Independently minded

Independently minded

Being independent certainly has its advantages but what opportunities and challenges do Independent bottlers currently face? Ian Wisniewski finds out.

Production 24 Jul 2009 | Interviews | By Ian Wisniewski

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Independent bottlers were instrumental in developing the malt whisky market, and during the 1980s for example, various malts were only available from independent bottlers. But with numerous distilleries now offering extended portfolios, supplemented by limited-edition releases, what role does this leave for the independent bottling sector?"

Without a doubt the main role of independent bottlers is to be a creative driving force for the industry, I don't mean doing wacky things, but bringing Scotch whisky to market in new and compelling ways," says John Glaser of Compass Box.

So, what are the opportunities? Are independent bottlers restricted to filling in the age gaps between proprietary bottlings, or are the possibilities more comprehensive ?

"We don't look at what proprietary bottlings are on the market, if we find that a distillery is bottling a 12 Years Old that won't stop us from bottling one too, if it's exceptional quality people will buy it," says Frances Dupuy of A D Rattray.

Michael Urquhart of Gordon & MacPhail continues: "We don't want to compete, we look to complement the proprietary range. We look to give consumers the widest possible choice, everyone's palate is different, and everyone wants to try a different expression of a particular whisky."

The first step is of course acquiring the necessary stock, either as new make spirit for aging, or mature malt whisky ready for bottling. But how easy,or challenging, is this ?

"Two years ago it was harder to access the quantities of new make spirit that we wanted, and just now there's an easing of access to new make spirit," says Fred Laing of Douglas Laing.

Michael Urquhart adds: "Being able to acquire new make spirit comes back to relationships we've had over decades with distilleries."

Having acquired new make spirit the next requirement is a supply of casks for aging, with the past couple of years seeing bourbon casks in particular becoming harder to source, not to mention being more expensive.

"We have long relationships with cooperages so we can get the quality of casks we require. "Yes, the price has gone up, but it's all about quality, and controlling quality all the way through. We have sherry casks made to our specification, and matured on our behalf at bodegas in Spain, which are shipped to Scotland after three to four years.

"We're looking for American oak for sherry casks because it has a tighter grain. We use sweet Oloroso sherry casks - the important thing is that it's quality sherry going into the casks," says Michael Urquhart.

The benefits of acquiring new make spirit for aging are obvious.

"We've got good stocks from our filling program, and we've been good at husbanding stocks. We can also exchange some of our stock for other whiskies, as some players in the industry look favourably at exchange of stocks, although it's not a significant part of our stock acquisition," says Fred Laing.

Meanwhile, the current situation in terms of acquiring mature stock can be difficult to define.

"It's an evolving picture, changing week by week, we've just come out of a three year period when mature stock was very difficult to source, depending on what you were looking for, backed up by broking price increases.

"In the last six months we've seen more offerings of mature stock than in the previous 12 to 18 months, so things are loosening up. A variety of stock is becoming more widely available," says Glaser.

Frances Dupuy adds: "Three years ago it was real panic stations but the expected shortage of available casks has never really materialised. It actually helped us find new and innovative ways of sourcing casks and we have increased our stock considerably in the past 12 months.

"We have also built up close relationships with people who have casks to offer and that helps. It's sometimes difficult but not insurmountable, and we can still find casks that fit our criteria."

While availability is the first step, it's pricing that determines if a cask is a viable proposition.

"During the past two years prices sky rocketed and haven't stopped, but the rises have started to flatten.

"Whether prices go down we'll have to wait and see, but we haven't yet seen any sign of this," says Frances Dupuy.

Glaser adds: "Prices are softer than 12 months ago, but greater than three to five years ago."

And when a bottling is ready to be released, the next consideration is a retailer's criteria for listing an independent bottling.

"We got to the point when there were so many independent bottlings available to us, that we couldn't stock everything.

"What we list doesn't follow any set criteria, it can be unusualness of age in order to fill gaps, but we look at the product and the price.

"There are also a lot of distilleries that you can only get independent bottlings of," says Keir Sword of Royal Mile Whiskies.This raises another question: the relationship between the name of the independent bottler and the distillery name, and to what extent this can be a case of 'co-branding.'

"It's two elements of information, of trust, Berrys' Own Selection is a brand, and people can trust Berry Bros," says Doug McIvor of Berry Bros & Rudd.

John Glaser adds: "It depends on which brand name is stronger, the independent bottler or the distillery that it's bottled from." Among more knowledgeable whisky enthusiasts, can an independent bottler have the same following as a malt distillery ?

"Most definitely," says Keir Sword. However, the level of consumer knowledge is a crucial factor.

"When people don't have a great knowledge of whisky, explaining that a whisky has been bottled by someone who didn't produce it can be quite a difficult process," adds Sword.

With the malt whisky industry being so innovative, one aspect can be to offer a different angle on the usual house style shown by proprietary bottlings."It's an opportunity to present the best of what a distillery has, sometimes we get an unusual example. There's an expectation of us finding something different," says Frances Dupuy.

Michael Urquhart continues: "The Private Collection label enables us to offer a more individual expression that's a wee bit different.

"One thing you've got to watch is saying, here's something different for a whole range of stuff, as you can confuse the consumer."

And having played such an instrumental role in developing the malt whisky market, what are the future prospects for independent bottlers?

"As long as we can still get hold of the whisky, and it's still good, the next two years will be fine.

"But who knows whether it will be possible in 10 years time," says Frances Dupuy.

RANGES


As the malt market continues to evolve,it's standard practice for independent bottlers to segment their range.

Gordon & MacPhail's range, for example, includes Connoisseur's Choice, comprising around 45 different malts from every region. Private Collection is a range of speciality bottlings; MacPhail's Collection includes malts from Speyside, Campbeltown and Islay; while the Distillery Label's range features a particular label stipulated by the distillery above the Gordon & MacPhail name. Berrys' Best,a range bottled by Berry Bros & Rudd, comprises three regional expressions, Islay, Orkney and the Lowlands. Bottled at 43% ABV and not chill-filtered, this caters for entry-level consumers .Berrys' Own Selection, currently comprising around 40 expressions, concentrates on more senior specimens of malt, often single cask, non chill-filtered bottlings at 46% ABV or cask strength.

Douglas Laing has three separate ranges (all of which are non chill filtered), with The Old Malt Cask range comprising around 110 single cask bottlings at 50% ABV; The Old And Rare Platinum Selection totals around 10 malts which are cask strength, single cask bottlings, while Douglas Laing's Premier Barrel provides a choice of single cask malts in Victorian-style, ceramic decanters.
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