Everyone who has commited serious time to the enjoyment of whisky will know that there is an enormous variety of different bottlings. Not only is there a multitude of distilleries and brands of blended whisky with many different age statements, cask finishes and whatnots. There is also a large bandwidth of bottling strengths ranging from the “barely legal” ABV of 40% to cask strength releases.
For many afficionados, the ultimate way of enjoying their whisky is from single cask bottlings. These are quite uncommon as official distillery bottlings and therefore can be hideously expensive. But a lot of independent bottlers are specialized in single cask releases and offer them for affordable prices.
What Makes Single Casks Special?
The reason why single cask bottlings are so popular is that they allow you to taste whisky in its purest form. From the still right into the cask; from the cask right into the bottle. No vatting, no dilution, no colouring and only coarse filtration of particles from the cask cater for a whisky experience of utmost authenticity.
Does a Single Cask Provide the Best Possible Whisky?
But we have to keep in mind that no two casks are alike, even if they are from the same source and are stored next to each other in the same warehouse. And it would be naive to believe that all casks are of excellent quality.
True, some casks are really exceptional and can give you a magnificent malt of the highest quality. But there are also casks of mediocre or even bad quality that fail to impart interesting flavours on their contents.
In any given set of casks you are bound to find a quality range from good to bad. And those outstanding casks are just as probable as true duds.
So Only the Best Casks are Bottled?
For a distillery bottling this question can safely be answerd with yes (unless they want to trick you). They have the full choice from their stocks and are free to pick the best casks should they decide to release a single cask bottling. After all they want to show off the full potential of the distillery by doing this. This is also at least part of the reason why distillery single cask bottlings are generally quite expensive.
But what about independent bottlers? Only very few of them – like Gordon & MacPhail or Douglas Laing – have significant own stocks that usually allow them to make a decent selection. But they still have the problem of “getting rid” of their worse casks. The common way to do this is to release bastard malts or vattings like “Big Peat” or use them for their own blends.
The large number other independents are usually called armchair bottlers – because they have no significant stocks to speak of and do most of their business from their desk. Most of those want to make you believe that they can pick the best casks from the distillery warehouses to offer them to you. But this is pure marketing drivel.
Apart from some rare lucky occasions that might happen every now and then, the most common way independent bottlers get their whisky is from brokers and blend producers that sell batches of overstock casks. And usually these casks are sold blind without any chance of picking raisins. The up side of this procedure is of course a good price.
Of course these batches can include a few excellent casks, most of the others will be of fair to good quality, but there will always be those duds as well. And when you don’t have the stock to play vatting wizard you have to bottle these casks anyway. Ever had a bad independent bottling? This is why.
If you compare ratings for single cask and standard bottlings of a given distillery, you won’t find huge differences. For every execptional single cask you will also find a mediocre one. The vatting process for standard bottlings may sacrifice some of the top notch potential but it also eliminates the risks of truly bad casks.
Please note that this article is not supposed to be advocacy agains single cask bottlings at all. But for me the true value of single casks is not an imaginary increase in quality but a very real increase in variety.
Because all casks are different, enjoying single cask whisky will never become boring because every bottling will taste different.