The Merchant Class

The Merchant Class

Single malt Scotches bottled by independent merchants are invading traditional malt distilleries’ turf. Can the two co-exist without a fight?.

During a weekly visit to your favorite wine and spirits shop the manager greets you by name. You tell her that you are looking for a bottle of The Macallan, Scotland’s famous single malt whisky from Speyside.

“Of course,” she says. “Let me show you what we have.”

You follow her to the well-stocked fine whiskey section where, at eye-level, you see the familiar label of The Macallan distillery in 12-, 18- and 25-year bottlings. Then your host takes two steps to her left and says, “And here we have several independent merchant bottlings of Macallan from Cadenhead’s, Murray McDavid…one from Hart Brothers. And, we just got in one from Scott’s Selection.

It’s their 1973 cask-strength Macallan.” She pauses, waiting for you to choose, but you’re confused. It wasn’t all that long ago when you could ask for The Macallan and be handed the 12 year old and that was the end of it. Who are these—what did she call them—independent merchants? And what have they got to do with The Macallan?

This scenario has become increasingly common. As interest in Scotland’s super-premium single malt whiskies booms, unfamiliar, independent merchant bottlings by the likes of Cadenhead, Hart Brothers, Adelphi, Signatory, Murray McDavid, The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and Gordon & MacPhail are popping up alongside distillers’ “official” bottlings.

Read the small print

Typically, independent merchant bottlings display the producing distillery’s name—The Glenlivet, Highland Park, Laphroaig and Bowmore—in smaller print than, or below the name of, the actual merchant. For example, Longmorn, the name of the producing distillery, is placed below that of Blackadder, the independent merchant who acquired a cask of malt whisky either directly from the distillery or from a whisky broker. Additional information regarding that particular malt whisky, such as its age or the year of distillation, is usually printed on the label as well.

These limited-edition offerings frequently number only 200 to 250 bottles because, in most cases, they have been drawn from a single barrel of single-malt whisky. They usually cost 10 to 25 percent more than distillery bottlings of the same age because they are more labor-intensive to produce—it’s costly to find, sample, purchase, ship and store small 55- to 60-gallon barrels of whisky, then bottle and label such small quantities. Many of the merchant bottlings are rare, small-quantity offerings, sometimes from distilleries that have been closed.

For established or nascent single malt consumers, a host of questions arise. Do Scotland’s malt distilleries support or oppose the independent merchant offerings of their malt whiskies, and do the merchant bottlings detract from a distillery’s reputation? Do merchant bottlings confuse the customer or bolster the Scotch whisky category? Perhaps most important for malt whisky admirers, do the merchant single malt whiskies differ from the whiskies offered by the distilleries?

A brief history

Virtually all of Scotland’s malt distillers regularly sell many barrels of malt whisky to whisky brokers who, in turn, resell the barrels to blending houses that create the famous Scotch blends, including Johnnie Walker, Dewar’s, Bell’s, J&B, Chivas Regal and Cutty Sark. Indeed, approximately 95 percent of all single-malt whisky is earmarked for blended Scotch. Once a barrel of malt whisky is sold to a broker, the distiller relinquishes control over its fate. Warren Radford, the Scotch whisky consultant for Park Avenue Liquor Shop in New York City says, “It’s…a matter of economic necessity for many distilleries to sell casks on the open market through brokers.”

Is it simple to buy casks of single malt whisky? Not according to Henry Preiss of Preiss Imports of Ramona, California, who imports Cadenhead’s merchant bottlings: “It is definitely harder than it used to be to get many whiskies because distilleries started buying back casks [and] many distilleries [have] closed. Yet once in a while whiskies long thought to have disappeared are found.”

Some malt whisky distillers are dismayed at the emergence of the independent merchants, pointing out that their offerings might not uphold the level of quality established by the distillery’s own bottlings. Alan Shayne, president of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in the U.S., says that “most merchant bottlings vary significantly from distillery bottlings. Generally speaking, distillery bottlings are of extremely high quality. …One important goal of the distiller is to achieve a uniform taste for each distillery expression. The quality of merchant bottlings varies greatly. The real challenge for the consumer is determining which independent offerings are of high quality.”

With the quality of casked single malt whisky running the gamut, the selection of the right casks is key for an independent merchant. Before deciding which single malts to bottle for the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, Shayne forms a tasting committee to blind-taste the whiskies.

Lock, stocks and barrels

“Distillery bottlings give you a standard that can be found throughout the world,” says Joe Congiusti, the spirits director for Binny’s liquor stores in the Chicago area. “Merchant bottlings give the consumer something unique. Many people want to be the first on the block to have something that their friends don’t have.”

Bert Smith of Heartland Wine & Spirits in Springboro, Ohio, which imports Blackadder merchant bottlings, feels that they offer consumers an opportunity to experience “extraordinary” whiskies that are less processed —they have fewer additives and less filtering and are released at higher proofs—than many distillery bottlings. “Our methods of selecting casks and bottlings,” Smith explains, “provide consumers with a rare chance to sample the whisky as if it were drawn directly from the cask.”

Yet not all single malt distillers are so positive. Fergus Hartley, regional director for the Americas at Morrison Bowmore, is concerned that the inconsistency of merchant bottlings may reflect poorly on distillers. “Merchant bottling can be a bit of a lottery. If a consumer tries a single malt that is not an official bottling, he may be disappointed with the quality and decide that this single malt is not for him. This is a disadvantage of merchant bottlings. They are not quality-controlled by the distiller.”

But most single malt distillers accept the presence of the independent merchants. “Both have a part to play in the industry,” says Richard Paterson, master blender for Kyndal Spirits Unlimited in Scotland, whose single malt is The Dalmore. “But in order for [independent merchants] to survive, they must have good-quality stock. The malt distilleries have the market share. But independents make a valuable contribution. Who benefits? The consumer! They are spoilt for choice and that can’t be a bad thing.”

One constituency has unalloyed enthusiasm towards merchant bottlings—the retailers. “The small, independent merchants bring fresh air and life to a wonderful and exciting area,” says Elliott Fishbein, president of Town Wine & Spirits in Rhode Island. “I can’t remember how many people have gone to Scotland just for the pure enjoyment of malt whisky.”

New York retailer Warren Radford agrees: “I see [independent merchant bottlings] as having a tremendously positive influence on the market of single malt enthusiasts, keeping them interested and curious about the world of whiskies.”

Certainly merchant bottlings add spice to a category that’s booming. Want some real fun? Try a merchant bottling next to a similar distillery bottling (see sidebar for our tasting). Sparks are sure to fly.

Scotch Malt Whisky 101

Blended Scotch: Whiskies that are comprised of both single malt (small-volume, 100% malted barley pot-still whisky) and grain whisky (large-volume, column-still whisky made of wheat or maize). Many blended Scotches are produced from as many as 40 to 50 malt and grain whiskies.

Independent merchant bottlings: The bottle offerings of single malt whisky from Scotland that are generated from parties (usually merchants) whose businesses are independent of the malt distilleries. Merchant bottlings almost always vary in characteristics from one batch to the next.

Proprietary (also “official”) bottlings: The bottle offerings of single malt whisky that originate directly from the distillery that produces the whisky. Proprietary bottlings are consistent in character from one batch to the next.

Single malts: Whisky that is distilled in traditional pot stills from one grain; in the case of Scotland’s single malts, malted barley in one malt distillery.

Single cask malts: A limited number of bottles (typically 300 or fewer) of unblended single malt whisky that is bottled from a single cask.

Vatted malts: A whisky that is made by combining the single malt whiskies of several malt distilleries.

Published on October 1, 2003

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