If you're a fan of whisky and want to really fall down the rabbit hole of drinking as a hobby rather than as simply an idle diversion, you're really missing out if you've never purchased an IB.
As we talked about last time in part one, Independent Bottlings are the products that come to be when a third party purchases a barrel of spirit from a distillery, hangs onto it for some unspecified amount of time, and then releases it at some point in the future. For this entry, let's move the discussion to a new topic: why they're awesome.
1. Quality and Transparency
Independent bottlers aren't selling their wares on the basis of branding. By this, I mean you're not going to see a slick magazine ad with handsome young men and pretty starlets throwing their heads back in a moment of exaggerated laughter with snifters of 20-year-old Auchroisk in their hands. IB's can't afford to spend the money on it, or perhaps they just don't want to. Indeed, most bottles of Signatory or Hepburn's Choice on my shelf look identical.
That is, until you begin to read the fine print. IBs are sold purely on the basis of where they come from, how they were produced, and how long they were aged. Reading over the side of a Signatory bottle, I know when a bottle was distilled, how long it was aged, what type of cask it came from, how many bottles the cask produced, and the cask number, supposing I want to track down another identical bottle.
I don't mean to be blunt here, but outfits like Signatory or Gordon & MacPhail give you this information because they're betting you're not an idiot. They assume they're selling to a sophisticated consumer who has a greater appreciation of provenance and production. And when you know how to decipher this data, it's a powerful tool in determining what you like and what you might reasonably like in the future.
For example, if you're not a fan of sherry, you know to steer clear of a first-fill sherry cask. Alternately, if you just want a touch of sherry, you might look for the words "refill butt." Most of us would interpret that as a likely set of directions given by Jennifer Lopez to her plastic surgeon once the collagen starts wearing off, but here it indicates a more subtle finishing process. That is, with less sherry left in the wood of a larger cask, there's less that can exert an influence on the flavor of the base spirit. In this regard, IBs are a great way to learn more about what you want and appreciate as a consumer.
2. Ridiculous Amounts of Choice
If you're an obsessive taster, some distilleries are really only available for purchase thanks to independent bottlers. Laphroaig, Macallan, Glenfiddich: sure, you know those guys. But do you know about Linkwood, or Glen Ord, or Benrinnes? Have you heard of Mortlach before? Thanks to IBs, we actually have a chance of tasting a lot of distilleries that would have otherwise been allocated to blends like Chivas Regal or Johnnie Walker.
Even for "big" names, the variation in casks is astounding. Thanks to IBs, you can find out what unsherried Macallan tastes like, or sample Talisker aged as young as five years. For Diageo-owned distilleries like Cragganmore or Caol Ila that already produce very good official bottlings, you have the chance to taste that same whisky without chill filtration and at a higher barrel proof, bringing out even more flavor.
In other cases, we even have the ability to try whiskies from distilleries that are dead. On my shelf is a bottle of Imperial. It wasn't an exorbitant amount of money (I think about $65 or so), but I have a chance to taste something that came from a place that's since been bulldozed. Granted, other tasters might think Imperial was bulldozed for a reason: it's a strangely musty whisky that certainly doesn't have a lot of mass appeal to it. But hey... that's all part of the joy of discovery.
One of the things I absolutely love about IBs is that they give me the best chance of seeing what a distillery's character actually is. Typically, they're not colored or filtered, so more pluses there: color can actually be used as an indicator of aging and/or cask influence. And honestly, darker isn't always better if you're looking for a particular flavor profile.
In any case, when Signatory tells me that something comes out of a refill cask, I know I've got a really good chance of discovering what a distillery's spirit tastes like, straight-up, and with no bullshit or artifice. Some of my absolute favorite IBs have been whiskies aged for more than 18 years in casks filled up for the third time (or more). Think of it as the scotch equivalent of slow cooking beef brisket in a crock pot.
No purer contrast exists in this regard than between my independent bottlings of Mortlach and the official release of the Mortlach "Rare Old." Simply put, the "Rare Old" doesn't taste like Mortlach. The IBs are prized by drinkers for a "meaty" quality. Sadly, when Mortlach made the (unsuccessful) jump to chase the stupid gobs of money people hurl at Macallan, it lost a lot of its identity. I think it's cool that we have the option to taste the whisky without the lavish production and design-by-committee approach if we so choose.
And here's the best thing: IBs don't cost more. I just punched in the price of Highland Park 25 at my local liquor store. About $700 for a bottle at 45.7% ABV. Right at this moment, Signatory has a bottle of Highland Park, also aged for a quarter century, but proofed at 51% ABV and with a price of $255.
I mean, consider that for a moment. You're paying about a third of the price for an identically-aged product at a 10% higher alcohol content (meaning you can dilute it to your own preferences, rather than those of Highland Park's). Granted, the product may not be as manicured as the HP25, which has been blended from several casks at the distillery to ensure a more consistent profile from bottle to bottle, but if you want to know what HP tastes like at that age, you needn't shell out gonzo bucks to answer that question.
So: are IBs for you?
If you're willing to roll the dice and if you're a student of distilled spirits, then I would say that they're absolutely for you. There are quite a few sophisticates I've met on the internet that seem to only drink IBs because of the greater variety, value, and honesty of the product they end up with. I'm certainly not in that camp, but I understand their perspective.
Now, after all of that, I think the most natural place to go is this: much as I like IBs and look forward to what they have to offer, there are several reasons why I'm not going to talk about them here.