I spend a decent amount of time explaining to our wonderful customers why a silver-tinned canister of something, that doesn't look anything like the other Laphroaigs, is really Laphroaig whisky that has been put into a different kind of bottle. Not only has its package changed, but it's likely been manipulated by some sort of cask enhancement. Either that, or it hasn't been tampered with at all - no chilled filtration and sometimes no dillution of water whatsoever: cask strength. This can be mindblowing to someone who is used to seeing the same big fat cannister around their Bruichladdich single malts.
That a whisky could come from their favorite producer, but yet be sold off at some point during the maturation process can seem like blasphemy to some diehards, but it's a very lucrative business for others. Some of our most outstanding whisky deals ever have been bottles of this sort and I'm here now to tell you a bit more about them. There are many different names and they usually are affiliated with a specific distributor. Some are as reliable as the sun rising in the morning, while others can be a bit iffy. Basically, you've got a bunch of guys who don't make whisky, but like whisky, and work out an agreement with a specific distillery to buy a barrel or two (hence why almost all are vintage dated) of their superfluous stash. They use the reputation of the producer to sell the product, but with their own name on the bottle as well. For those of you who are familiar with our Kalinda wine label, it is very much the same process and idea.
Independent bottlers are essential to the Scotch whisky world because not only do they bottle older, rarer whiskies that many distilleries don't bother to distribute, they allow domestic access to certain malts that are not available here, either because the distillery has since closed or because the whisky is no longer distributed in the U.S. To give you an idea of who these guys are and what they're all about, I've drawn up this cheat sheet for you:
Probably the most prevelent of the indies on our shelf, mainly because the whiskies are tasted and chosen by one of the most respected whisky authorities in the world: Bruichladdich master distiller Jim McEwan. All the Murray McDavid bottles are actually bottled at Bruichladdich as well, and sometimes they are cask enhanced (as with the above Laphroaig aced in Chateau Margaux wine casks). Murray McDavid really covers all the bases with a fantastic selection of interesting, young drams, as well as some ancient, highly-sought relics. They are about as solid as it gets, but, because they are owned by Bruichladdich, they're not truly "independent."
Right up there with Murray McDavid is Signatory. Founded in 1988, they tend to specialize in whiskies that are normally not individually bottled by the distillery (such as Linkwood which is used in blended malts), single barrel expressions, or unchillfiltered versions of more renowned whiskies, but bottled at different ages than the standard releases. In 2002, they purchased Edradour, which is Scotland's smallest active distillery. They are a hands-on, small boutique company (each bottle is hand numbered) and are a great resource for the true whisky nerd looking to taste hard-to-find single malts.
Gordon & MacPhail
The history of Gordon & MacPhail dates back to their grocery and spirits business started in 1895. The grocery store is still active today. The duo began the business as a way to market single malts outside of Scotland (back then, and even until recently, blends were far more popular because they were dependable). They would purchase the spirit and mature it themselves until they felt it had reached its proper age. Because they mature the whisky in their own warehouse, they have far more control than other independents who have to settle for the ages available in the marketplace. G&M usually has the great whisky at a completely unheard of age level, and are almost always the only independent who have enough supply to blend their own single malts together, hence why the Highland Park 8 year is not a 2000 vintage Highland Park.
Currently available: our outstanding, award-winning Highland Park 8 Year
Other well-respected indpendents include Duncan Taylor as well as Cadenhead, but because we currently do not have any of their bottles to offer, I will spare you the details for the moment. Independent bottlers are the only guys out there keeping some of the big boys in check. With the crazy prices being asked for the distillery-bottled, single barrel, cask strength expressions these days, it's a relief to know that there are other more affordable options that are just as good if not better. It's important to support their work for this reason. I'm always on the lookout for a great whisky deal, and nine times out of ten, I'll find it with these bottlers.