To celebrate our favourite Independent Bottlers (IBs) this month, we asked some of our members to tell us what they love about IBs!
Dominik Holzer is one of Australia’s biggest whisky enthusiasts, having travelled all over the world to hunt down and try exceptional drams. When not sipping some of history’s finest whisky, he lectures in Architecture, and his love for design, construction, and art shows in his whisky picks.
Garth Worboys spends his days working as a public servant for New South Wales and in what spare time he has, he works on his independent bottling business, Ambassador Whisky’ with long-time friend and data-geek Brendan Wade. They love to celebrate whisky, especially the liquids being produced at some of Australia’s best distilleries and decided to share their passion for great drams with others.
Why do you love Independent Bottlings?
Dominik: IBs are much more than just about the whisky itself! Once you get hooked, it opens the door to an entire new world of whisky appreciation, and you get to meet people with a different sensitivity towards what they chase as drinkers or collectors.
When it comes to the people side of IBs, over the years I started to meet many of the bottlers in person (or more recently via Zoom) via the numerous tastings available. Listening to their philosophy as bottlers is a great way to engage with whisky and their supply chains, and the people behind the product. One starts to learn about their tastes and preferences, and thereby learns to trust their palate.
Garth: For me and my business partner Brendan Wade, it’s about working with great people to make good whisky and have fun while doing it. We love Australian whisky, and getting to know how each distillery operates, their distillation process, their new make spirit and maturation process means you have a good understanding of what cask types are likely to work best. It’s really a privilege to work so closely with distilleries and learn about the influences of our varied Australian climate on the spirit.
Who is your favourite IB brand?
Dominik: I don’t really think I have one favourite in particular. Of course, there’s always the very large established Indies like Cadenhead, Signatory or Gordon McPhail. Right now, my favourites would probably be the Thompson Bros, Whisky Jury, WuDramClan (such a great name!), Whisky Sponge, The East Village Whisky Company, Carn Mor, North Star, Sansibar, Hidden Spirits, and of course Maltbarn. The WhiskyFind in Taiwan has great releases as well.
Garth: There are so many good ones! I’ve been an SMWS member for some time, their access to incredible casks and their panel ensures that you very rarely get a miss. But I also love Cadenheads, Signatory, Adelphi… the list goes on. I’ve also found recently I am loving casks selected by those in the industry who really know their stuff and only do a few a year. The Highlander Inn, Friends of Bruichladdich etc.
As for Australia, Tim Duckett has been leading the way here for some time with Heartwood and TIB. I’ll also admit that increasingly the big social media groups (WLA and AWAS) are bottling some excellent whisky.
What do you look for when picking an Independently Bottled whisky?
Dominik: IBs are so idiosyncratic, I always love to try what’s on offer. I’m very lucky to be in a major city where we have such great access to the various bars (like The Elysian Whisky Bar, and Whisky & Alement) and distributors. In terms of taste, I love to be surprised. I recently tried an IB from a distillery I had never tried before, an ‘Auchroisk’ that was matured in an ex-Bourbon cask. I was totally blown away!
Garth: Like with most whisky, I will always look at the specs (distillery, age, cask type etc). From there it becomes about the trust in the IB brand itself. Ideally, someone you know has tried it or you can get your hands on a sample!
What's your favourite distillery to drink or buy as an IB?
Dominik: That’s a tough one. Probably older Islay whiskies - Laphroaig, Caol Ila or Bunnahabhain - with 20/30+ years of age. Those would typically cost a fortune, but as IBs (and frequently bottled as ‘Secret Islay’), they become surprisingly affordable.
Next to those, chasing IB Springbank, Ben Nevis and Clynelish has become one of my life obsessions!
Garth: There are a few distilleries that come to mind. Brendan and I often find ourselves reaching for Bunnahabhain or a Laphroaig. Bowmore and Highland Park are also up there as they both produce some stunning IB’s, even if the wider opinion on their OBs can be varied. Other favourites include Caol Ila, Ledaig, Glenlossie. Lots really!
Have you found any special IB whiskies over the years?
Dominik: Anyone who knows me would agree this is a trick-question. I love IBs and I do chase MANY of them!
My most prized and cherished IBs are probably all part of my 1973 Speyside collection. Back in the mid-2010s the guys at The Famous Grouse were after 40+ year old casks to put into their ‘40yo Blend’. They had amassed a good number of casks for that blend, but for whatever reason, it never happened. Suddenly brokers were approached with an option to trade a dozen or two single casks of 1973 Speyside whisky, very rarely would one ever have access to that amount of 40+ yo Speyside Single Malt.
Casks for these releases were often split and bottles ended up in nearly 40 different whiskies, bottled by IBs across Germany, Japan, Belgium, Switzerland Taiwan, Italy, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, the UK and Malaysia. Believe me when I tell you that tracking them all down wasn’t easy! It required patience, luck, connections, and a fair bit of money. The experience of hunting these gems down was worth it already. I’m very lucky to have been able to taste over half of those 40 bottles and the bottles that I did manage to get are the most prized parts of my collection!
Garth: There have been many over the years. We are big fans of how whisky connects people to a feeling or a place and for us, Islay House, Highlander Inn and Thompson Bro’s takes each of us back immediately. In terms of a particular bottle, a 21yo Clynelish from the SMWS (26.119) certainly holds a special place in our hearts as our first foray into IBs (and it was stupidly good!).
We asked Garth a few follow up questions all about what being an Independent Bottler is like and how he got into that side of the industry. In 2021 Garth and Brendan launched Ambassador Whisky, focusing on bottling Australian whisky through their independent label. To date they have launched three expressions, The Missing 20, Liquid Gold and Redeemed, with more to come in 2022.
Where did the idea come from to start Ambassador Whisky?
Garth: It really started with a conversation over a few drams with distiller Brian Hollingworth from Black Gate Distillery. He’d never let anyone fill a barrel with him, but after talking him ‘round he said why not. So, we went out and filled one! It was such a great experience and we learnt so much from the process, we thought we could start a really small-scale IB business. It may never become our full-time focus, but if we can put out two exceptional Australian whiskies a year and continue to work with the wonderful people that make this industry what it is, we will be happy. If we do continue to grow, we certainly won’t complain about packing away our day jobs!
What do you look for when you purchase a cask for your IB?
Garth: When looking to purchase a new cask we look for three key things: great whisky we enjoy drinking, great people who are passionate about their product and – most importantly – ensuring that what we bottle in some way highlights something new about the spirit.
We don’t want to just rebadge a whisky that could be released as an original bottling (OB) - we want to accentuate the spirit in a new way that pays tribute to the original. At its core, our philosophy is to only release something we truly believe to be fantastic whisky.
Which casks/distilleries have you bottled so far?
Garth: So far we have three bottlings with Black Gate including a peated bourbon cask (Liquid Gold), a first fill Oloroso cask (Redeemed) and a third fill sherry using one of the famous 520’s barrels (The Missing 20). All three provide different looks at Black Gate and we couldn’t be happier with how they have turned out.
We also have more barrels maturing with some of our other favourite distilleries. An upcoming one we are hoping to bottle is from Stillmaker and Sons – a new QLD distillery we are really excited about. It’s a first fill port cask, and will be ready mid this year. We are very excited with how it is progressing and are also looking forward to sharing with a few people how truly good this distillery is going to be. Stillmaker and Sons is due to release its first OB whisky later this year.
We also have several casks laid down with some of the Tassie distilleries – concentrating on those brands that are family focused, top quality and ideally don’t do IB a lot so we can bring something new to whisky lovers.
Any exciting news you want to share about future plans for your IB?
Garth: Our next release will be coming out fairly soon and will be a collaboration with Black Gate and Barrel and Batch. It’s a 54% peated bourbon cask and it is stunning, like honey on toast. We will hopefully get around 120 bottles out of the cask and we can’t wait for people to try it.
Beyond that it will likely be a slow and steady stream of excellent Aussie whisky picked by a couple of guys who genuinely love the stuff and the industry!
Big thanks again to Dominik and Garth for taking the time to chat to The Whisky List about their love for independent bottlers. Stay tuned for our next feature article where we explore the world of independent bottlers chatting to five legends who work across bars, clubs and retailers in the Australian whisky industry.