When I first started drinking whisky, it was simpler. I wanted to try everything I could lay my hands on but that wasn’t a vast range. Most of it was major brands that were instantly recognisable. As with most things though, over time your understanding deepens and you start to see with better eyes. I began to see labels that were nearly written in code, with colours, maps and distillery names I’d barely heard of. I started to see Douglas Laing & Co labels and I gazed at Cadenhead’s Small Batch with glee. Then I went to a tasting with one of my favourite independent bottlers, Sir Alex Bruce from Adelphi. It was the first Charles MacLean tasting I’d ever been to and probably the experience that cemented a deep appreciation of what the independent bottlers of the world do for whisky.
There are various types of distilleries: those that distill under contract for other brands, those that only make spirit for other blends or malts under a different brand or brands, those that make spirit for their own brand or brands. And any distillery might do any combination of these things. The more progressive distilleries will be experimenting with casks, fermentation, time and finishing treatments, the tried and true still to what they know. But almost all distilleries have this in common – a dedication to the profile of the whisky they make. So there are always casks that don’t make the cut; not for the sake of quality but because for whatever reason the Angel’s Share only knows, the cask simply doesn’t fit the profile or required flavour. These barrels inevitably make their way to independent bottlers. There are also rare, old and discontinued lines that produce casks sitting around. There is bargaining and trading that has gone on since before Prohibition when it comes to where whisky casks end up. But an independent bottler comes by a cask and releases it under their label, with varying degrees of information about where, what, how, when and why the whisky came to be.
There are secret bottlings too: usually a well-named and fanciful label that might give only a single clue as to the whisky’s origin. My favourite example was a outlandish monikered bottle that was made on the Isle of Skye. Well, truth be told it had to be a Talisker because there is only one distillery on the Isle of Skye. A bold trick for young players. For the most part the independent bottlers can be relied upon to find interesting and rare expressions of whisky at each part of the spectrum and not just clever marketing. Adelphi Selection, for example, only accepts 4% of what is offered to them – their standards so high for what they put under the brand.
Working on independent bottles is a wonderful way to try an interesting range of whiskies. Remember, that the iconic names you know and love are made to flavour profiles which leaves the world wide open for these other variant, divergent and fascinating casks to shine in their own way. There is more than one independent that relies on MacLean’s master nose and there are some larger companies that maintain their own independent bottling line also – Edradour Distillery and Signatory Vintage share an owner, largely because bottling was a good way to make money and pass time while they were waiting for their distillery license to come through. So when looking – know these are just a few of the major independents in addition to those not yet mentioned – Wemyss Malts, AD Rattray, Hunter Laing, Duncan Taylor, Gordon & MacPhail. Then there are the retailers that release their own bottles – The Whisky Exchange, Master of Malt and Berry Brothers and Rudd to name a few.
Now to the independently bottled whisky in question – this is a tasty and interesting number bottled by Gordon & MacPhail Whisky – a 1993 Glendullan. You may never have heard of Glendullan, but suffice to say it’s a Speyside distillery. It’s one of the distilleries that produces all its malt for a brand called “The Singleton” and it’s primarily aimed at the US market of whisky drinkers. Glendullan releases nothing under it’s own name and they don’t even have a visitors centre. They are all but silent, owned by Diageo. I’ve tried The Singleton and it’s a very acceptable Speyside drop. This bottle however, was much more fascinating. For starters, it was aged in a refilled Sherry Hogshead. Again, sherry cask and Speyside on my radar but this went in a very different direction than last week’s GlenDronach 1972. Nicely though, it was first opening on this bottle too.
Colour: Light gold, really light in the glass for something that old.
Nose: Super light and delicate nose, pears and hints of banana.
Palate: Immediately hot in the palate before getting very sweet and malty. Almost a warm baked bread element in a very medium body drop.
Finish: The pepper and spice adds to a long drawn out finish, with the hint of creaminess at the very end you’d expect from a Sherry Hogshead.