Independent Bottlers

Original bottlings or distillery bottlings are bottled directly by the distillery In contrast, independent bottlers (UAs) buy whisky casks from distilleries and store and bottle them in their own casks according to their own specifications. The UAs bring the whiskies onto the market under their own name. As the distilleries only sell a limited number of their casks to UAs, there are only small quantities of these bottlings, sometimes even only single cask whiskies. The whisky is usually uncoloured and not chill-filtered.

Independent whisky bottlers can only be found in Scotland!

Table of content

A little History first

One name stands for the beginning of the independent bottlers! Gordon & MacPhail.

Around 1825, Gordon & MacPhail, a well-known grocer from Elgin in Scotland, decided to buy malt whisky in casks and market it on its own account. Major malt whisky distilleries in Speyside such as Macallan and Mortlach also recognised the advantage of bottling their own casks rather than selling them exclusively into blending.

Gordon & MacPhail were not the only ones to recognise the gap in the market. Many other merchants followed them in the years to come. A century of two wars and much upheaval saw most of these companies go under again.

No major independent bottler other than Gordon & MacPhail survived the world wars. Instead, the distilleries, led by Macallan, Bowmore, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie, began to market their malt whisky themselves.

Gordon & MacPhail were still predominantly grocers, but large stocks of malt whisky casks began to accumulate. No one in the world, no distillery and no other independent bottler, can draw on such a large stock of old malts as they can.

It was not until the 1980s that a new major independent bottler, Signatory Vintage Ltd, entered the market. In contrast to the established Gordon & MacPhail, the young owners focussed exclusively on Scottish single malts. No food, no blending and no distillery of their own to distract. Single malts and nothing else. Within 20 years, the two Symington brothers managed to reshape the entire market with constant hard work.

They were not so much managers as labourers who worked hard and achieved in a few years what others took more than 100 years to do.

Today, Signatory is an independent bottler, flexible and innovative, bringing a steady stream of freshly crafted malts to the market in different series. Their relationships with distilleries are excellent. For example, only they managed to re-bottle the Ben Wyvis single malt, which was thought to be lost. Today, Signatory owns a stock of more than 10,000 casks! These include casks from distilleries that have long since closed. In 2002, Andrew Symington, the owner of Signatory, acquired the Edradour distillery. Andrew had already paid off his brother at the end of the 1990s.

 

Status today

Until September 2001, young, independent bottlers appeared on the market almost every month. Most of them did not survive long. The sources of the whisky were often unclear and the quality inconsistent. The term 'armchair bottler' is doing the rounds. The bottler sits in his armchair at home and has malt whisky bottled, which no customer will put up with in the long term. Distilleries are also drastically restricting the supply of casks to UAs and are also banning the use of the distiller's name on the label.

Instead, the distilleries decide to do the business with the high-quality bottlings themselves. The number of special bottlings permanently being brought to market by the groups is now impressive. Glenmorangie's Private Collection and Diageo's Special Releases are now very popular with collectors.

A new trend is emerging on the whisky market: independent bottlers are buying whisky distilleries themselves!

In the medium term, the market will clear up, as many small bottlers are not viable. New approaches would be to take over distilleries that have already closed or to specialise in niche products. The large distilleries will not make it easy for the UAs! Ultimately, the quality of the whisky and the taste of the customer will lead the way. As in any market, the buyer will decide which products survive. And so we continue to watch with interest to see which independent bottlers will establish themselves, which will join and which will leave.

 

 

Developments on the Whisky Market

From the original whisky without legal regulations to the blend to the single malt and the brand share of UAs

The whisky market is changing. In the 1990s, blended whisky producers still dominated the market. Johnnie Walker, Ballantine's and Chivas Regal were among the best-known whisky brands in Germany and around the world. All of them together produced blended whiskies almost without exception. If you wanted a different whisky, you could always find an American bourbon in the form of Jim Beam.

The triumph of single malt whisky began in the early 90s of the last century. Of course, there were already a few Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie. However, this new market segment initially made only slow progress from the 1960s onwards. With the appearance of the Classic Malts of Scotland from market leader Diageo in the early 1990s, even the last specialist retailer realised that a new market segment had opened up with malt whiskies.

The Independent Bottlers come into play

However, small independent companies in Scotland were quicker than the large whisky distillers. The umbrella term 'independent bottlers' refers to companies that bottle their own malt whisky independently of the distillery that produces it. This independence from the producer is reflected in the designation UA. The labels on the bottles primarily show the name of the bottler. The name of the distillery is usually added in slightly smaller letters.

Whisky is more than just a drink

Whisky is not just a drink, but also an economic factor. Many people make a living from the production and sale of whisky. It is therefore important to understand the economic aspects of this industry. How is whisky produced, marketed and sold? What factors influence the quality and price of whisky? These questions may have little to do with the flavour experience we seek as whisky lovers. But they can help us to better recognise the background and challenges of this industry.

Export figures 2022

Blended whisky accounted for 59% of global exports at £3670m, up 43% on 2021, with single malt up 30% on 2021 from 32% global exports (£1986m). The remainder is split between blended malt, blended grain and bulk whisky. Bulk whisky refers to mass-produced whisky.

You can find more interesting figures here: https://www.whisky.de/whisky/aktuelles/nachrichten-details/article/exporte-von-scotch-whisky-ueberstiegen-2022-erstmalig-6-milliarden-pfund.html

The demand for single malt over blended whisky is constantly increasing. This means that distilleries want and have to sell less and less of the single malt they produce to blend producers and UAs.

Whereas in the past, distilleries could afford to bottle only the best casks as single malt whisky, things are different today. For many distilleries, it's all about the last cask from the last corner of every warehouse. That's how much demand has grown! The constant shortage in many distilleries, such as Macallan, shows how much malt is already being sold as single malt. We are lucky that the major distilleries have massively improved their production processes and, above all, the cask quality in recent years. In the past, only 10 to 20% were outstanding casks, but today there are only 10 to 20% bad casks. Mouldy malt, poor distillation, barrels used too often and too long fermentation - these influences no longer exist today. Nevertheless, the increase in output is only just keeping pace with the multiplication in demand for malt whisky.

Blend Manufacturers have their own Distilleries

For over 100 years, the blended whisky industry was known for swapping malt whisky casks for its many different blends. However, with the major takeover battles and the reduction in the diversity of suppliers that we have seen for many years, this behaviour is slowly coming to an end. Almost everyone now produces their entire whisky portfolio themselves. The smoky malt whisky for Johnnie Walker, for example, comes from the group's own malt whisky distillery Caol Ila. Laphroaig produces Ballantine's from Pernod Ricard for the blend. They no longer want to be dependent on others and therefore ultimately dependent on them.

The markets for single malt whisky distilleries have also been largely equalised. Instead of working for the blends, for example, Lagavulin concentrates on the single malt and Caol Ila on the blends. But Caol Ila, just as huge as Laphroaig, can produce for malts and blends at the same time.

 

UAs buy their own distilleries

Three of the 'Big Four' have already bought their own distilleries and are trying to become fully-fledged single malt whisky producers. Gordon & MacPhail acquired the Benromach distillery in 1993 and Ian MacLeod bought Glengoyne and Murray McDavid in 2003. Ian MacLeod bought Glengoyne in 2003 and Murray McDavid bought the Bruichladdich distillery in 2000. For the sake of completeness, it should be mentioned here that Bruichladdich went to Rémy Cointreau in 2012. In the summer of 2002, Signatory acquired Scotland's smallest distillery, Edradour. They originally wanted to take over Ardbeg, but lost the bidding to the larger Glenmorangie Plc.

UAs and blend manufacturers are in competition

Example: Caol Ila malt whisky distillery Let's get a little more specialised and take a look at the Caol Ila distillery. Without exception, it produces very smoky malt whisky, which is then matured in ex-bourbon casks. In the past, blended whisky producers or large independent bottlers could drive to the distillery in a lorry with 20 or more empty casks and have their smoky malt bottled at a price per litre. But those days are long gone and the owner Diageo has stopped this 'factory outlet'. Existing contracts with blended whisky producers are being honoured, but no longer extended. There will be no more than contractually agreed. Why? There is no longer enough capacity to fulfil the demand for single malt and the sale of whisky for the blend industry and the independent bottlers!

Overview of the Scottish Independent Whisky Bottlers

For a long time, people talked about the four big independent bottlers (The Big Four) on the Scotch whisky market.

By this we mean Gordon & MacPhail, Signatory, Douglas Laing and Ian MacLeod!

Gordon& MacPhail was a pioneer as a UA and brought out a number of well-known series. Other bottlings were also released under the secondary Spirit of Scotland label. In 1993, he bought the Benromach distillery, founded the new distillery The Cairn in Speyside and recently gave up his work as an independent bottler in 2024.

The name Andrew Symington is inextricably linked to the Signatory Vintage company. He can call a cask warehouse with well over 10,000 casks his own and also brings by far the most independent bottlings onto the market. He has owned the small Edradour distillery since 2002. Dun Eideen is operated as a second label.

Douglas Laing brings special independent bottlings to the market in a variety of series. He markets the Provenance series under the second label McGibbon's. In 2019, Douglas Laing acquired the small distillery Strathearn.

The UA Ian MacLeod has already bought two distilleries. In 2003, he acquired Glengoyne and then Tamdhu. In 2017, he revived the Rosebank distillery. He launched further bottlings on the market under the second label Dun Beagan.

Here are representative top bottles from these four suppliers:

 

Blair Athol Un-Chillfiltered Collection 11Y-2011/2023
Blair Athol Un-Chillfiltered Collection 11Y-2011/2023
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Linkwood Distillery Labels 25 Years
Linkwood Distillery Labels 25 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Bunnahabhain Discovery Heavily Peated 10 Years
Bunnahabhain Discovery Heavily Peated 10 Years
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Caol Ila Bourbon Hogshead Cask Strength Collection 13Y-2009/2023
Caol Ila Bourbon Hogshead Cask Strength Collection 13Y-2009/2023
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Edradour Un-Chillfiltered Collection 'Whisky.de exclusive'. 10Y-2013/2023
Edradour Un-Chillfiltered Collection 'Whisky.de exclusive'. 10Y-2013/2023
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Bunnahabhain Sherry Butt Dun Bheagan 12Y-2006/2019
Bunnahabhain Sherry Butt Dun Bheagan 12Y-2006/2019
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Bunnahabhain 'Whisky.de exclusive' 10Y-2010/2021
Bunnahabhain 'Whisky.de exclusive' 10Y-2010/2021
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT
Craigellachie Provenance 8Y-2013/2021
Craigellachie Provenance 8Y-2013/2021
0,7/ l · incl.  VAT

Other independent bottlers

There are now significantly more independent bottlers producing bottles worth mentioning. Names such as Duncan Taylor, Murray McDavid, Hunter Laing and our company Whisky.de are among them.

We present other independent bottlers in alphabetical order:

A.D. Rattray
Berry Bros & Rudd
C & S
Diageo - Flora & Fauna
Douglas Laing
Duncan Taylor
Hunter Laing & Co.
Ian MacLeod
Meadowside Blending
Morrison & MacKay
Mossburn
Murray McDavid
Wemyss

Here you will find our selection of independent bottlers!

The quality of the stored malts

After the UAs buy finished spirit from the distilleries, the cask management is the signature of the UAs! The aim of the UAs is often a particularly long cask ageing period. The malts are often stored for longer than the original bottlings. The quality can therefore vary greatly, as the initial quality of the spirit and the quality of the cask used are important for the result

A good single malt is a balance between cask and distillery character!

Where do the UAs get their casks from

Distilleries - Brokers - Individuals

The independent bottlers obtain their casks in various ways. Buying matured whisky in original casks from a distillery is virtually impossible. Distilleries tend to sell the immature New Make. This is available in the distillery's own casks or it is filled into casks brought from home. Brokers sell whisky casks that they have received from distilleries, former master distillers and private individuals. It is still common for a bonus to be paid out in the form of a whisky cask, for example.

Conclusion

The UAs themselves decide on the cask, the maturation period, the alcohol strength, cold filtration and colour addition. They are dependent on the quality of the malt or the raw spirit that they receive from the distilleries.

The result can be a wonderfully unique whisky - try it out!

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