If you ever go onto a wine and spirits auction website and look at the single malt scotches you may notice an interesting trend – official bottlings (OBs) sell for much more than independent bottlings (IBs). The reason is very simple, people believe that distilleries will only sell their “reject” casks to independent bottling companies. While this assumption is false, at face value it makes sense. Why would a distillery sell a great cask of whisky to an independent bottler? The answer to that question is hidden in the nature of the blending industry.
When visiting distilleries in Scotland, I noticed a trend. Almost all of the distilleries were casking whisky at 63.5%ABV or 127 proof. I would ask why and the tour guide or distillery manager would say, “whisky ages the best at 63.5%.” This was the answer no matter the peating level, the still size, the number of distillations, etc. This seemed strange and eventually I discovered the truth. When big blending houses need whisky from a distillery belonging to a different company, they don’t buy the whisky, they trade for it and they do so in huge parcels. If Dewars wants 500 casks of Linkwood and Johnnie Walker wants 500 casks of Craigellachie, they trade casks. The taxes are simplified because they were all casked at the same ABV.
When they make these trades there is too much whisky to sample. The blenders are not picking and choosing which whiskies to sell nor are they picking which whiskies to keep. It is a very simple transaction. But now Dewars has 500 casks of Linkwood. As blenders they aren’t necessarily looking for exceptional whisky. They are looking for a consistent flavor profile for their blends. Because of the natural variation in flavors imparted by the oak cask, any number of those Linkwood casks may not fit the profile they need for their blend. So they could have 50, 100 or even 150 casks of whisky without the necessary flavor for Dewars. So Dewars sells these casks to a “barrel broker.”
This is where the independent bottlers come in. They go directly to the barrel broker and they buy the best casks available. Sometimes they recask the whisky, sometimes they lay it down and age it longer and sometimes they take it right to market. The IBs are looking for unique and exceptional casks of whisky, while the blenders are looking for a consistent building block for their labels. As such, independent bottlers often produce better Mortlachs, Linkwoods, Caol Ilas and so on than the distilleries where those whiskies were made. In fact, the best Glenlivet I ever had was the Signatory Cask Strength Glenlivet 1981 32yr.
I still prefer to go with IBs that I trust, such as Gordon & MacPhail, Duncan Taylor, Signatory or AD Rattray, among others, but if I am buying a Port Ellen or a Brora I’d rather pay hundreds than thousands for a whisky that will usually drink just as well if not better than the OB.