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What is an independent bottler?

What is an independent bottler?

This week Charlie sat down with with the man himself, Charles Edge, to discuss the ins-and-outs of independent bottling, to hopefully answer a few of your questions and help to shine a light on what is one of the most exciting areas of interest in the world of whisky. Click here to watch the video over on YouTube or read the interview below.

Indie bottlers or independent bottlers: who are they, what are they and what does the name mean?

Charlie Pountney: We think there's a lot of confusion, and a bit of a lack of education about what an independent bottler is and what their purpose is in the market. You see them online and I think it's a bit confusing to a lot of people because they're not really used to that concept of an independent bottler.
So Charles, what is an independent bottler to you?
Charles Edge: Well, before I answer that question let's explain what a bottler is. So traditionally, a bottler would take bulk liquids and bottle them, and they developed their own brands around that. So bottling companies, by definition, could be independent and have their own brands.

I think in the modern sense today independent means is someone who is mainly buying liquid in the whisky context, mainly casks or small parcels of whisky, bottling them in their name, and then naming the whisky, distillery or the supply of that whisky on the bottle.

And, of course, we're independent [since we have not made the liquid] we've chosen it and we've given you something we think is really great. And on top of that, we're giving you something that could be quite rare. I think here specifically, we're talking about independent bottlers specialising in Scotch whisky and possibly other types of whisky such as Bourbon. But mostly independent bottlers typically these days are focusing on Scotch Whisky.

CP: And you know, from a historical context, it's been happening for hundreds of years, actually. You know, in the 18th and 19th century independent bottlers were very popular. They existed almost as a to serve the community where you'd have the distiller and almost their job was like the manufacturer of the products and the grocery store, or the local store would buy the liquid and retail it to consumers. And so, you know, they would bottle it themselves by buying whisky in casks and bottling it. This would sometimes be under the distillery name,
sometimes under their own name.

Then they became a little bit more sophisticated and naturally were blending and different things. That typically was the way that people purchased whisky. And then it kind of died out as the distilleries realised that maybe they could do it themselves. They grew, they became more sophisticated, more commercial. Distilleries became bigger and more regional rather than localised serving a small area in the community.

Eventually, one would buy the other and consolidation happened. And that meant the role of that independent bottlers played kind of faded out.

CE: There were, in fact, some quite famous Scotch whisky brands which started in that exact way; I think the most well-known one is Johnnie Walker. Johnnie Walker was basically like a grocery store distribution sort of company. And they bought excess stocks of whisky, eventually blending them together (once restrictions allowed it), becoming more and more successful.

And this was over quite a bit of time, over 50, 60, 70 years. Dewar's is another example, which started off like this.

CP: So in your opinion, what is it that about an independent bottler like, Charles Edge that makes it exciting and interesting to the consumer?

CE: I think that's the idea that that that we are first of all experts in what we do. So we're giving that as a sort of guarantee but as a methodology to make us distinct from other companies. We are experts in Scotch whisky, we know what we want to do, we were not under any pressure to do things immediately. So we don't go to sort of say, I'm going to get a bottle, you know, 5000 casks immediately so we can be quite patient and we can really look for the types of whiskies or ages which you might not expect.

The independent bottlers really sort of sniff out the magic, we can go around looking for the uniqueness.

CP: And yeah, and you mentioned it, the single casks. So that's interesting because it's from a distillery you typically buy a ten year or a 12 year or something like that, which (as we might explain in a later video), is actually a blend of lots of different single malt whiskies from the same distillery. So lots of different casks or various ages would be used. Taking a 12 year old as an example, the 12 year old would be the minimum age of a single cask or a few casks. They might contain older ones.

But the whole point of a of a distillery is to create consistent product for almost a mass consumption. So if there are unique expressions within those casks, which we know there are, you know, each casks is different for many reasons, such as, the ingredients, the climate, the year it was distilled, the barrel and quality of wood, even where in the warehouse the cask was stored.

So the beauty of independent bottler is that you can take just a tiny snapshot, one cask, which could be a tiny section percentage of this whole annual production of a distillery's 12 year old or whatever it is and it might taste completely different.

CE: Now that's what people are might find a bit odd is that a single malt is a single malt, but there is some blending that takes place.

I mean, we were at a distillery a couple of weeks ago where the original single malt is sherry cask and first fill bourbon. Then they do what they call marrying it together to even out the quality. So a single cask can actually be a practically one effectively can be like a sort of a freak distillation in a freak barrel that makes it unbelievable.

Yeah, we can get hold of these things but that's exactly what we do, you know. So there is that real ability to bring really quite rare and one off things to customers in an independent way that a big brand probably wouldn't really do.

I mean, they might do a 50 year old release in a crystal decanter. But that's a different marketing proposition, I think.

CP: And, and it's the ability for an independent bottler as well to not just be tied to one distillery. You know we or other independent bottlers can source from whoever they like. Whereas a distillery is very tied to its style, its location, what distiller makes. Their job is almost to create the most consistent product possible, creating lifelong fans for what they do.

CE: But the independent bottlers job is almost to flip that and say we want to showcase lots of different distilleries and varieties and flavours that single distilleries would not. They could not do that because people would try one whisky and the other would be completely different

But it's interesting you mention that, Charlie, because some of the people we've met, distillers, they've got around that problem. In fact, they've said, we're going to keep on experimenting and we'll work in batches. It's another interesting sort of way of looking at the problem rather than saying, let's go and find these unique casks and then try and always create consistency we actually will accept this changes from year to year.

But in general, if you go to a big distillery you'll see in the supermarket as you buy their 10 or 12 year and wherever you go in the world, or in duty free, you expect it to be the same. So that is the challenge for the distillery whereas the independent bottler has a flexibility to choose from whichever distillery they like and with the confidence that they can say that each release will be different.

There was one example from a distillery that they did a really great release, it was like a four year old and they kept ageing it. However customers were asking them to bring it back to the original! It got worse. They actually preferred it like it was.

And then the other thing is, I suppose, for an independent bottler is the quality argument. We can take our time, as you said, and do everything about a quality product. We're not having to worry so much about scalability.

Yeah, I think this is a problem in the global world…. How success is measured in many ways. To put it in perspective Johnnie Walker, I think is like a 6 or 7 million case business, I mean, it is so huge. So they're doing a fantastic job. But although a similar idea, to compare that to independent bottlers is quite difficult. But that's where we are creating that niche, that demand, that interest for different products, different flavour profiles.

But that's also why we can't over create in this way, it's just simply not possible. Otherwise we become like a sort of a mass consumer product. So there is a real problem with being independent but we are going to remain faithful to those roots and faithful to that model. So the bad news is what is made and bought and sold you might not be able to replicate it.

CP: Why do independent bottlers have a place in the market and why they important?

There are some whisky brands that have existed for more than 100 years so we shouldn't imagine in 2023, in a globalised world that there is not a large market for independent brands.

I read a funny article, I think in the Spirits Business or Harpers Wine of a marketing trip that Johnnie Walker did to South Africa in the 1890s. They were trying to sell Johnnie Walker to God knows where, you know, Durban or Johannesburg in the 1890s. So this idea of, you know, today was selling whiskies in these place didn't exist is not necessarily true. The market has historically been quite big.

However the selection the limitation on volumes are very important because you know they are keeping alive small distilleries, or maybe slightly unique flavours that that might be discontinued. We know that some distilleries, for instance, are aging whiskies, which represent just 1% of the brand. Why? We don't know, perhaps for adding complexity but we do know that people are buying those casks. It's a surprising amount. Not all whisky gets laid down in the distillery which makes it.

Sometimes if batches or experiments don’t quite go right or things that don't quite fit the profile independents can purchase these casks so actually they're quite supportive to the distilleries.

I mean, for a big company, you've got two or 300 barrels of something you might not know what to do with. So I say look we’ll take off 20 or 30 and will actually take them consistently.

So don't forget also within blends you might have sub distillations that might represent 1% and a blended whisky. You might have four, five, six, seven different whiskies. So you need just maybe 1% represents 0.1% of the production. Yeah. You've got these costs lying around. What do you do with it. Well the independent bottler says: Oh I'll take those. 

We can definitely say that independent bottles are within the substratum production, keeping some distinct small sections alive. And we're all buying up product the big distillers simply don't do what they want and then selling those on as products.

Last week, we met an independent bottler that's buying some sherry finished Speyside whisky which is not released as a product. They {the distillery] just don't sell it [as a product].

And that's an example of they keeping alive the production and then creating a demand for product that the main brand owner doesn't want.

Yeah, So I think their role is quite important. On top of that they might create new profiles, new ideas that the big brands might jump on to push the industry forward
At the scale we talked about earlier, the scale that independent bottlers can operate at and access to barrels and things they can play around with different ageing, finishing that maybe is just too complicated and not worth it for the big guys.

CP: Yeah, so for the consumer, it's great to get this experimentation and potentially for the industry to push forward the category. If an independent bottler puts whisky in a tequila cask, a few years later someone at a big distillery might stand up and go - that's actually quite interesting. And they wouldn't have been able to do it as an as a just a one off experiment because that is too big and too complicated, they're not set up to do that.

So I think it's good to to push the industry forward, definitely bring in a bit of consumer choice and yeah, it plays a really important role.

CP: So the big question is, is it going to be distilleries or indie bottlers? Which do you choose?

So the French always are very clear on certain things. You should always have your three types of wines, your everyday drinking wine, your sort of premium wine, and the wine you dream of, of drinking every now and again every 20 years if you can afford it.

So I think maybe for scotch, you should have brands you would see as a semi
premium brand you really like. Your stable mate. Then maybe a couple of bottles you enjoy every now and again and that should be an independent bottling.

So you have your favourite brand which you like the flavour profile, age perhaps. So you might not quite like a peaty whisky, or you might quite like a really good Speyside. But I would probably keep the independent bottler for that special treat or special occasion. Say to yourself I'm going to go really into a special space to really sit down and really enjoy it.

So maybe even select two or three brands you like.

CP: I watched a video from another video YouTuber Ralfy the other day who made a really good point and said that, there's a lot of choice out in the market moment and even with distilleries, he mentioned one [distillery] that has 50 different expressions online at the moment. How do you know what to choose? Well, just try a basic 10, 12 and get to know it a little bit. I think that's really, really good advice.

I'm personally probably quite guilty of thinking I want to try this and that without spending a bit of time getting to know a few distilleries before getting, sucked into the port cask finish or mezcal barrel which is easy to do.

CE: This also shows how much is going on in Scotch. That's why we're doing these videos to help you to be well informed. It takes quite a lot to build up a palate in your brain of what you like or don't like what to expect or not not expect.

But always nice to experiment with new things. But yeah, I think finding a balance
between some distillery additions and some independent bottlers that are doing something interesting is probably the right way to go. You can explore a lot by visiting a good bar or good bottle shop. And you can get some great advice from bottle shops about what's good and then you don't need to take that risk of going for a bottle online that you might not like or that you might be a bit crazy. Speak, to a bar. Try it. Get a recommendation from a bottle shop.

CP: We were in Glasgow at Robert Graham, 1874 who were particularly helpful and Good Spirits Co. as well in in Glasgow and had a couple of bottles that you could try for before you buy. So that's always, that's always good.

CE: That's it!, Take all opportunities. I mean, one shouldn’t assume you’ll be a whisky expert within, you know within a certain period of time. It's an ongoing challenge and flavours are changing all the time. So it's an ongoing passion. It's a lifetime commitment.

Thank you very much for listening and joining us all the way to the end. And don't forget to please like this video on Youtube and if you can follow us @CharlesEdgeLondon on YouTube and drop us a comment if you like the video or if you wanted to see any other content from us. Cheers. Have a good evening.

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