Posted 21 January 2021 by Matt / In Group Tastings
Whilst the mission of independent bottlers might still be same as it was three decades ago, their current-day foundation and operation has irrevocably changed. For much of their 179-year history (since the foundation of Cadenhead’s in 1842), change has come at the pace that one might expect from the whisky industry – slow, cautious and largely thoughtful. Spurts of growth, stutterings of contraction and period of crisis have been and gone. But regardless of this steeped history, I would posit that the greatest changes to the independent bottling industry have happened over the duration of our lifetimes. And are continuing to happen right now.
My early forays into the world of IBs blew my mind with the level of choice and flavour assortments that was possible from a liquid created from such humble ingridients. Hundreds of different options, many from distilleries which at that point in my whisky journey, I’d not even heard of yet. Equally many offered as completely tangential compositions to their IB cousins – a multiplicity of cask types, a huge range of ages and an abundance of higher strength expressions where age-statements didn’t equate to pricing in quite the same way as it did for distillery produced bottlings.
But that was then.
What was hundreds has become thousands – released onto the market each and every year. At the same time the number of bottling companies has exploded to such a level that it’s frankly folly to attempt to keep up – sometimes even with the ranges offered by a single bottler alone (a fact which rarely stops some individuals from spending a large portion of their life trying).
I still believe that the mission of independent bottlers remains largely unchanged – to provide a knowledgeable guide to the wider diversity of the world of whisky. To open minds, to expand palates and to defy the false conventions that oft-times the producers themselves have spent decades trying to instil.
Uniqueness is the realm of the independent bottler. Where distilleries usually look to consistency, bottlers prize individuality. They release the casks that distilleries cannot, or will not release. The experimental maturations, the casks that were used as dressing for larger products, but were never intended to see the light of day in their own right. They take the aberrant and they hold it up for what it is – proof perfect that the diversity of whisky is near endless.
But in many markets, the growth of the number of bottlers and the sheer number of their bottlings often far outweighs the growth that has occuring on the production side – especially when it comes to exploring longer-aged inventories. Back when there were hundreds of bottles to choose from, independents could be choosy – nowadays, and particularly for converted liquids, it’s a bun fight. An expensive bun fight. As such, whilst bottlers have been able to, are, and still will be releasing incredible whiskies - which sometimes fall far outside of the brand image and liquid style of the distilleries themselves – with greater volumes comes greater chaff.
I don’t ascribe to the view that “whisky was better then”, but I do believe that the more of it that is released, the larger the proportion there will be of merely average liquid - or indeed as one can see with bottlings from the prolific distilleries – profiles which are incredibly samey. There’s a modern-day glut of independent releases from the same distilleries – and you’ll see these coming in waves – one year a raft of Glentauchers, the next a big pile of Bunnahahbain (and always a sea of Caol Ila. Always). But whilst the quality of product produced at distilleries has arguable risen over my lifetime, the volumes of production and bottlings created necessitate that only a few releases from indies will be regardled as truly exceptional.
Cask acquisition is far harder than it once was. Whilst you’ve always needed to be in the know, rather than simply bowling up to a distillery gate and asking nice to buy in bulk, the supply chain for casks - from distillery to broker/bonder to bottler to customer - necessitates that every player wants to make their cut. And the cuts get ever smaller the further down that chain you go.
Independent bottlers were, within my lifetime, the bastion of reasonably (sometimes laughably cheap) priced whisky. And that was one of the reasons that many of us enjoyed exploring them. Fancy seeing what a 30 year old whisky from distillery X tastes like, but can’t afford the official version? No problems - pay substantially less, and get something unique – and likely higher strength in the process.
This world, barring a few standout examples feels currently a little lost. Bottlers have, either through the changes in the costs of cask purchase, or through changes in their business models/strategies dramatically cut down on the volumes of cheaply produced, poorly labelled bargains. And enthusiasts have been bemoaning this for years. “Charge us 50% less – we don’t need the box or the fancy label” they intone. And whilst the cost saving for branding is never 50%, they do have something of a point. Exploring whisky cheaply, via indies is nowhere near as easy as it once was.
There are some newer bottlers who have entered the market having been established by old-hands (read on) who have worked in various parts of the industry for near lifetimes. The move into bottling their own expressions becomes a logical next step in their careers - and expession of passion and love for whisky. But equally there are some utter chancers out there – some of whom possess very little whisky knowledge except for the fact that they know it can all be worth a lot of money. You only have to look over to our friends in Ireland to see some of the insanity that is being offered, particularly at the top end of the market. There's a growing number of new bottlers pitching in at the upper eschelons of the market, without either the demonstratable knowledge, access or historical underpinnings. I'll be very interested to see in time, how many of these outfits survive.
Thankfully these are the exception, and not the rule.
But despite diehard brand reps insisting till they're blue in the face that that prices have not risen – and pointing to their cheapest product to justify this claim. Prices *have* exploded. But in many cases they’ve done so through bottlers splitting up their ranges. Still offering affordable ‘entry’ points that hark back to the humbleness that you’d have seen in the 70s from Cadenhead’s dumpty’s and G&M map bottlings – and at the same time, creating and promoting newer premium ranges – fancy boxes, ornate labels, a gold star for good behaviour – anything to mark out their liquid as being something special and therefore meriting a much larger asking price. IBs are now changing just as much for some expressions as OBs, and recently, I’ve noted a few instances where they’re actually asking considerably more. But folks are still buying. And with increasing vigour. There's elasticity yet within the indy market.
Nevertheless, irrespective of volumes vs. quality and changing price structures, the level of choice that the modern-day whisky enthusiast is able to access in unparalleled. And the role of bottlers has changed – not just from being a guardian and a guide to spirit – but to actually shaping the profiles of the liquid themselves. Casks are manipulated, re-racked, finished and in some cases entirely altered to create something completely new. The use of octaves, different cask head types and rejuvenated woods only touches briefly upon how bottlers can both shepherd the liquid to the customer, but at the same time provide them additional uniquenesses – over and above their fellow bottlers. These practices have grown to such an extent that some bottlers are not even happy being called bottlers – they’re “whisky producers”. And it cuts far deeper than just finishing to mask a poorly matured original product.
The level of choice and myriad styles on offer is only matched by the level of knowledge that does still exists within the indy bottling world. And there’s a lot of it. However, the last 12 months have been at best odd, and in some cases exceedingly challenging for bottlers – no matter their size. Filing, bottling, capping and packaging has slowed down (due to increased regulations and in some cases site closures), resulting in bottling backlogs. Equally, whilst much of the whisky world takes place online – indy bottlers are surely missing the opportunities presented by the ‘real world’ – with so many to choose from, face-to-face time to build rapport with customers seems vital. And whilst the virtual world provides its own benefits and acts as something as a temporary replacement – it doesn’t allow independent bottlers the full swathe of their toolbox to be guides to the wider world of whisky.
With ever more bottlings and ever more bottlers, the ones that will survive and thrive in the future will be the ones who most clearly define and deliver on their purpose - be that as a north star, a curator or as a manipulator creating something entirely new. But as far as whisky fans go - we've never had as many alternatives to chose from and enjoy. For most enthusiasts, the question becomes not whether to buy IBs, but what, and from whom?
Following a strong debut offering, Watt Whisky is back with a second batch of releases. On shelves just before Christmas (I'm still playing catchup with the pile of samples - apologies) we'll spend the rest of our time today taking a look at the five new expressions from this new, but old-hand bottler.
Transparency alert – all samples were provided by the Campeltown Whisky Company for review purposes.
We’ll commence with the youngest expression from Watt Whisky’s second batch of releases – a 12 year old Dailuaine that’s been matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead. 312 bottles were released at 57.8% ABV and for the reasonably priced ask of £54.95 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Peach yoghurt and cream coffee are joined by robust spicing – clove and pepper. A backbone of earthiness from leaf mulch and damp soils sits alongside a bowl of porridge and focaccia bread drizzled with olive oil. Alcohol prickles throughout. Reduction already feels necessary and offers a much fruitier composition which leads on apples, lemon peels, rolled pastry and chopped almonds.
Taste: The expected weighty spirit character is present and correct – and it brings with it toffee apples, lemon gel, Alpen cereal and a touch of minerality from limestone. Running throughout – charred staves, oven buns and buttered toast – but also an appreciable level of alcoholic hostility. It’s far from underdone at 12 year of age – but there’s an aggressive brutalness never too far away. Reduction here is nothing short of essential in my opinion – and it does offer its rewards. A softer and more juicy combination of peach, green apple and gooseberry together with piped cream, trickle of oil and a scattering of mint leaf.
Finish: Medium with fading toffee sweetness alongside tart cases and golden cereals.
A Jekyll and Hyde dram. With the ABV lowered this Dailuaine offers an agreeable array of fruits and cereals together with the distillate’s trademark ‘thickness’. However, at its natural strength this is far less approachable. Whilst still offering a discernible and interesting array of aromas and flavours, there’s a blunderbuss of booziness to wade through first. Well-priced but have a water jug on hand to get the most from this punchy number.
Next up – Inchgower. A distillery that seems to rarely cross my desk and indeed is not bottled as frequently as soon due to its use in Bells and also elements of the Johnnie Walker range. The Watt Whisky expression has been matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead for 13 years. 297 bottles have been produced at an ABV of 56%. They’re still available via The Whisky Exchange for £60.95.
Nose: Thought-provoking ‘fattiness’ – almost akin to coconut oil. Greek yoghurt and kiwi fruit joins oatcakes and pink wafer biscuits whilst doughy bread and crème patisserie piped buns are served with dulce de leche ice cream. Dilution expresses nougat alongside cereal and grassy notes of cornflakes and hay.
Taste: Tart apple slices and sour grapefruit segments are livened and sweetened by crunchy toffee, griddled waffles and bourbon biscuits. Herbalness follows – mint and basil – before a dive into minerality with shale and shingle alongside sunflower oil. The addition of water reveals additional orchard fruitiness together with honey and an aside of reeds and flax.
Finish: Medium in length, scorched lemon peel and cookie dough.
A fairly summery Inchgower that holds together well and drinks nicely at the delivered ABV. The composition is straight-forward and humble, eschewing heavy cask influence for the spirit’s natural style, which brings both the texture of the distillate and its tendency towards mineral cues to the fore. Unpretentious and reasonably priced.
There’s rather a lot of mystery (not a mystery) Orkney floating around right now. But this Watt Whisky example comes with a spin on it and a vivid pink hue. 14 years of age, bottled at a still fairly potent 60.9% ABV with its final five months spent in a ruby port barrique. This one seemed to sell out quickly in the UK (pink whisky oft-times does). But you’ll still find it over in Belgium at Top Malts for 80.99. Just be wary of current customs charges post Brexit (and regardless of the direction of purchase) – things have got even more expensive if you’re buying whisky for import sadly.
Nose: Strawberry syrup, raspberry compote, Ribena and hot chocolate all express directly from a vigorous port influence. But at the core, the HP character is still very much alive and kicking here – heathery, inland, vegetal smoke from smouldering leaf mulch and smoked dried wildflowers joins wild honey, hay bales and a bite of steely minerality. Dilution offers Cadbury’s Crunchie bars (chocolate honeycomb) together with additional earth cues of soils and mosses.
Taste: No let up for the port barrique here. Jammy redcurrants, blackberries and blackcurrants provide a dense, fruit-forward opening, whilst thin, earthy smoke pervades throughout. Chocolate ganache sweetens before gradually turning more bitter and is joined by touches of aniseed and liquorice. Water here is rather the good thing – offering a less dense composition of strawberry milkshake bottles, bootlaces and Nesquik powder alongside toffee and winter spice.
Finish: Medium to long with moist soil and persistent fading jammy red and black berries.
This is the sort of whisky that I can’t score too highly from a technical viewpoint due to the port cask influence being arguably heavy – but that I can heartily recommend from a drinking perspective for those already partial to the combination of peat and port. Whilst the barrique’s impact is substantial throughout, the distillery character hasn’t been subsumed by it – and the amalgamation of sweet peat and earthiness most certainly works. Similarly, reduction is highly sympathetic here, offering delicious soft fruitiness throughout without losing either the inland character or the gentle wispy peat smoke. For me this is rather likeable – but for anyone naturally adverse to this style of composition, reduce the score by a couple of points.
Over to Allt-a-Bhainne for a well-aged example that’s been matured in an ex-bourbon hogshead for 23 years and bottled at 51.3% ABV. Given the distillery and its current lack of widespread fan, this one clocks in a good price for its age - £123 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Opening quite delightfully with candied, floral notes of candy necklaces and old school bubble-gum before expressing additional fruitiness from mango and orange peels. Deeper, there’s a heart of rolled pastry and cinnamon buns that’s joined by sugar syrup and developing peach yoghurt. Water added – mandarins and nectarines sit with asides of allspice and well-stepped stone fruit teas.
Taste: Following a similar path to the nose – big juicy peachiness and honeydew melon slices sit alongside tarter apples. Weetabix and shredded cereals provide a malty core whilst metholated oak and well-judged pepperiness follow. Reduction reveals a different fruit complement that’s sharper and drier – kiwi, lychee and red plums together with well-oiled oak beams.
Finish: Medium in length and expressing resinous old oak together with pepperiness whilst the menthol transforms into mint leaf.
This bourbon hogshead has provided the Allt-a-Bhainne spirit with plenty of room to articulate its underlying character. Forget all of the recent peated (and often quite left-field) indy releases from this distillery – to my mind, the highly estery profile of this whisky shines at its brightest when unpeated and left to matured quietly in humble ex-bourbon. The result here is admirable – and easily my favourite release from the second batch of Watt Whisky bottlings.
Completing the second release from Watt Whisky is a well-aged grain from Girvan. Girvan is located near the town of the same name forms part of William Grant and Sons Grangeston facility – It’s Grant’s only current grain producing facility and is also home to both the Aisla Bay malt distillery and the Hendrick’s gin plant. The site also once housed the short-lived Ladyburn distillery, which operated from 1965 to 1975.
186 bottles of the Watt Whisky Girvan have been produced at 56.5% ABV. They’re available from The Whisky Exchange for the friendly (even by grain standards) price of £91.95.
Nose: Walnut bread and notes akin to peanut butter spread are joined by toffee brittle, nougat and plenty of shredded coconut. Toffee-coated popcorn and shortbread sit with pencil shavings, whilst sunflower oil is given a palpable kick of split vanilla pod. Dilution reveals older wood – resinous, near polished and with oaty cereals and coconut macaroons.
Taste: Oily/buttery on arrival and with peaches topped with creamy vanilla custard. Pepperiness runs throughout and joins nut bread and water biscuits, whilst hard caramel and crunchy toffee sit with charred oak. Simple and effective. Water reveals ‘graininess’ from a selection of fresh and toasted cereals whilst coffee and walnut cake is livened by a scattering of powered clove.
Finish: Quite long with persistent toffee sweetness alongside char and fading pepper.
There are no missteps with this Girvan. It offers all of the bright, cereal-led character that one would expect from well-aged grain, whilst eschewing the ‘gluey-ness’ that often accompanies this style of whisky. There are no fathomless depths here, and I’ve sampled more profound grain of a similar age – nevertheless, this is tasty stuff and therefore easy to recommend for its price point.