A lot of people pay a visit to Scotland at this time of year. Some go to St Andrews to play golf, others are in Edinburgh to see a show at the Fringe and some go further north to hunt for Nessie. Inevitably, most people who visit Scotland will sample a few of the culinary delights of Scotland including Haggis, Deep-fried Mars Bars and, of course, Whisky.
They will be familiar with the bigger brands of whisky - Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Macallan - but what they won't be too aware of are the hidden gems of Scotch; Independent Bottlers. Most whiskies are made, matured and bottled by the producer. If you see a bottle of, for example, Cragganmore 12 year old, it has been made and matured at the distillery in Speyside and then bottled by the producer, sometimes in their own bottling plant, other times contracted out to a bottling plant. An independent bottling of Cragganmore would be made by the distillery, and then one of two things would happen. It would be aged by the distillery and then sold when mature to an independent bottler, or the independent bottler would take the new spirit and age it themselves. Then the bottler, with both of these scenarios, will decide when they think it should be bottled and do so.
There are a lot of advantages of buying independently bottled whiskies. Firstly, they don't advertise, so you aren't paying for that when you buy a bottle. They also offer different ages, casks and styles to the standard distillery bottlings of the whisky. Older whiskies can be cheaper (for example £500 for a 25 year old Macallan or £275 for a 41 year old Macallan bottled by Gordon & Macphail) and you can often get whiskies from distilleries that closed a long time ago. The downsides? Well unless you read lots and lots of reviews or have the opportunity to try a lot of whiskies, you never really know what you are buying.
I've sampled a lot of indie bottlings recently, here are some of the best.
Berry Bros & Rudd's 1989 Girvan Cask 37532 Single Grain Whisky, bottled 2011
Soft, gentle and subtle with honey, foam bananas and a bit of Corn Flakes on the nose. The palate is very approachable, with a clean, savoury note. Lovely. 85pts
Berry Bros & Rudd's 2000 Boisdale Bowmore, bottled 2011
Subtle heat and smoke with some smoke, oak smoke rather than peat however. There is a caramel and tobacco note as well. The palate has a punch of spice, lots of sweet peat and dry wood, cinnamon bark and leather. 84pts
Berry Bros & Rudd's 1990 Bunnahabhain Cask 18, bottled 2012
Big and sweet aromas with smoke as seasoning, reflecting the distillery style of being lightly peated. The palate has a lot of sulphur, gentle however with some tobacco. Even with the sulphur element, I quite like this. 84pts
Gordon & Macphail's Secret Stills 3.5 (Auchentoshan 20 Year Old)
Rum & Raisin Ice cream mixed with a hot Tamale. Some subtle dried orange peel on the nose. The palate is very woody, some earthy elements coming out with a bit of tar coming off. The palate does have a nice simple elegance to it. 84pts
Gordon & Macphail's 1993 Imperial, bottled 2012
This distillery closed in 1998, and the whisky has a big, chunky nose, lots of punchy flavours - bitter marmalade, burnt match, butter, leather, coal dust, ash.... a mean aroma. Lots of alcohol on the finish but it does have a sweet, creamy element on the finish, fully covered by the peppery dry elements. Imperial is a tough whisky, but this is about as soft and gentle as you are going to get. 82pts
Gordon & Macphail's Secret Stills 6.6 (Glen Garioch 22 year old)
Sweet aromas of dried orange peel a lot of creme caramel and lion bars! The palate is simple, with subtle matchstick and pear skin mixed with a lot of pepper, dried citrus and pot pourri. Very nice. 85pts
Gordon & Macphail's 1994 Caperdonach Connoisseur's Choice
Clean, fresh and simple with lovely light creamy elements. Lots of herbs and a bit of peach. The palate is simple, gentle, balanced and nice with a clean citrus and cream flavour. Very nice. 84pts
Gordon & Macphail's Secret Stills 4.17 (Bowmore 12 year old)
Gentle, herbal and soft and creamy, not a lot of Bowmore characters except for the sea air. The palate is salty, lots of wet rope and bright peat with lots of oak smoke. Not 'traditional' style of Bowmore, but a really good, interesting malt. 88pts
Gordon & Macphail's 1998 Caol Ila Connoisseurs Choice
Big, sweet smoke with lots of rich, honey and pineapple skin. A bundle of rich pear drop and pipe tobacco with a creamy, chalky element. The palate is all medicinal, fishy and with sweet flavours of peat smoke, honey and tar - classic Islay. Very tasty. 90pts