Looking for something out-of-the-ordinary to give a whisky lover but don’t want to spend a bomb? The answer may lie with one of the burgeoning number of independent bottlers.

Independent bottlers don’t distil whisky themselves – instead, they sniff out interesting and unusual casks from established distilleries’ stocks. Independent bottlings tend to be limited to one or two casks, or just a few hundred bottles – so they are, by their nature, limited edition. And they tend to be outliers, stylistically – so you get to taste a side to a distillery you might not have tasted before.

The whisky selection at Dram Bar in London
The whisky selection at Dram Bar in London © Jason Fisk

More than half the whiskies at Soho’s new neon-lit whisky bar Dram are independent bottlings – a response, says owner Martyn Simpson, to changing tastes. “A lot of customers come in looking for something fun and a bit different; young distilleries, single cask bottlings, unusual finishes. And that is where independent bottlers come in. A classic malt like Ardbeg 10yo, say, is blended from hundreds of casks so it tastes the same from year to year. But if you buy four independent bottlings of Ardbeg, all of them will taste a bit different. You’re getting something genuinely unique, but often without the price tag of a big brand.”

Simpson recommends Morrison Distillers, a family-owned bottler (and soon-to-be-distiller) in Perthshire. “It was founded by a member of the Morrison Bowmore whisky dynasty, so it’s got real pedigree. Their Mac-Talla range – which is all Islay whiskies – features some phenomenal liquid. The Càrn Mòr label also has lots of excellent whiskies from all over Scotland in the £40 to £80 range.” His pick for Christmas is the Morrison Distillers Teaninich 2013 9yo Càrn Mòr European oak – “it’s like a very rich figgy dessert”. Taste it at Dram or buy it from its on-site bottle shop (£59.95) or online at topwhiskies.com (£55.95).

Mac-Talla Islay Single Malt Whiskies, from left: Terra, £45.94, Mara, £55.92, and Strata, £72.44, masterofmalt.com
Mac-Talla Islay Single Malt Whiskies, from left: Terra, £45.94, Mara, £55.92, and Strata, £72.44, masterofmalt.com

Billy Abbott, author of The Philosophy of Whisky and expert at The Whisky Exchange, recommends husband-and-wife team Watt Whisky: “Mark and Kate have two of the best palates in the industry.” Around the £60 mark he suggests Watt Whisky’s Dalmunach 6yo. “Dalmunach is a very new distillery with not many releases. It’s matured in an Amontillado cask, also not particularly common. Excellent whisky that you can’t really find elsewhere and has depth beyond its years.” He also recommends the bottlings by Thompson Bros – a filial outfit in the Highlands. The Thompson Bros 25yo Glenrothes – bottled exclusively for The Whisky Exchange (thewhiskyexchange.com, £215) – was one of the highlights of this year’s Whisky Show.

Thompson Bros Glenrothes 1997, £215, thewhiskyexchange.com

Linkwood 10yo 2013 from the Very Cloudy range, €55, La Maison du Whisky

Indie bottlings are a speciality of drinks retailer La Maison du Whisky, which has stores and whisky bars in Paris and Singapore. “I think independent bottlings are particularly popular in France partly because we come from a wine culture,” says director of retail and communication Célia Ghesquière. “Like cavistes, we are always looking for the new production of the year.” 

La Maison du Whisky’s independent bottlings range from entry-level selections to ultra-rare collaborations with independent bottlers Gordon & MacPhail. A smart buy for under €60 would be the single cask Linkwood 10yo 2013 from the Very Cloudy range (so called because it’s bottled un-chill-filtered – ie, au naturel – for maximum texture and taste, so goes hazy when you add water). It has the juicy Linkwood apple and pear notes, with bold, rich creaminess.

Port of Leith Table Whisky, £35, leithexport.com
Port of Leith Table Whisky, £35, leithexport.com © Aw Aye Media. Photograph by Sam Christie

Indie bottlers help shine a light on lesser-known distilleries and also lesser-seen styles like grain whisky, says OurWhisky Foundation founder Becky Paskin. “Grain whisky is a key component of blended Scotch but it’s rarely bottled in its own right,” she says. “But Port of Leith’s new Table Whisky is proof of how exceptionally delicious it can be – silky, rich and unctuous, brimming with notes of caramel fudge, vanilla and baking spices. And at £35 (leithexport.com) it’s an absolute bargain.”

Bramble Whisky Co #6 Single Cask Strathclyde, £95, mothershipscotland.com
Bramble Whisky Co #6 Single Cask Strathclyde, £95, mothershipscotland.com

A growing number of bars are turning indie bottler, too. Edinburgh’s much-loved Bramble Bar bottles whisky under its own Bramble Whisky Co label – recent releases include a single-cask grain whisky from Glasgow’s Strathclyde distillery and an eye-catching Tamdhu (£74.50, mothershipscotland.com). “We are seeing massive demand and it seems to be ever-growing,” says owner Mike Aikman. The fascination is that “every single cask is one of a kind”. 

That Boutique-y Whisky Company may have labels that look cartoonish but its bottlings from distillers including The Macallan, Port Ellen and Springbank are much sought-after. “We take the selection of the liquid very seriously but inject some wit and whimsy into all the stuff that goes around it,” says head of whisky Sam Simmons. “Each illustrated label is like a movie poster that tells you a bit of a story. In Japan, where they’re really popular, they’re known as the ‘Manga whiskies’.” Prices start at £32.95 for a Boutique-y World Whisky Blend and run into the thousands for a malt from the silent Japanese distillery Karuizawa.

The Heart Cut Stauning Distillery, £68.50
The Heart Cut Stauning Distillery, £68.50

Look out also for The Heart Cut – a stylish new indie bottler that’s going big on New World whiskies. The company debuted with a single-cask, heather-smoked single malt (£68.50) from Denmark’s excellent Stauning Distillery – finished in a madeira cask, it’s all sticky toffee pudding and sweet, smoky cherries. Limited to just 371 bottles, it’s sure to blow their Christmas socks off. 


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