The Independent Bottlers of Scotland

There are many Independent Bottlers. In the following article, we want to show you the history and backgrounds of these companies and which Whiskies they bottle. Additionally, we introduce some of the Big Player of the industry. Including Gordon & MacPhail and Signatory Vintage.

Independent Bottlers in Scotland

What does independent means? Independent from other companies? Free from outside opinions? To better understand the circumstances, we have to consider this: Most Independent Bottlers are based in Scotland. Currently, there are more than 130 operating distilleries, which are considered Malt Whisky distilleries. Careful: They’re not “Single Malt Whisky distilleries” because the term Single is only added when the bottle is filled with Whisky from one distillery. 90% of those distilleries are owned by big international companies, like Diageo, Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy or Suntory. Without being publicly noticed, the industry became global, conglomerated and condensed. Today there are not even 10 companies left, that are acting as the main players.

And those big companies do not give their distilleries much freedom. New bottlings have to be as large as possible to achieve a scale effect. Whole trucks filled with one kind of bottle and the conveyor belts are never empty – the standard those companies want to achieve. But the common opinion is, that only little manufacturers can produce good quality items. So the large corporations were facing this problem and solved it by acting through the small distilleries and never stepping directly into the limelight. And it works. Thinking with Lagavulin you get a Whisky from a small distillery or Independent Bottler? Nope, owned by Diageo. Supporting a small distillery like Aberlour? Also No, it belongs to Pernod Ricard. The list goes on.

So what does independent really mean? In the industry it’s understood, that an Independent Bottler buys casks from Whisky distilleries and fill them into bottles, to sell them under their own label. Most of the times the labels focus on the bottler's name. Smaller, but still somewhat noticeable, the name of the distillery is shown. This often leads Whisky beginners to believe the name of the bottler is the name of the Whisky.

Due to the limited capacities of the Independent Bottlers, most bottlings are small batches, down to single casks. This results in a great variety of tastes, for example, one cask matured better than another. Sometimes two bottles of the same content can differ in taste because they were matured in two different casks and ca. 50–60% of the taste is given by the cask. That’s a problem for the Independent Bottlers.

In our Shop on, we offer Whisky from ca. 13 Independent Bottlers. This number is not set in stone. Depending on the taste of every bottling, we choose to sell them or not. Many offer a large variety of bottles, so there are always bottles we can offer. But some only have a few, so they fluctuate.

But what is a good Independent Bottler and what is a bad one? Well, everyone sees this differently, depending on personal taste. Maturing in new casks? Was it chill-filtered? Is it coloured? Those facts can influence choice and personal favourites.

So let’s have a look at an example from an Independent Bottler:

Dun Bheagan – Strathisla Single Malt Scotch Whisky 12 Years. The description on the bottle is the typical marketing text. “Fine selection”, “rare Single Malt” and “matured in the distillery and bottled in the old, classic way.” - That sounds like the Master Blender of the Independent Bottler is headed to the distilleries, walked through the warehouses, tasted some samples and carefully chose, which cask he/she was buying. Sadly, that is only fantasy. In reality, most distilleries belong to companies and have Corporate Governance. This means, nobody but listed personnel are allowed to enter and the Customs Office is checking which person has a key. Additionally, some distilleries have no interest in selling their best Whisky to Independent Bottlers. They want to use their best casks for their own bottlings. Only if there is an abundance of Whisky after bottling, it will be sold. How the big and smaller Independent Bottlers are getting their Whisky instead, can be read here.

So let’s have a look at some of the big Independent Bottlers:

Gordon & MacPhail

Gordon & MacPhail is the most famous and oldest continuously operating Independent Bottler in Scotland. Founded in 1895 as a grocery business in Elgin, in the Speyside, the store sold tea, wine and other spirits. The name is the combination of the founders’ names: James Gordon and John Alexander McPhail. John Urquhart was one of the first employees. At a very young age, he learned about the Blending of Whiskies as an apprentice. He got very good at choosing the right casks from the various local distilleries (back then there were significantly more than today.) Later on, he became the partner of Gordon, when McPhail retired. A short time after that, Gordon surprisingly died, which made Urquhart senior partner. In this role, he led the store to shift more and more to Whisky sales and to finally bottling Whisky with a licence. Over the following years, Gordon & MacPhail bottled Whisky from distilleries like Macallan, Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Linkwood and more.

After Prohibition in America was lifted in 1933, Urquhart got his whole family into the company. They stayed in the business, even during World War II. When the War was over, Gordon & MacPhail lead the market. Since they still knew all distilleries and their characters, the store was one of the only few options for connoisseurs to buy good Whisky.

Since the Independent Bottler is the oldest continuously operating one, they sit on a big stock of very old casks. In 2017 the number of stored casks was around 13,500. With this Gordon & MacPhail is capable of releasing a 70-year-old Whisky, which can’t be said for many bottlers, or distilleries.

Signatory Vintage

Signatory Vintage was founded in 1988 by Andrew Symington and his brother. Signatory means signature, which Symington originally wanted to have on every cask. His vision, to have famous people sign them, was abolished very quickly, as the casks were already sold before he could find a person who wanted to participate. But what’s still left is the logo with the ‘S’ written in an old font.

Until 1992 the company was located in Leaf before it moved to Edinburgh. 1997 Andrew bought the company shares of his brother, becoming the only head. After that, he purchased the smallest distillery in Scotland, Edradour in 2002.

The packages of the Signatory bottles did not change much over the years. Only the material of the box transformed from metal to cardboard. The number of bottles of most batches is very limited since its filled from very few or even single casks. And therefore the Independent Bottler can have the exact date of the distillation written on the label of those bottlings.