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Explainer: Independent bottlers

Explainer: Independent bottlers

Put simply, independent bottlers look to buy new or matured spirit from distilleries with a view to bottling under an independent label. 

We caught up with Kenny Macdonald, an independent bottler at Dràm Mòr, to find out more about how this fascinating and creative area of the Scotch whisky industry is thriving…

Independent bottlers typically have a greater degree of flexibility in comparison to the distilleries we buy from. When distillers create their core range – which classically will encompass a range of 10, 12, 15, 18, 21 and 25-year-old expressions – they must be able to recreate them time and time again. Whereas, when we receive a cask, we can start working away with various oaks (such as wine finishes, Madeira, Portwood, Cavados or even Tequila casks) and look at varying strengths (ranging from natural cask strength to 40%). 

This flexibility stretches to the fact that we can use spirit from many different distilleries, as well as different styles of Scotch (such as single and blended malts and grains). We can also look further afield to international whiskies which allows us to build a very diverse portfolio. 

The Scotch whisky industry is heavily regulated and independent bottlers must abide by the rules set out by The Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) covering all forms of Scotch whisky production and labelling. On top of those, distillers can also specify certain conditions when they sell any of their casks. This mainly concerns the use of the distillery name on the indy bottle.

Most casks, for example, carry the term “Distilled at [BRAND NAME] Distillery” so we can name the source of the spirit. However, some distilleries – such as The Macallan and Highland Park – normally withhold the right to use their name. So, these are instead labelled as “Secret Highland” or “Secret Orkney”… which is doubly confusing as The Macallan is in Speyside and Orkney technically falls into Highland region!

Once the independent bottler has clearance to use a distillery name, it is then entirely up to them whether they use it or not. I don’t know any indy bottlers, however, who would make the decision not to use the name when it is allowed to be printed as being able to show the provenance of the spirit is a big selling point.

Additionally, there may be time constraints placed on the sale of a cask. Borders Distillery, for example, will sell casks to us but we are not allowed to release a bottling before their first official distillery bottles are released. 

Independent bottlers can either: 

  • Buy a mature whisky cask and bottle it straight away
  • Buy a mature whisky cask and re-cask for a further maturation 
  • Buy new make spirit (NMS) and mature at their own or a third-party warehouse

We buy quite a bit of new make spirit (NMS) to mature in first fill casks for use in years to come. In fact, we have filling contracts with a few distilleries to ensure that we can get X amount of NMS year-on-year. By doing this, we are assured not only of a good supply of spirit but that it has sat in the best of oak for the full duration of its maturation. 

When it comes to mature stock, the vast majority of what is available for sale to independent bottlers has usually been matured in second refill casks. These tend to be weak and give very little flavour – and next to no colour – so we really need to rerack these into new oak. This can, however, be a positive thing as a cask of great spirit which has had little input from its parent cask is a great blank page upon which we can create new flavour profiles, allowing us to present some great new flavour experiences to the consumer.  

The interest and strength of indy bottlings throughout the world has increased substantially over the last ten years, but that has in turn made accessing stock harder. There is a strange mix of indy bottlers out there and this has been born of the boom in interest in Scotch whisky. 

I have had some wonderful expressions from some of our competitors and also some dreadful drams. There are some great bottlers out there; some have been established for many years and some, like us, are only a few years old. But it’s worth remembering that not all indy bottlers produce the same quality.

The big difference is understanding that you can’t just buy a cask and throw it into a bottle. Our job is to take whichever spirit we have and showcase it to the very best of our abilities. There is a lot of pressure to get this right as we must show great respect to the distillate and the men and women who crafted it. If we fail to show that respect, we really shouldn’t have the right to their produce. 

Some of the more established bottlers moving into their own distillation is purely evolution. It is the next step to establish your business in the industry as well as leaving a legacy of what you have achieved. The one thing that I can tell you for sure is that the market for indy bottlings is only going one way and that is up. Our last three runs have all been sold out to our distributors at least three months prior to bottling… which is a nice problem to have but does mean we’re constantly chasing our tail!

One of the most exciting developments over the last decade has been the huge increase in new distilleries opening, coinciding with the growth in understanding and education on the consumer side that whisky doesn’t need to be at least ten years old to be good. The casks being sold from distilleries such as Bladnoch and Dalmunach are superb. Indeed, the five-year-old Dalmunach that we released recently sold like hot cakes. 

That, along with how we have seen the Scotch Whisky Association relaxing the strict controls over the oaks available for Scotch whisky maturation, has allowed us to create a far broader spectrum of flavour profiles. The future certainly looks bright for the industry, long may it continue!

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