Scotch whisky distilleries and independent (“indy”) bottlers have had a long history of working together, with some even crossing the line to purchase and/or build their own distilleries, such as Gordon & MacPhail, who bought Benromach Distillery back in 1993 and Adelphi, who built Ardnamurchan Distillery in 2014.
Independent bottlers play an important role within the industry by increasing the sheer diversity of offer with more releases and innovative bottlings. One of these is Dràm Mòr Group, a family Scotch single cask whisky bottler headed by Kenny and Viktorija Macdonald. I have known them both from working in the industry but also, as I had recently started attending The Mòr Whisky Club organised by them in Glasgow’s West End.
Kenny (and Viktorija) were kind enough to open up and share on what the experience to start your own independent bottler is like, in his own words….
“So, the question that was asked of me was how would someone go about becoming an independent bottler?
The first thing you would need to do is pour yourself a large dram, lock yourself in a darkened room and talk yourself out of such an idea!
Only joking (to a degree) although, the one thing that you are going to find out very quickly is that the amount of mistakes and wrong turns that you can make seem almost endless and every single one of these has a price tag attached to it. So the faster you learn, the less broke you are going to be by the end of the day, but be aware, there are always flies looking to dive head long into the ointment, so never think that you have the whole process figured out.
Well, if its such a pain then why on earth am I doing it I hear you ask?
Although there are many issues that need dealt with on a daily basis the feeling you get when you stand holding bottle number 1 of your first run is so heartwarming that it all seems worth it.
This of course is something that you wouldn’t ever want to tackle on your own. There is just way too much to do so I am eternally grateful for my dedicated workforce. She’s called Viktorija and she has the dubious honour of being my long suffering wife. It has to be said that she is absolutely the brains of the operation.
I am perhaps not the most patient of individuals when stuck in front of a computer screen for any length of time. I am much more a hands on, face to face type person however the amount of legislative red tape that you need to negotiate your way through as an Indy Bottler can make certainly my head swim.
Not only must every “t” be crossed and “i” dotted but you really need to know exactly what goes where in order for the business to run smoothly as well as having a firm understanding of the legislative requirements that you must stick rigidly to.
Viktorija makes this look easy and balances this work with endless hours looking for and contacting potential distributors across the globe to find just the right fit for us.
Basically without her, I’m just the “jazz hands” guy with nobody to play with, but together we make a formidable team.
That is in fact how this whole journey started, with Viktorija opening up new markets for independent Scottish distillers of whisky and gin and my good self working as a freelance Brand Ambassador. The vast majority of my work coming from Ian MacLeod Distillers (IMD), looking after Glengoyne, Tamdhu and Smokehead. I’ve even dipped across to the “dark side” with a little bit of work on Edinburgh Gin.
As well as IMD, I have been luck enough to represent Wemyss Malts, Paul John Distillers and as I write I should have had my first job for Loch Lomond Group under my belt had a wee virus not scuppered those plans!
With the combined experience that we had, we felt well equipped to take the next step and start to bottle for ourselves. There are a good few prerequisites that you will need to start such an undertaking.
Step one – You really need to know your whisky!
Obviously I hear you say, but that’s only the beginning.
It isn’t just the liquid itself or the process of its production that is essential but knowing the shape of the market place into which it is sold.
What trends are running through the industry and what are the expectations of your consumer?
Whisky is a much more diverse drink than it has been in years gone by, when it was only really enjoyed by men of a certain age.
Our National drink today is as likely to be found in the glass of a young woman in her 20’s as it is to be in the hands of a man in his 60’s and this broadening of the demographic of whisky drinkers has seen an exponential boom in the popularity of what we produce.
Step two – Know the value of the spirit
If you are incredibly lucky, you may come across a distiller who is still happy to sell you a cask or two directly from their distillery, however this is something which is becoming rarer and rarer as the growth in popularity continues.This boom in demand brings a strain on stock levels which are the life blood of every distillery.
If we were to go back 10-15 years, just about every distillery would happily sell casks to private owners either for bottling or for the prestige of being a cask owner. However in today’s world, that new make spirit, never mind the matured whisky stock, is just too valuable to trade away.
This leaves the Independent Bottler in a difficult position of where to obtain casks. Quite simply if you don’t have a really good connection to a few trusted brokers, then forget it
Trust is the key here, as there are plenty of people out there who will be more than happy to sting the novice buyer on the price of a cask. This can be seen with some new distilleries offering casks of new make spirit for the craziest of prices well into the thousands for a refill barrel. Just Crazy!
Step three – Know your oak (understand the oak you are working with)
The beauty of the Independent Bottler is that we have much more room to experiment with the spirits that we have, compared to the Master Distiller and Master Blender who are normally are held to producing the same highly recognisable flavours and styles demanded by a core range, with very little room or stock to play with as experimental releases.
This is where knowledge of oak is essential, as we can by using different casks, bring to the consumer a varied and exciting spectrum of flavours that they would not necessarily find in their standard dram.
I have to hold my hands up and say that although I am pretty clued up in this department, I am no expert but then again, not many people are. Fortunately, we have some great friends who are experts and I’m lucky enough to run my ideas past the great Jim McEwan for example, who keeps me on the right tracks.
Step four – Remember to count up all the other scary stuff that is going to see your bank balance take a beating
You will need to cost in gauging, re-gauging, re-casking, warehousing, transportation, label design, printing, corks, capsules, boxes, cases, re-works, sampling fees to name just a few and that’s before we even get to the cost of bottling.
It all adds up and quickly, so the next time you go to pour yourself a dram just have a thought for everything that goes into getting that delicious amber liquid from the cask to your glass.
All in all it has been an incredible adventure. There have been ups and there have been downs.
There has been laughter and there have been times where frustration has turned to tears. Nobody said it was going to be easy but nothing worth having ever is and I love what we have created.”
Great advice about the ups and downs of what it is like being a new independent bottler and you can almost hear the sheer amount of passion coming through behind this wonderful initiative by both Kenny and Viktorija with Dràm Mòr.
If you would like to try it for yourselves, here is the link to their website – there are 4x single cask bottlings available currently:
- Glenrothes 2009 Single Cask 58% ABV Cask No.#5280
- Glen Garioch 2011 Single Cask 58.4% ABV Cask No. #2698
- Caol Ila 2013 Single Cask 59% ABV Cask No. #315817
- Benriach 2008 Single Cask 58.7% ABV Cask No. #196
Also, below are links to some independent reviews of their single cask releases:
- The Amateur Drammer on the Glenrothes 2009 Single Cask
- Whiskyfun.com by Serge on the Glenrothes 2009 Single Cask and Ben Nevis 14yo 1996 Single Cask (no longer available)
- The Whisky Shepherd on Benriach 2008 and Glenrothes 2009 Single Casks
I have bought the Glenrothes 2009 Single Cask and it has not disappointed!