No, I'm not talking about obscure alt-rock bands...it's Wednesday so I'm talking whiskey.
One of the more mysterious areas of whiskey is the world of independent bottlers of single malt Scotch. This week, I discuss the basics of indie-Scotch and next week will do a tasting of a few of Trader Joe's indie bottlings.
What are Independent Bottlers?
There are two ways in which single malt scotch is marketed. As everyone knows, single malt distilleries market their own product. In addition, however, distilleries sell a certain amount of their product to independent companies which bottle the whiskey and sell it under their own labels. In the world of wine, the bottlers would be known as negociants. Unlike wine negociants, though, indie whiskey bottlers usually disclose the name of the distillery on the bottling. So, you can buy, for instance, a Macallan bottling of Macallan or a Macallan bottled by one of these independent companies.
Why Drink Indie Scotch?
Indie Scotches provide a good way to try alternative bottlings of distillery malts. Most distilleries have a set number of bottlings they release, usually based on age, which they blend and dilute to reach a particular flavor profile. Indie bottlings give you a chance to try something different from your favorite distillery. Whereas distilleries blend different ages of Scotch (a 10 year old Scotch produced by a distillery is actually a blend of different barrels in which the youngest Scotch in the blend is 10 years old), indie Scotch often comes from a single cask or set of casks from a given year (look for distilled by and bottled by dates). In addition, indies are less likely than distilleries to use coloring and chill-filtering, which most experts believe effect taste.
In addition, for Americans, there are some Scotches for which distillery bottlings simply aren't available. Mortlach and Linkwood, for instance, rarely, if ever, send their bottles to the US, so an indie bottling is your only way to try one outside of a trip to Scotland. Similarly, moth-balled distilleries such as Port Ellen, Brora and Dallas Dhu are only available in the US through indie bottlers.
So indie bottlings are a good way to try alternative ages and bottlings of your favorites and to taste malts that aren't available in the US.
What Indies Should I Buy?
This is a tough, tough question. The nature of Indie bottlings is that they are unique, which makes for interesting tasting but also makes purchasing them a sort of crapshoot. Whisky Magazine now does an annual wrap up of the best independent bottlings, but not all of those listed are available in the US.
My strategy is to just pick distilleries I like or am interested in. I've found some great bottlings this way but they vary, and it's hard to identify trends in terms of which bottling companies are better than others.
Where Can I Find Indie Scotch?
Southern Californians are lucky to have one of, if not the largest selection of Indie Scotch in the US. Sitting on an unassuming stretch of Saticoy, west of Balboa in Van Nuys is Wine & Liquor Depot. Wine and Liquor Depot has a very good selection of single malts, but they have an amazing selection of indies. Their selection includes bottlings from Cadenhead, Murry McDavid, Balckadder, Signatory, Scott's and many other distinguished indie bottlers. They have, literally, hundreds, maybe over one thousand indie Scotches. So go to Van Nuys, peruse the selection and pick something to your liking. (And afterwards grab some noodles at the nearby Pho So 1).
Unfortunately, while the store has an amazing selection, they don't really, how should I say it, emphasize customer service. Their clerks are surly at best and downright grumpy on off days. If you're lucky, they might make a recommendation, but don't count on it, and they seem to have surprisingly little knowledge about the indie bottlings, despite the breadth of the store's selection.
Next week we will do some indie tastings, looking at the indie bottlings which are being marketed by Trader Joe's.