In the last decades, single malt Scotch whisky has gained an ever growing popularity among whisky lovers, mainly because it shows the character of a single distillery, sometimes even from a single cask. This is opposed to blends or blended malts where the master blender tries to create an specific taste by combining whiskies from different distilleries. Comparisions are made with wine, where single malts are considered the equivalent of “chateaux” wines and blends more like “vins de pays” or even table wines.
Now imagine a bottle of wine labeled “Château Fantôme – Cru bourgeois – Appellation Haut Médoc Controllée – Mis en bouteille en château”. You want to know where the chateau is situated but no trace can be found, neither in maps, telephone directories nor the internet. Such a thing would be unthinkable in the wine world because it violates the law.
In the whisky world, things are different. There are lots of bottlings on the market with fantasy names like Ben Bracken, Smokehead or even Braven of Claymore Rose, all bearing the quality label “Scotch Single Malt”. This is perfectly legal because whisky laws do not require to name distilleries on the bottle, not even for single malts. The Malt Maniacs have coined the term Bastard Malts for such whiskies because of their unknown origin.
Now what is the reason for making such a secret of the origin of a whisky? We have to make a distinction between three different types of such undisclosed drams that all exist for different reasons:
1. Cheap Supermarket Malts
Many retail chains have their own brand of single malt that is priced well at the bottom level, usually around EUR 15 to 20 per 0.7 l bottle. A typical example is Ben Bracken from Germany’s LIDL chain.
Why are they so cheap? Because these bottles are from the casks that distilleries don’t want to have their names connected to. Third or fourth refill perhaps with almost “dead” wood or casks that didn’t meet the quality standards for the regular distillery bottlings for any other reason. Usually these casks end up in the cheap bottom shelf blends after having been mixed with 90% grain whisky that is 3 years and a day old.
But some of these casks can make a bit more money if sold to the chains under the strict rule that the name of the distillery must not be mentioned under any circumstances.
The bottom line here is: There’s a reason that they’re cheap, and you get what you pay for. It’s all drinkable whisky, but don’t expect high quality at a bargain price.
2. Bastard Brands
Further up the quality scale there are some well-established brands of bastard malts, especially from the Isle of Islay, like Finlaggan, The Ileach or Smokehead. Traditionally, these are good drams for a reasonable price. Nothing earth-shattering, but good value for the money.
Usually these bottles have no age statement, so it is fair to assume that they are younger than the standard bottlings of the distillery they come from. But the quality indicates that no “trash” casks are used in the bottlings. It seems that at least some distilleries are willing to sell good casks at a younger age to generate cash flow.
By not naming the distillery, the bottlers have the option to switch between suppliers at will according to supply and demand. And the distilleries can make sure these brands are no direct competitors for them.
3. Independent Bottlers
Sometimes, independent bottlers sell whiskies of undisclosed origin. Mostly these are high quality single cask whiskies. The reasons for disclosure in these cases mostly are of a legal nature.
Many distilleries now refuse independent bottlers to use their name although they had them sold the cask years before. As a reaction to this practice, bottlers sometimes invent fantasy names that allude to the distillery name like Leapfrog or Tactical.
Independent bottlers are having harder and harder times today finding good casks because many distilleries fear to lose profit. Some have stopped selling casks to independents altogether.
Bastard malts can be found over whole quality range of single malts. Generally, quality rises with the price, so if one is careful with cheap supermarket malts, there is no reason to avoid them altogether.