The future of independent bottlers has been a topic of debate for a while. On one hand there are the reports that distilleries and conglomerates have been trying to keep their whisky under their own control as much as possible, on the other hand we see more and more small independent ‘armchair’ bottlers entering the whisky trade.
I have done some number crunching with the bottle data in the Whisky Monitor to see if there is a noticeable trend how independent bottlings do for a specific distillery. I have recorded the number of independent bottlings, the number of independent bottlers and the bottling year of the youngest entry. Of course this is not a complete catagogue of bottlings, but the amount of data still allows to draw conclusions.
It turns out that there are independent bottlings for virtually all 124 working and closed Scottish malt whisky distilleries present in the Whisky Monitor. But when looking a bit closer, things do not look quite as bright.
I grouped the distilleries into six categories representing different ‘health’ states.
- Healthy – 17
- Weak – 19
- Endangered – 44
- Hopeless – 17
- Running out – 23
- Gone – 4
Currently there are 17 distilleries of which there has been a steady and substantial flow of independent bottlings. Caol Ila is the undisputed leader, Highland Park, Bowmore and Laphroaig are behind with a noticeable gap. It is interesting to note that three of the top four and four of the top ten distilleries are located on Islay.
These 19 distilleries also constantly supply us with independent bottlings, but on a significantly lower scale. It is interesting to note that the closed distilleries Imperial, Banff, Littlemill and Glen Keith can still supply a steady trickle of bottlings without visible sign of diminuishing stock.
This is the category that reflects the growing industry trend of sealing the warehouses. Even though the first of these 44 distilleries boast rather impressive figures, they share the fate of a substantial decrease in independent bottling activity in the last few years. The most prominent example is Ardbeg which has enjoyed an immense popularity among independent bottlers until the first half of the 2000s. Since then bottlings have become less and less, 2011 lists only new 6 entries. The same has been happening with Springbank. The Strathisla data includes a significant number of semi-official Gordon & MacPhail bottlings. Other than that, not many casks are bottled by others anymore.
4 . Hopeless
17 distilleries have sealed their warehouses so tightly that hardly any cask manages to find its way onto the open market. It is not impossible that a stray cask may show up here or there, but independent bottlings from these distilleires are a rare breed. Edradour is a bit of a special case since Signatory have issued quite a number of bottlings. But as they own the distillery now, it does not make any difference.
5. Running Out
23 mostly closed distilleries display visibly decreasing stock in the amount of their recent independent bottlings. The staggering number of 337 bottlings of Port Ellen proves that this whisky has not been particularly rare. But because of the high demand induced by the constantly high quality of this malt, stocks seem to be approaching an end. The Whisky Monitor only lists 8 new entries for 2011 bottlings. I have included Glenglassaugh here because if its shrinking old stock. It is yet unclear how things will look with the new production.
You can never rule out that another cask of one of these 4 malts turn up, but this would be a major surprise.
There will probably be always a place for independent bottlers on the whisky market. In a certain sense they are the by-product of the unique structure of the Scotch whisky business with independent blenders having to source casks from distilleries.
I am aware that the classification as ‘endangered’ is subjective, you may agree with my assessment or not. And it does not necessarily mean that a distillery listed there will be lost for independent bottlings in the future. But the bulk of independent bottlings today is concentrated on rather few distilleries, and it is unlikely that this will change in the future. For bottlers without significant own stock it will be their talent in sourcing casks that will make or break their business.