Ian Wisniewskiis a freelance journalist writing about spirits, particularly malt whisky and vodka. He contributes to various publications, has written several books on spirits, and gives regular talks and tutored tastings. He frequently visits distilleries, particularly in Scotland, spending as much time as possible discussing the production process

Thoughts from... | 07 Sep 2012 | Issue 106 | By Ian Wisniewski

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Isn’t choice a wonderful thing, and we’ve never had so much. But it’s still not enough. As soon as we’ve tried a new release and shared our (authoritative) opinion, we can’t help asking: what’s next? Fortunately we never have long to wait, as distilleries are continually extending their portfolios with a selection of younger, older and middle-aged bottlings, showcasing a range of cask influences.

How things have changed. Until the 1980s so few distilleries released their own malts that independent bottlers were the main providers of choice. Gradually more distilleries got into DIY, and these proprietary bottlings now dominate the market, leaving independent bottlers in a very different place.

So, what are the options for an independent bottler to stay in the game? The obvious strategy is not duplicating what distilleries offer. But this doesn’t mean coming up with ‘odd’ numbers to avoid the usual denominations of 12, 15, 18 Years Old, and so on. In fact, there’s no problem with numerical duplication, so long as there’s some other differentiation.

A distillery bottling for example is usually blended from various casks in order to provide a consistent character every time, which the majority of consumers want. Meanwhile, independent bottlers offer various single cask bottlings that showcase the individuality of a particular cask, and for connoisseurs differences are more desirable than consistency.

Isn’t choice a wonderful thing, and we’ve never had so much

Single cask status is usually accompanied by other essential credentials, including cask strength (or at least 46% abv), and no chill filtering, which form a team of pre-requisites for connoisseurs. And connoisseurs are the key audience that enable independent bottlers to keep doing what they do.

In this sense independent bottlers aren’t competing with distilleries, they’re complementing what distilleries offer. Similarly, while the 12 to 18 Years Old sector is totally dominated by proprietary bottlings, independent bottlers offer the most comprehensive range of senior malts (i.e. 30 plus), and at a price that can be significantly less than a proprietary bottling.

Independent bottlers also offer the greatest choice of closed distilleries (with rarity a natural aphrodisiac for connoisseurs), as well as distilleries that are less familiar.

So far so good, with independent bottlers leading the way wherever they can. There’s just one vital factor that everything depends on. Having the necessary stock.

This raises an essential division: those independent bottlers who have built up an extensive range of stock and those who are more reliant on buying stock on the open market. It’s a simple formula. The less stock an independent bottler owns, the more vulnerable its future prospects. Even in the past year it’s become much harder to source stock, and the ability to do this relies on meaningful relationships with distilleries and brokers. But as demand for Scotch whisky is projected to keep growing, many distilleries are working at full capacity and retaining rather than retailing their stock.

Of course current growth projections may not be realised (this has been known to happen in the past, a number of times). The question is, if there’s a slowdown will distilleries start off loading more of their stock ? Possibly not. Any slowdown may affect blends rather than malts, with the audience for malts growing globally. Moreover, as the Scotch whisky industry always has to plan 10-15 years ahead, many distilleries could hang on to their stock.

Without greater levels of stock to acquire some independent bottlers may have to fine tune their game plan, and start rationing their releases to key markets. Then again, any increase in rarity may only enhance the cachet of malt whisky, and intensify demand rather than diminish sales. Meanwhile, well-stocked independent bottlers will be well positioned to make the most of demand, and bottle what each market prefers.
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