We asked some of Australia’s biggest independent bottlings (IB) whisky fans and distributors about their experiences with indie bottlings and what makes them so great.
We reached out to Graham Wright – owner of The Odd Whisky Coy in SA, Brooke Hayman – co-owner of Whisky & Alement bar in Melbourne, Yao Wong – co-owner of The Elysian bar in Melbourne, Matt Bailey – national ambassador of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and Joshua Fischer – whisky & spirits buyer and educator of The Oak Barrel in Sydney.
Photo: Graham Wright – owner of The Odd Whisky Coy
Why do you love Independent Bottlings?
Graham: I’ve been working with indie bottlers since the 1990’s and I have to say, it has been a love hate relationship. I started my career dealing with the legendary indie bottlers Signatory, Gordon & MacPhail, and of course the gems that came from that very old company, Cadenheads. The malts that came out of these bottlers were in a word: awesome.
But in those early days, we also had to deal with some shockers. I got the feeling that in Australia we were getting the hand-me-down dregs. The ones that John West had rejected.
As I grew in the spirits trade, other bottlers started to gain my attention and two in particular were standouts for me. The effusive Robin Tucek of Blackadder, yelling down the phone telling me to get off my bum and buy his malts – crazy, challenging drams that just rocked my socks, and the man responsible for getting me into the spirits business in the first place, Mike Collings, who knocked me over with his original Founders Reserve and later with the unique drams of Firkin Whisky Co.
The product’s quality is first and foremost in my mind, but I feel that the characters behind the label also play a vital role in adding a spice and allure to the finished product.
Matt: I love indie bottlings because they can, and usually do, provide an incredible insight into the flavour of a distillery in the most unadulterated form. It’s also an opportunity for experimentation in flavour and discovery that most distilleries don’t come close to in their core range.
Yao: IBs give the drinker a different look at profiles from established distilleries and allows people access whiskies that don’t get the luxury of their own brand. It also allows the bottler to showcase their personality through the selection/blending of casks.
Brooke: They are such an expression of an individual's taste and an opportunity to taste something truly unique. From artwork to cask selection, independent bottlings are rarely the same, and like an artist the bottler expresses their style like no one else can.
Joshua: I love IBs because they offer such a diverse and often unique representation of a distillery's spirit. There are distilleries that I had all but written off based on their OB core range however, that same distillery bottled by an IB can be a truly beautiful thing. That's to say nothing of the myriad of workhorse distilleries that produce fantastic whisky destined for blends, but rarely - if ever - receive OB (original bottling) single malt releases. The only way to experience these gems is when they're bottled by an IB.
The other reason I love IBs is the quality and usually value-for-money. Without the marketing budget of a huge, multinational drinks conglomerate, much of an IB's brand comes down to the quality of the liquid they put in a bottle so you tend to get a level of quality and transparency that doesn't always exist with OBs.
Photo: Yao Wong – co-owner of The Elysian bar in Melbourne
Who is your favourite IB brand?
Yao: The classics are always great, Cadenheads, Gordon&MacPhail, Signatory Vintage. But there are also a few new amazing modern bottlers like Whisky Age, Thompson Bros, Asta Morris, Drunken Master, Eiling Lim, North Star, Whisky Agency, Sansibar, just to name a few!
Graham: There’s a few! In no particular order – Cadenheads, Blackadder, Firkin, Heartwood, The Distiller’s Art, and a soft spot for Gordon&MacPhail and Morrison&MacKay.
Brooke: The Scotch Malt Whisky Society - hands down! For artwork, I love the Whisky Sponge and Chorlton, they both bottle excellent liquid too!
Joshua: There are dozens of IB brands that I really enjoy, however, some of the standouts for me are: Hidden Spirits, Eiling Lim, Samaroli, Thompson Bros, and Signatory Vintage. I would also include the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in that list. They were my introduction to IBs with their 124.4 'Full of Secret Pleasures', a 17-year-old Miyagikyo that blew my mind and opened my eyes to the world of IBs.
Matt: The SMWS is a whisky club first, independent bottler second, so I still like to explore other indie bottlers to continue learning what is out there, and there’s a few I regularly keep in touch with such as Adelphi, Thompson Bros, James Eadie, and a few others. Whisky is about people, and the people who make, select, and experiment with casks is just as important as the liquid end result.
Photo: Matt Bailey – national ambassador of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Photo: Brooke Hayman – co-owner of Whisky & Alement bar in Melbourne
What do you look for when picking an Independently Bottled whisky?
Brooke: Firstly the quality of the whisky, and secondly the labels, I like for the bottle to communicate the personality of the bottler. After all, whisky is all about the people!
Yao: By understanding the palate of the bottler and using past experiences with casks they’ve selected (consistencies, flavour profiles, etc.) it makes it easier to trust in their selection and roughly gauge the flavour profile of future releases.
Matt: To pick an indie bottling, I always recommend going off flavour and cask type. Don’t be a distillery hunter per se - focus on the flavours you enjoy, the cask types you prefer, and always keep an open mind to what’s out there.
Joshua: I tend to look at the bottle's specs; distillery, abv, cask maturation, age etc. Tasting notes can be helpful, but everybody has a different palate and often these notes will have little similarity to what you, as an individual, will experience. These details aren't the be all and end all, they inform my decisions, but don't act as deal-breakers. But when it's a brand that I know and trust for their consistently high quality bottlings, I'm more willing to experiment with distilleries and flavour profiles that are outside of my wheelhouse.
Graham: Quality, intrigue, and being a little different.
Photo: Joshua Fischer – whisky & spirits buyer and educator of The Oak Barrel in Sydney
What's your favourite distillery to drink or buy as an IB?
Joshua: Bruichladdich and Bunnahabhain I adore in general, so I reach for these whenever I see them; I relish the opportunity to try an old favourite in a new iteration. Beyond this some of my favourite distilleries in IB format are Glen Moray, Mortlach, Clynelish, Bowmore, Caol Ila, Penderyn, Highland Park and Bushmills.
Brooke: I love the weird and wonderful understated distillery that is Teaninich. I recently tasted an IB sample of Teaninich from a Koval bourbon cask that blew my mind with key lime pie and custard flavours!
Yao: All the famous ones! Anything Clynelish, Ben Nevis, Craigellachie, etc. But recently there’s been a lot of delicious secret speysides as well.
Matt: If I had to list distilleries to pick from, I’d aim for those that don’t otherwise have a notable single malt on the market: there’s some real gems in whiskies that don’t have the marketing sheen of some of the big boys, but create incredible spirit nonetheless. Distilleries like Balmenach, Glenlossie, Macduff, Inchgower etc.
Graham: Sadly, I am cursed and always want to try something new. I wish I had just one favourite, it would make life so much easier, and I would have a lot more shelf space!
A little bit about the industry experts!
Graham Wright has been a part of the whisky scene in Adelaide for as long as Aussies have been enjoying whisky! His bottle shop, The Odd Whisky Coy was started in 2003, after a stint working in the auction house side of wine sales. Graham sources whiskies and IBs that are not usually available in Australia and is the distribution agent down under for Springbank Distillers, Blackadder and The Firkin Whisky Company (founded by Scottish whisky royalty Mike Collings who has since “retired” to South Australia with his wife). His passion for quirky, odd, and unusual drams combined with his exuberant personality makes Graham a standout in the industry, helping Australians to find their new favourite whiskies every day.
Yao Wong is one of the owners of prestigious Melbourne whisky venue, The Elysian. Named Whisky Bar of the Year multiple times, he and his business partner Kelvin Low wanted to bring the hospitality and atmosphere of their favourite Japanese whisky bars to Melbourne, and they work tirelessly to source rare and unusual bottlings to serve over the bar. Alongside their bar, they also have Select Spirits, their bottle shop for the IB brands they import, including Whisky Age/Blues and Thompson Bros. Yao’s eye for incredible and unique bottlings is second to none and he brings this expertise to all of his customers.
Brooke Hayman is one half of the partnership behind Australia’s oldest and most renowned whisky bars, Whisky & Alement. Having worked in the bar industry for many years before starting W&A (originally called Chez Regine) with partner Julian White, she now works behind the scenes to provide Melbourne whisky lovers with an incredible array of drams with the bar boasting the largest collection of SMWS whisky on pour to the public, as well as hundreds more bottles. If that wasn’t enough, she can often be found on the judging panel for some of Australia’s most prestigious awards and has won the SMWS Blind Tasting competition. Brooke is considered one of the country’s most talented whisky tasters, with a palate as keen as any Master Blender in Scotland.
Matt Bailey is Australia’s National Ambassador for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a membership club with a penchant for Independent Bottling. They select casks and bottle whisky exclusively for members of the SMWS and have worked with distilleries all over the world to find incredible drams for their members. The SMWS has consistently been nominated as Whisky Bottler of the Year in numerous awards both in Scotland and Australia. Meanwhile, Matt is dedicated to the enjoyment and celebration of all kinds of whisky and was recently awarded 2020’s Whisky Ambassador of the Year by the Icons of Whisky.
Joshua Fischer has spent years working for a big name in the liquor store industry honing his craft and passion, and as of late 2021 he joined the team at The Oak Barrel in Sydney as their Whisky & Spirits Buyer and Educator. His passion for whisky drew him to Oak Barrel which is one of the most iconic bottle shops in NSW and was awarded ALIA Bottle Store Of The Year in 2016, 2017 and 2019 (and the only store to be nominated 5 years in a row).