In the rarefied world of Scotch whisky, one subcategory often gets overlooked: independently bottled whiskies, or IBs. These whiskies are produced by Scottish distilleries, but rather than being released under the distillery’s own name, they’re sold to third-party bottlers. The independent bottlers release them under a separate label, usually identified by distillery of origin and age or vintage. IBs fill a unique niche, and their role is expanding both on-premise and off-premise. Traditionally the province of whisky connoisseurs, they’re now finding new audiences as distillery bottlings become rarer, younger and more expensive.
The Retail Dynamic
Retailers find that IBs provide a point of differentiation and attract high-spending whisky buffs. “IBs enable us to expand our selection and offer whiskies from small producers or even closed distilleries,” says Pat McCarthy, whiskey ambassador at Bayway World of Liquor in Elizabeth, New Jersey. About 18 percent of the store’s single malt selection is comprised of IBs, typically retailing between $60 and $100 a 750-ml. bottle. McCarthy likes to hand-sell IBs to build relationships with customers. “It gives me an opportunity to showcase the savings these whiskies can offer,” he explains, adding that he merchandises IBs alongside a distillery’s own bottling. “You make a customer for life when they find out you’re steering them toward a great value.”
At Park Avenue Liquor in New York City, whisky buyer Marlon Paltoo also displays IBs next to distillery bottlings. “It gets the attention of consumers who aren’t familiar with certain labels,” he says. “It helps when we’re explaining the difference between independent and distillery bottlings.” Paltoo notes that most customers who seek out IBs are Scotch connoisseurs, and Park Avenue often purchases the entire bottling run of a single cask as a store exclusive. A recent example was an 18-year-old Dalmore ex-Bourbon cask bottled by Chieftain’s ($155 a 750-ml. bottle).
David Driscoll, spirits buyer for the three-unit California retailer K&L Wine Merchants, also embraces the role filled by independent bottlers. “People want whiskies that are old, unique and delicious,” he says. “Often, the only way to obtain them is through independent bottlers.” The disappearance of age statements and tightening inventory for official bottlings have amplified demand for IB Scotch. “Customers are a little more suspicious of the marketing,” Driscoll says. “Having an IB Scotch with an age statement at cask strength that includes all the information on the label means a lot more in today’s market than it did three or four years ago.”
At K&L’s San Francisco store, Driscoll merchandises IBs separately, with store exclusives on a special shelf. The company’s Los Angeles store, meanwhile, puts IBs next to the distillery bottlings. K&L has a wide selection of exclusive offerings from bottlers like Signatory, Hepburn’s Choice and Hunter Laing. “They’re introducing new labels just for us, and those tend to sell better than the more established IBs,” Driscoll says. Top recent selections include the non-exclusive Chieftain’s 1997 Mortlach Single Barrel PX Finish 18-year-old ($99.99 a 750-ml. bottle) and the exclusive Signatory 1996 Glenlivet Cask Strength Single Sherry Butt ($89.99) and Hepburn’s Choice 1997 Clynelish Single Barrel Cask Strength ($129.99).
A single cask of Scotch provides roughly 300 to 500 bottles of whisky, which means that SKUs rotate quickly. This can frustrate buyers looking to make repeat purchases, but the once-in-a-lifetime nature of single casks can also drive consumer appeal. “Customers don’t want to miss out,” Driscoll says. “Some little treasure might come in at any time.”
While IBs tend to skew toward retail sales, on-premise operators say the category offers additional choices for patrons put off by skyrocketing single malt prices. “There’s an element of sticker shock with Scotch these days,” says Mike Raymond, co-owner of Reserve 101 in Houston. The bar recently started offering IBs for the first time, partly to entice consumers who might otherwise be priced out of the Scotch category. “We need to hit price points that make sense, and if we can get a 30-year-old IB whisky that costs less than the distillery’s version, that’s a win,” Raymond explains. Among the IBs that Reserve 101 currently stocks are Gordon & MacPhail’s 2001 Caol Ila Hermitage Wood Finish ($12 a 1.5-ounce pour) and Bladnoch 21-year-old ($30).
Jack Rose Dining Saloon in Washington, D.C., stocks around 1,000 IBs, which owner and whiskey curator Bill Thomas says might be the largest public collection in the country. The category accounts for nearly half of Scotch whisky sales, excluding the most common drams. “Independent bottlers give you access to great casks,” Thomas says. “Average consumers, not just collectors, can try a flight of Rosebanks or Port Ellens here.” Jack Rose’s collection ranges widely in price, with the sweet spot around $20 an ounce. “At that price, you can sell them all day long,” Thomas notes. “We don’t price according to today’s market. If we get a good value, we’ll pass that savings on to the consumer.”
Jack Rose is one of the few bars in the country to carry offerings from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society. Other top brands include Gordon & MacPhail, Wm Cadenhead, the Creative Whisky Co. and Single Cask Nation. Popular recent selections include the 58.5-percent abv Blackadder Bowmore Jack Rose Bottling Cask Strength 13-year-old ($16 a 1-ounce pour) and the 43-percent abv Gordon & MacPhail Glenlivet George & J.G. Smith’s 36-year-old ($18). In addition, Jack Rose offers a wide selection of IBs from closed distilleries, like the 58.8-percent abv Wm Cadenhead Millburn Cask Strength 13-year-old ($26). “Any Port Ellen, Rosebank or Brora will sell out,” Thomas says, adding that he also seeks out less well-known distilleries like Miltonduff and Ladyburn. “These old distilleries had some really good bottlings, even if they were only around for a few years.”
Retailers and consumers are becoming more familiar with IBs thanks to the recent proliferation of single barrel American whiskies, and retailers who frequently buy Bourbon barrels for their private labels are often more receptive to purchasing a single cask of IB Scotch. Jack Rose’s Thomas adds that the Bourbon craze has made it easier to acquire top-notch Scotch. “Other than the really high end, the Scotch market has loosened up,” he says. “I’m purchasing fantastic IBs at a really fair price.”
Even the limited quantities of IBs seem large compared to allocations of cult Bourbon. “‘Small allocation’ is a relative term,” says K&L’s Driscoll. “My last allocation for Michter’s 10-year-old and 20-year-old Bourbon was six bottles and two bottles, respectively.” As a result, IBs are a key contributor to the bottom line. “Being able to get 500 bottles from a single cask saves us,” Driscoll says. “Without IBs, we’d be in a tough position to provide customers with unique whisky year-round.” Pricing dynamics also favor the category. “Before, distillery brands were less expensive than the IBs,” he says. “Now it’s the opposite, and that’s made everything ten times easier. The price almost sells it for you.”
Thomas of Jack Rose embraces the increased awareness. “Independent bottlers are as important as any distillery,” he says. “They’ve given me access to the most amazing casks from the past 50 years. That’s worth its weight in gold.”