Variety, as they say, is the spice of life. It’s also a major contributor to whisky’s universal appeal. From woody west coast bottles to smooth single malts, each dram of whisky you taste is laced with a wealth of flavours, textures and stories which carry you from one delicious sip to the next.
Whisky’s diverse nature is etched into the way it evolves from grain to glass – and indeed, from cask to bottle. Because as we’re about to find out, there’s more than one way to bottle and sell the much loved amber nectar.
World Whisky Day catches up with Andrew Macdonald-Bennett, Founder of Goldfinch Whisky Merchants to learn more about independent bottling, and why keen whisky collectors should be in the know.
What does an independent whisky bottler do?
Bottling single casks of Scotch under its own brands, Goldfinch has created a host of beautiful whiskies – inside and out (the team at World Whisky Day HQ are dying to taste the newly released, and very aesthetically pleasing PALOMA – Caol Ila). We all know that distilleries sell on their own bottles and brands of whisky – but where do independent bottlers fit into the equation?
“Put simply, independent whisky bottlers do not distil their own spirit,” explains Andrew. “Large distilleries can produce millions of litres of alcohol every year. They have spent years creating their brand and flavour profile. Consumers expect those brands to maintain that flavour profile. This is created by vatting hundreds of single casks to create that homogenised flavour and colour profile.
PALOMA – Caol Ila whisky
“An independent bottler, on the other hand, sources single casks from a wide range of distilleries. These casks may have exceptional and varied characteristics from that specific distillery, and are unique because no two casks mature in the same way. Variety is created by changes over decades with new master distillers, fuel source changes, malting techniques and wood policy changes.
“A lot of the larger distilleries are not set up to bottle single casks which can contain as little as 350 bottles from one Hogshead. This is where an independent bottler can source casks, sample the spirit, and choose to bottle straight away or finish it in new and different casks. Sometimes as a single malt or blending with other distilleries casks to create a unique blend.”
Why buy from an independent whisky bottler?
We get it, old habits die hard. We all have certain set ideas of what we like and where to get it. When it comes to whisky, though, curiosity is key – especially for those looking to expand their collection. That’s where independent whisky bottlers comes in.
For Goldfinch, the company aim was always to add value to the Scotch industry globally, and to become synonymous with a consistently high-quality product. Long-term, the company’s dream is to be able to distil its own spirit using only the best ingredients, and with the greenest technology.
The Kilnsman’s Dram – Caol Ila
“Independent bottlings offer consumers the chance to buy and try whisky from some of the top distilleries at a fraction of the price, especially when looking at single cask releases,” says Andrew. “At Goldfinch, we essentially offer spirit exploration and rarity in our products. One of our latest releases under “The Kilnsman’s Dram” is an 11-year-old peated single malt from Caol Ila Distillery. We finished this in a sherry Octave. This is a small cask and it provides lots of wood contact and flavour maturation in a short period of time.”
Like any rare product, time is of the essence, and keen whisky collectors should move fast if they have their eye on a certain product. “With only 95 bottles produced, it can sell out in days,” Andrew continues. “Single cask releases offer buyers genuine exclusivity but additionally, blended malt from an independent whisky bottler can offer genuinely new and fantastic products.”
Enjoying one of Scotland’s most celebrated exports
So, we get why independent whisky bottlers are of interest to whisky collectors. But why are they important to the overall whisky industry? A good place to start is Goldfinch’s logo. “In art, the Goldfinch represents prosperity, optimism, and variety – all values close to our heart,” says Andrew. “Above all else, it represents integrity, which is something the whisky industry recognises and nurtures across the whole sector.”
Far from there being any competition between independent whisky bottlers and distilleries, there’s a harmonious relationship between the two, who are driven by a shared goal to introduce whisky to new consumers, in new regions, thereby facilitating more people to share and enjoy one of Scotland’s most celebrated exports.
The benefits they bring don’t stop there, though. “Independent whisky bottlers also invest in the wider economy. We hire label designers, bottling halls, warehousing, logistics and more, to create these concentric rings of benefit through employment and investment,” says Andrew.
Experimenting with whisky
One of the luxuries of being an independent whisky bottler is the wide scope for creative license. While they don’t distil the whisky, the independents decide how to develop its flavour. This is done by choosing how long to mature the liquid for, and selecting certain cask finishes. Take Goldfinch’s new brand, PALOMA. Its beautiful design aesthetic can only be trumped by the bottle’s contents.
“This range focusses on single malt whisky finished in the rarest of sherry casks – Palo Cortado,” says Andrew. “Finishing means we sourced and purchased sherry casks from a Bodega in Spain that had previously matured Palo Cortado. We then filled that cask with our chosen whisky, and matured the spirit in it to allow a marrying of flavours. We commonly used casks that have previously held sherry but are also maturing single malt in, for example, Port, Marsala, Sauternes and rum casks.”
Paloma – Caol Ila
Sampling the spirit is of course a crucial next step. The key, according to Andrew, is to keep sampling to ensure you bottle when the relationship with the whisky, the wood and the previous contents are balanced and in harmony in terms of flavour. “Leave it too long and, for example, the sulphur notes from an ex-wine barrel can overpower a single malt and ruin it,” he says.
“Fortunately, one of our Directors, Ros, is a qualified wine and spirits expert with over 20 years’ experience and between us, we ensure the quality of every bottle of whisky Goldfinch bottles and sells.”