The World of Independent Whisky Bottlers
Most whiskies are bottled and sold by the distillery that makes them. But there is a whole world of private companies that buy whisky from the distillers. These “Independent Bottlers”, as they are known in the scotch whisky world, can then bottle and sell product under their own label. They can also continue the aging process prior to bottling, or blend it with other whiskies prior to sale.
This has all been going on for hundreds of years. As I mentioned in a previous article, in the mid-1800’s, Mitchell and Sons from Dublin used to walk over to the Jameson Distillery, buy a few casks, and then further age it in the basement of their grocery store. Then they sold it under their private label. Just trying to make a few bucks, I guess.
So, who are the familiar names of the independent bottling world? First, let’s take a peek at the granddaddy of them all – Berry Bros and Rudd. In 1698, The Widow Bourne (only name listed in the records) opened a coffee store at 3 St. James St in London. The store, which soon became known as Berry Bros and Rudd, is still there today, as the oldest wine and spirits merchant in the world and one of England’s 10 oldest family run businesses. They eventually expanded into tea, spices, groceries, and, you guessed it, liquor. They have been the official wine supplier to the royal family since King George III (mid-1700’s). Unable to retire solely on the drinking habits of the royal family, they started selling whisky and spirits to the public under their own label. In 1903, they launched the Cutty Sark label, which they later sold to the Edrigton Group, in exchange for the the Glenrothes label, which they sold back to Edrington in 2017. In 2005, they launched the first online wine shop, which has since become a world leader. How’s that for a rich history?
In 1895, Gordon and MacPhail was founded in Elgin, Speyside, by James Gordon and John MacPhail. Since then, G&M have become perhaps the best known independent bottlers of scotch whisky, with over 350 current products from 70 different distilleries. At the company’s inception, the heart of the operation was a young blender, John Urquhart, who had a knack for buying, blending and aging locally sourced Speyside whisky. Now into their 4th generation, the Urquhart family still sits firmly at the helm, and have recently purchased their first distillery – Benromach, just 12 miles from the original shop. G&M have an extensive list of great whiskies, including a 70 year old Mortlach, which, unless I win the lottery, I won’t be adding to my collection.
Douglas Laing and Co. take a bit of a different approach to whisky bottling. Started in 1948 in Glasgow, Laing’s focus is on a few trademark labels, most of which are blended malts. These include Big Peat from the distillers of Islay, Timorous Beastie from the Highlands, Rock Island from the Islands, and my favorite, Scalliwag, from Speyside. They also produce a line of premium single malt and single grain whiskies from a variety of distillers, called Old Particular. Like G&M, in 2019 they, too, bought a distillery – Strathearn.
Yet another novel approach to independent bottling is by the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Founded in 1983 by a lad by the name of Pips Hill, the original intent was to form a small club to taste whiskies straight from the cask. Flash forward 35 years to a 25,000+ member organization that buys single casks of whisky, bottles it, and offers it for sale only to its members. It’s like shopping at No-Frills. The cask, the age, the lot size, and the year are identified. Take it or leave it.
There are tons of other independent bottlers out there. Hart Brothers, Cadenhead and Signatory are three of the more prominent ones in the UK. And there are dozens of small, independent bottlers popping up everywhere. Almost to the point where a bunch of folks buy a cask or two, bottle it in their mom’s basement, and hit the internet with it.
There are also a growing number of independent labels in North America as well, starting with Old Forrester, the first bourbon to be sold in sealed, glass bottles, in 1870. Most of these companies, such as Bulleit, Rebel Yell, George Dickel, Templeton, and Seagrams 7, aren’t really independent bottlers. Rather, they are whisky companies that out-source their total production to large distillers such as MGB of Indiana.
Whatever your taste, independent bottlers and marketers have you covered. Some of the favorites in my collection are from the likes of Hart Brothers and Douglas Laing. I hope that you get a chance to try some soon. Cheers!