpness. Water quickly softens things back down to where the nose suggested things might be heading – smoke melon and Mirabelle plums with soft-peaked meringue and tart cases.
Finish: Quite long and expressing lemon sharpness alongside vegetal smoke.
A soft nose belies a still-beating heart with this Watt Whisky Ardmore. Indeed, the juxtaposition between the two is actually rather appealing in terms of both the progressive drinking experience and also some cerebral stimulation. Whilst the breadth of flavours isn’t necessary extensive, the overall journey has far more of a story to tell.
Ah a grain whisky – where’s Phil Storry when you need him? This time around we’ve got a single hogshead of three decade old Cameronbridge hailing from 1992. An outturn of 276 bottles – but sold pretty quickly given the keen price vs. age. I can still see a single bottle over at the Whisky Shop Dufftown for £88.95 if you’re quick.
Nose: Bright tangy fruits from the off – pineapple chunks, orange zest and apricot halves – all supported by creamy coffee, waffles, Rich tea biscuits, vanilla and freshly shaved oak. Water reveals wood lacquer alongside a touch of nail polish remover together with a bigger orange influence from Triple Sec.
Taste: Café latte and toffee sauce join mandarin segments whilst split vanilla pods sit with milk chocolate, digestive biscuits and growing cask spice from freshly grated ginger. Dilution favours the cask with chocolate-y oak an drying spice from ginger power.
Finish: Medium with vanilla custard, chocolate and fresh coffee grounds.
A simple but quite lovely well-aged Cameronbridge that offers both great balance and (if you can find it) good affordability. The sort of grain whisky I’d be putting in front of a non-grain believer.
Spice fans ahoy! Is Watt Whisky’s rye barrel finish (14 months) the piquant dram you’re looking for? An outturn of 222 bottles and an ABV of 59.2% is what you’re looking at for this 2010 12 year old Tormore. Still available from The Whisky Exchange for £72.95.
Nose: Foam bananas and Nesquik powder (really banana forward indeed) together with pear drops and lychee. Pink wafer biscuits join cask influences from vanilla and white pepper. Reduction offers us banana slices atop a bowl of milky bran flakes together with crumbled biscuit.
Taste: The arrival delivers vibrant fruitiness from the Tormore spirit – cooking apples, pear drops (big isoamyl acetate here) and banana peels. Then it’s spice time with pepper, nutmeg and plenty of chilli pepper heat. In the background asides of creamy vanilla custard offer a more temperate development. Dilution expresses softer spices with additional orchard fruit notes and some grapefruit sourness.
Finish: Medium with vanilla and toffee-led sweetness from the cask and piquant spicing – also from the cask.
There’s just enough fruity Tormore here to stand up against the rye-cask impact – though you’ll need to be a fan of spicy whiskies to get the most out of this. That said, the banana aroma and flavour is particularly characterful and might be worth the price of admission for a dram alone.
Watt Whisky have bottled part of a sherry butt (interested to know where the other part headed off too – a ‘future project’ I’m told) of 5 year old Glasgow Distillery. The result is 216 bottles at 57.1% and with 5 still available from The Whisky Shop Dufftown for £68.95.
Nose: Berries. All the berries. Cranberries, redcurrants and raspberries (dried and fresh together) sit with scones topped with jam and cream (or is that cream and jam?!). Plump raisins and mocha join milk chocolate whilst cinnamon powder provides some pep. The addition of water offers clean honey and cloves together with a leafy sherry quality.
Taste: A dryer sherry now – though commencing with some pangs of copper coins and piping (we are only at 5 years of age after all) – Sultanas, dried red and black berries and golden syrup together with dusty cask-led ginger, burnt toffee and char. Reduction amplifies with big coffee notes – both fresh beans and grounds – together with a ‘greenness’ from vines and eucalyptus.
Finish: Medium to long with chocolate, spent coffee and lingering berry sugars.
I’m imagining quite a wet, juicy sherry butt here as the effect on the Glasgow spirit has been quite extractive already. It’s all a little too buried in sherry and rather too dry for my personal preference, but others will doubtless really enjoy the impactful cask influence. Plus for the time of year, this certainly is suitably festive.
Over to Tomintoul for a ruby port barrique finish (14 months – the Watt’s apparent ‘go to’ length for additional maturation currently) that’s been applied to a 2010 12 year old. 58.4% ABV, and a sticker price of £71.95 at The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Immediate patisserie with oven buns and tart cases alongside blackberry liqueur, overt port wine and almond paste. In support – hedgerow berries and touches of shoe leather. Dilution expresses Brazil nuts, singed pastry and planed oak.
Taste: A syrupy, clinging mouthfeel that offers blood orange, succulent cherries and scattered berries alongside rolled marzipan, cloth tarpaulin and white pepper. Again, the explicit port is articulated too. Water maintains the shape of the whisky feel with vanilla and toffee expressing from the cask alongside fizzing tannins and raspberry jelly sweetness.
Finish: Medium in length with sweet and sour berry sweetness alongside freshly baked pastry cases.
A big port influence on this Tomintoul – which is perhaps to be expected given the intrinsic lightness that the distillate usually conveys. It’s been a while since tasted the OB 15 year old Portwood (note to self: I’ve not yet written about it on The Dramble) – but the additional 12.8% ABV and increased levels of extraction here really provide a substantive oomph when compared to The Gentle Dram’s tendency to keep things toned down.
Ending our Watt Whisky coverage for 2022 with what is probably my favourite Lomond distillate – Croftengea. One wonders how long IBs will be using these alternative names for Lomond’s output – the distillery has stopped entirely and has moved over to entirely generic “fruity” / “smoky” adjectives – fine for the wider market, but whisky geeks will always want to geek. Let’s see – Lomond is one of the most diverse distilleries out there, so some differentiation is surely needed to ensure that the general character of IB bottlings remains possible to comprehend from the label alone.
This single cask release is a young one – matured for 5 years in a barrel since 2017 before being bottled at 57.1% ABV. Bottles can be found at The Whisky Exchange for £64.95.
Nose: Burnt herbs – chive and basil – alongside smouldering grasses and reeds. Comice pear leads on the fruit, whilst tarry felt shed roofing and earthy (near barnyard) peat adds moist smokiness. Water adds pond water murkiness alongside liquorice and aniseed chews.
Taste: Sweeter at first with poached pear and balled melon alongside white chocolate. Then leading into hessian and cotton sheets before exploding in a peaty fireball of burning vegetation, autumn leaf bonfire, touches of antiseptic and coal tar. The herbalness from the nose remains – grassy and garden fresh. Reduction expresses a surprising lightness with touches of distant pickled onion set against orchard fruit salad and fresher (unburnt) herbalness.
Finish: Very long with the white fruits lingering far longer than they have any right to and joined by residual ashiness.
You can largely ignore the age statement here (indeed, I daresay many of you have been drinking similarly aged peated NAS for years without knowing anyhow) – in my opinion Croftengea can work just as well young as it does with a bit of age behind it (though I’d certainly be interested to taste some 18+ expressions when they inevitable hit the market in a couple of years’ time). The Watt’s have picked a cracking cask here which allows the blistering and potent spirit to shine without at any point losing its inner core of dynamic fruitiness nor its balance between those fruits and the forceful levels of smoke that are present. Digging it.