You may think you know single-malt Scotch -- it's Glenlivet and Macallan and Laphroaig and all that. Maybe you're even into some obscure ones: Dalwhinnie, Edradour, Allt-a-Bhainne, Bruichladdich.
What makes them single malts is that they're unblended whiskies, products of single distilleries. But if all you know are the versions bottled by the distilleries themselves, you know only part of the story. There's an alternate universe of Scotch: the independent bottlers. They sell whisky from the same distillers, but in limited editions that have distinctive flavors of their own.
As it happens, the largest selection of single-malt Scotches in the country is here in Southern California -- in an obscure corner of Van Nuys. Wine and Liquor Depot has two long aisles of single malts, a dizzying panorama of 600 or more bottlings, and more than two-thirds of them bottled by independents.
Though a number of bottles are in the $30 to $40 price range, many are more than $100 and the rarest are very pricey. "The other day a guy came in and bought up all my Gordon & MacPhail Glen Grants, from here to here," says Wine and Liquor Depot owner Howard Meister, indicating about 16 inches of shelf space. "It was a $4,500 sale."
Only perhaps 10% of all single malt is bottled as single malt in the first place; the rest is sold off to flavor blended Scotch. And the independent bottlers handle only a fraction of that percentage. But it's the fraction that excites Scotch fanatics.
"There's such variety," says single-malt enthusiast Martin Kari of Thousand Oaks. "The independents are iconoclasts. They aren't trying to maintain a standard flavor profile. They can give you a completely different impression of the character of the whisky."
Scotch reflects its physical origins much as wine does. Los Angeles lawyer David Kenney, who has compiled a voluminous tasting book listing every malt he's learned of, most of them independent bottlings, recalls the first time he let a really old single malt linger in his mouth: "I could taste everything that went into it. I could taste the peat, the stones, the air -- I had this vision of a stag running through the highlands; the sense of rain, fog, years."
But even when an independent bottling and an "official" bottling are the same age, one may highlight a honeyed, grassy quality while the other puts forward the bracing herbal flavor of the water the distillery uses, or the smokiness of its roasted barley, or the saltwater tang of the air, if the distillery is near the sea, or even more mysterious flavors.
A taste all their own
Why do the independent bottlings taste different from the distilleries' own bottlings? The independents can choose to age the whisky their own way. Some buy casks (all Scotches are aged in oak, usually used Sherry casks) as soon as the distillery fills them and age them in their own warehouses. Others let the casks stay at the distillery to mellow, but perhaps for a longer time than the rest of the distillery's output. And some bottlers specialize in bottling rare old casks, of which a surprising number show up here and there.
Another difference is that most independents omit the usual step of "chill filtering," in which whisky is refrigerated to near freezing to remove elements that would make the whisky cloudy if you put ice in your drink. Unfortunately, these elements have flavors of their own. Also, many independents bottle straight from the cask, at proofs up to 130, rather than adding water to reduce the alcohol level to the standard 80 or 86 proof.
But what makes the independents unique is that they bottle from single casks, rather than blending several casks to maintain a consistent house style, the way distilleries do. As a result, they bring out specific aspects of the whisky in each particular cask. There can be real surprises. "Every once in a while," says Kari, "even what we generally consider a bland distillery can produce a single cask that is outrageously good."
In the 19th century, when single malt was the only kind of Scotch there was, distillers did not bottle their whisky (even today, very few distilleries have their own bottling facilities). They sold casks to markets or liquor stores in Scotland, which aged and bottled the whisky as they saw fit. These were the original independent bottlers.
Later in the century, blended Scotch was invented for the tastes of the English public, which wasn't up to the robust flavor of single malt. By the 1920s, it had taken the form we know today: blended with bland grain whisky, chill-filtered, colored brown with caramel (Scotch is naturally straw yellow), reduced to 80 proof and given a brand name such as Johnny Walker or Cutty Sark.
In the years following World War II, blended Scotch conquered the world. Nearly all single malt was bought by the blenders. Even in Scotland, most independent single-malt bottlers had gone out of business by 1950.