Here is a segment of an article I wrote for the shop I work at.
For many years, the majority of a distillery’s production was sold to blenders such as J&B, Dewars or Johnny Walker. Often, distilleries would sell their entire production, leaving bottling up to third party merchants. Grocers and spirits merchants would develop house blends by blending whiskies from various distilleries and bottling it under their house label. Sometimes they would sell it as unblended single malt, one of the only ways to get single malt years ago. It is from this tradition that independent bottlings arose. Wealthy individuals, grocers or merchants would purchase casks of raw spirit, age it to their personal specifications and then bottle it under their own private label—an independent bottling.
So what makes an independent bottling different from a distillery bottling?
First, almost all independent bottlings come from a single cask. This allows for a very singular, unblended taste to be experienced, which can be a positive or a negative. In order to produce a superior product, you must begin with a superior product. Not all whiskies are created equal. If the bottler has been mindful of this and chosen exemplary casks, a treat is in store, but like all spirits, occasionally there is a less than fantastic bottle that makes it to market.
Secondly, independent bottlings offer a unique glance at age. Frequently, independent bottlers will age whisky at non-standard ages found in the distillery expressions. For instance, Aberlour’s distillery offers a readily available 10, 15 and 21 year; various independent bottlers may offer Aberlour in 8, 12, 16, 18 and 25 year old expressions. If you are serious about single malt, this allows you to have a more in depth glance at a brand throughout its “lifespan” and to more accurately depict the house style and profile of a particular distillery.
Thirdly, there is the question of filtration. Some independent bottlers employ both primary filtration (to remove particulate matter) and chill-filtration (for aesthetics), however, most do not. Some do not filter at all, as is evidenced by the flecks and particulate matter floating about the whisky (a wonderful find!). Most often, the independent bottler will forego chill-filtration, which allows the whisky to retain more character and flavor. Interaction with oak over several years, dissolves tannins, vanillin and many other components into the whisky: an intricate part of flavor, which may be lost if chill filtered.
Fourthly, many independent bottlers either leave the whiskies at natural, cask strength, or have a line specifically dedicated to cask strength whiskies. For the connoisseur, cask strength whisky is a delight! The raw intensity of cask strength whisky often outmatches its weaker and subtler counterparts. It also has the added benefit of not becoming over diluted when water is added to open the nose, as can often happen with lower proof whiskies.
Finally, independent bottlings offer a great deal more to the collector than run-of-the-mill distillery bottlings. By their very nature (being single cask), independent bottlings are typically limited editions comprised of no more than four or five hundred bottles. For the collector of rare and hard-to-find whiskies, this may be a more feasible avenue than searching out distillery bottlings. While a 40 year old Highland Park or a 25 year old Rosebank distillery bottling may be cause for a second mortgage, a similar bottling can probably be had at a much more reasonable price through an independent bottler.
So the advantages of independent bottlings are clear: whisky in its natural state, unfiltered, often at cask strength, from a single barrel, at unique ages and on a limited basis. What more could you ask of a whisky?
Some of the more prominent independent bottlers include: Murray McDavid, Signatory, Blackadder, Hart Brothers, Gordon & McPhail, Adelphi, Glenhaven and Old Malt Cask. Additionally, there is a members-only whisky society that has private bottlings done exclusively for members: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
If you have any questions about the Society, email me, as I am the Director for East Tennessee.