Bastard Malts 2/2 – Do You Really Want to Know?

by Oliver Klimek on October 8, 2009

In my last post I wrote about the different types of the so called Bastard Malts, Scotch single malt whiskies with undisclosed origin. Now let’s take it a step further: How do we react, when whe drink a malt that we don’t know what distillery it is from?

With the cheap supermarket malts this is not much of a a problem. You get a whisky that is just about drinkable, and it’s not really important to know if it’s from Glen X or Glen Y. Of course even in this case there can be long forum discussions about who might be the culprit, but I can hardly imagine any whisky lover wanting to hunt for the original stuff be cause he liked that fantasy malt so much.

But with the bastard brands or independent bottlings, things are a bit different. These usually are good whiskies, some of the are even excellent. And so, many people will want to find out where the dram was distilled. This is more out of curiosity than everything else, because most of them will already know the standard bottlings of the distilleries that come into mind. But this burning curiosity leads to a wealth of speculations that sometimes can even turn in to good old-fashioned flame wars, especially if an Islay malt is the subject of discussion.

One person may insist “This definitiely is a Lagavulin. My local dealer told me they’re not allowed to write it on the label, but he knows it for sure”. Another one replies “Lagavulin hasn’t sold casks to indies for ages. I know that for sure because I talked to the manager last summer. I bet this is a Coal Ila” And so on ad nauseam. One can note that especially distilleries with prolific names like Lagavulin or Ardbeg are very often cited as probable provenance.

What can we learn from that?

1. Big Names Sell Better

I think it’s not a surprise that bastard malts are often connected to high profile distilleries. Spreading a little rumor here or there will make sure that some of the distillery’s splendor will also shine on the little bastard. And of course there is an awful lot of whishful thinking included on the buyer’s side. The chance to get a high class malt at half price somteimes seems to blind the view a little. Now what if it turned out that this great cheap Islay malt really “only” is a Caol Ila? I could bet that some buyers even might feel a bit tricked and disappointed.

2. There Really is not Much of a Difference

From the sometimes heated debates about what’s in the bottle there is another conclusion to be drawn that is not quite so obvious: If even experts can’t tell for sure which distillery produced a specific malt, the difference in profile is not really backed up by a difference in quality.

To stay with the Caol Ila / Lagavulin example: It is not difficult to tell a Lagavulin 16 from a Caol Ila 12 or 18. The reason for this is that these standard bottlings are vattings of carefully selected batches to ensure that the whisky gets the desired character. If batches are mixed differently or even a single cask is bottled, the “house style” or intrinsic distillery character is far more difficult to detect.

So do we really need to know what’s in the bottle? I don’t think so.

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