Whisky Advocate

Are there independent bottler “house styles”?

December 16th, 2008

We have many independent bottlers of Scotch whiskies, from the primary ones that have been around for a long time (Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenhead’s, Signatory) to the ones that followed in their footsteps. Some of the Indie-bottled whiskies have been great, while others not so.

But what about a house style? Wouldn’t it be easier to embrace (trust) a given independent bottler if you knew that, when you bought a bottle from them, there would be some consistencies you could count on?

I didn’t really think about it that much until I began tasting the Mackillop’s Choice whiskies the first few years they were released. I noticed a consistency–one of balance of flavors rather than eccentricity. No excessive sherry. No excessive oak. Even the usually aggressive Islay whiskies were balanced and toned down.

You might like this or you might not. But, I did see a pattern being established–one that you could count on if you were considering buying a Mackillop’s Choice whisky. Lorne Mackillop tells me it’s his wine background that aids him in his selection process.

So, what do you think? Do you see a house style from independent bottlers? If so, who? What’s the style? And do you like it?

11 Responses to “Are there independent bottler “house styles”?”

  1. joe hyman says:

    John,

    I find the same sort of thing with the Blackadder bottlings: A certain richness (umami?), it’s hard to put a finger on it.

  2. DavidG says:

    The obvious house style is the Murray McDavid wine finished whiskey.
    Other than that, I have found that Blackadder is consistently bolder and more exaggerated than the the distillery house style. Their sherried Longmorn, Glen Grant or Banff are very, very sherried, while the bourbon casked Glencadam or Linlithgow are very dry – much drier than the distillery Glencadam or the Old Malt Cask, Mission series or Duncan Taylor version of St Magdeline/Linlithgow.
    I have found that Signatory’s young Islays are consistently bright, racy, powerful and oddly taste more balanced than those bottled in their upper teens (which could/should be the sweet spot for Islays – i.e the distillery version on Lagavulin [16], Laapgroig [15], Ardbeg [17] etc.]
    Another obvious one; I believe all Connoisseur’s choice are in ex-bourbon casks.

  3. Tim F says:

    DavidG, not all Connoisseur’s Choice bottlings are ex-bourbon – there have been many refill sherry bottlings as well.

  4. Red Arremer says:

    The marketing strategy behind most independent bottling ranges is to make a profit bottling to bottling on products that distilleries cannot economically include in their own bottling ranges. This strategy is reflected by Gordon & Macphail’s Connoisseur’s Choice range, which is made up of “unusual whiskies,” Signatory’s unchillfiltered range, which is made up of whiskies that are not chill filtered, the Silent Stills range, which consists exclusively of whiskies from closed distilleries, and any number of independent bottling ranges, which provide cask strength or extra aged versions of commonly available whiskies.

    The marketing strategy behind independent bottling ranges that maintain a “house style,” on the other hand, is similar to the strategy used by distilleries developing their own bottling ranges. They try to develop and secure a fixed market share. This is exactly what is going on with Murray McDavid’s wined finished range and Blackadders Raw Cask range.

    Both marketing strategies often rely on the presence of two market conditions:1) consumer interest in a distillery’s whisky based on that distilleries own advertising or established reputation and 2) that the products from that distillery, currently on the market, do not fully satisfy this interest. The fundamental difference between strategies obviously lies in the fact that one invests in flexibility while the other invests in consistency.

    The more fexlible non-”house style” independent bottling range is safer and cheaper to establish and maintain. Consumer loyalty is less of an issue. The failure of a single bottling is an easily survivable loss. The success of a single bottling can, in many cases, be quickly followed up on with similar releases. Any good deal that presents itself can quickly be snapped up regardless of what the company has been selling. If the brand is successful, its multiplicity of styles may become a selling point as its products are promoted by word of mouth by a diverse group of consumers with different tastes. Bottlings, which consumers dislike are not as deleterious to consumer interest in the range when the consumer is aware that the range varies tremendously.

    The more consistent “house style” independent bottling range must be established thoughtfully and must be maintainable. It will benefit greatly from doing some advertising for itself. If successful it will generate consumer loyalty. This is it’s great asset. However, those consumers who dislike one of it’s bottlings will be less likely to give its other bottlings a chance. A danger for successful “house style” independent bottling ranges is that the distileries, whose whiskies they rely on, can imitate their products and compete with them. If this happens, the distillery will tend to be at an advantage because it has access to a greater range of it’s own products. Changes in the “house style” independent bottling range will have to be more carefully meditated on. Good deals will take more ingenuity to incorporate.

    As my notes show, I view “house style” independent bottling ranges as pretty risky. That said I wish that more independent bottlers would give it a shot. I’m priviliged to live near Federal Wine and Spirits (Boston, MA) where Joe Howell brings in the only Blackadder available in this country. In my opinion, they put out some of the best bottles around and I would welcome more of the kind of ambission and enthusiasm that they embody in other independent bottlers.

  5. Interesting topic–I’d never considered it before–and interesting comment, Red. (Joe’s my whisky guru, too.) Making a niche for yourself and standing out from the crowd are not easy things to do. It’s all too easy to resort to gimmickry, and I have to say that I’m turned off by Blackadder’s gimmick of adding bits of barrel char to every Raw Cask bottle (yes, they put the stuff in purposely). They seem to want us to think that they are the one bottler who simply pour the stuff straight out of the cask without filtering of any kind. I guess it gets attention. As for DavidG’s comment that they look for bolder examples of the make, I can attest to that insofar as the one Blackadder I’ve had, the Old Man of Hoy bottling, presumably Highland Park. I found it very difficult to drink, and ended up blending it with the disappointingly bland HP16. I have a Raw Cask Clynelish waiting to be opened–guess I’ll do it soon–and it might be Blackadder’s last chance to make a good impression on me, which just goes to show the tough row IB’s have to hoe. Joe has been very bullish on Blackadder, and I respect his opinion, but when all is said and done you have to decide for yourself, don’t you?

    I’m looking forward to other comments on IB house style–understanding a bottler’s underlying philosophy could very well influence future purchasing decisions. As I say, it’s never really occurred to me before.

  6. B.J. Reed says:

    I for one do not go to independents for “home brand” consistency but for the unusual and the extreme in many cases. That does not mean low quality but “different”

    If I want the kind of consistency you are describing John I much prefer to purchase distillery bottlings because that is what I expect – I also tend toward “single cask” independent bottlings (e.g. SMWS) because I know what I get will be unique and different from most distillery bottlings.

    To taste a G&M 30 YO Old Pultney is to taste something totally outside the distillery range – Sometimes it works wonderfully well, other times not to my liking but I can’t say it wasn’t different…

  7. Red Arremer says:

    I sympathize with your position about Blackadder, Tattie, but don’t drop them until you try their 1990 Longmorn 16 Raw Cask. Last time I checked, Joe had an open bottle.

  8. Honesto Nunez says:

    I am a big fan of Mackillops and I agree with you 100%. Two of my favorites are the Longmorn 1966 and the Inverleven 1989.

    I have to say though that his selection of Highland malt are so much better than his selection of Islay malts. Like you said his Islay is toned down. I prefer my Islay very bold and robust not unless it is the Laphroaig 30 yo.

    As for “house style”, yes it does exist to a point. But one has to remember that the strong point of independent bottling is to bring out distillery expressions totally different from the distillery bottling. Such is the case with SMWS. You could always be sure that what you’ll get is very different from the distillery version.

  9. Ulle says:

    Wether or not an independent bottler seeks a “house style” or an “unusual style”, as long as ist is one person selecting the casks, this person will do so on the basis of personal taste, to a certain extend at least. So does Signatorys Mr. Symington as far as I have heard. Small bottlers in a one person business will do so anyway.

    My impression is that this personal taste will shine through in many bottlings. Signatory seems to have a more fresh style with citric notes for example, while Jack Wiebers bottlings are often very oaky, dry and “wood-fruity” even when they are young. Both bottlers provide a wide range of very different whiskys though. And still the “house style” (wether on purpose or not) serves me as a rough guideline to guess how the independet bottling might differ from the general profile of the distillery. That is why I don’t think that seeking to be different from the distillery profile contradicts the presence of an own profile of the independent bottler.

    I would really be interested in learning more about those “IB profiles”. Do you share my opinion on signatory and Jack Wiebers? Do you have similar experience with other bottlers? I would describe Murray McDavids bottlings as softer sweeter and more winey, easy to go in comparison to the OBs. But I hardly have any experience with other bottlers. Does Cadehead have a “house style”?

  10. John Hansell says:

    Ulle, I am not aware of Cadenhead’s having a “house style”. But the pulled their whiskies from the U.S. a few years back and haven’t tasted many of them since that time to see if they changed their philosophy or not.

  11. Todd says:

    I definitely agree that the Mackillop whiskies have a house style, and it is not surprising the hear that the criteria for choosing these is driven by experience with wine. Unfortunately, many of the Mackillops, like G&Ms, are diluted down to 40 or 43%. That being said, I tend to enjoy the big character of the Blackadder bottlings, cask strength Signatories, and Old Malt Cask (although that Mackillops 1989 Inverleven rocks!). Among these, Old Malt Cask appears to have the highest quality control. I’ve very rarely tasted a crappy OMC. Unfortunately, they are harder and harder to find in the US. There was an IB called Glenhaven that put out an awesome set of bottling in mid-90s, then they disappeared. The Glenhaven house style was “Wow, this is great!”.

    I do not think that there is a house style for Cadenhead. I have the impression that they bottle just about anything that they can get their hands on. Want to try a Talisker with strong overtones of rotting pumpkin and acetone? Cadenhead bottled such a beast. Some of the best and absolute worst expressions I’ve tasted of just about any given distillery are from Cadenhead – they are hit or miss based on my experience.

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