The Independent Bottling category in Irish whiskey is vast, at times filled with controversy and ignorance on some parts, but there’s no doubt that it is through this practice that we have seen some Ireland’s very best whiskey releases.
Mark McLaughlin will bring us on a journey over three pieces which will cover the significance of Independent Bottling to Irish whiskey as a whole. This will only be the beginning as we will explore specific brands, issues and successes in Independently Bottling in future content by Irish Whiskey Magazine.
Independent Bottling: Just how significant is it?
Independent Bottling is a term used to describe a whiskey which has been bottled independently from the distillery where it was initially distilled, it can be described as ‘sourced’ or ‘3rd party’ bottling, whiskey purchased from a distillery in order to create one’s own brand. It is a category within Irish whiskey which is often misunderstood. It is certainly the category that raises the most eyebrows when it comes to provenance and transparency, but it is also the category where most whiskey brands and whiskey distilleries will begin their journey.
Thus, this term covers the vast majority of Irish whiskeys we are familiar with on the shelves of our favourite whiskey bars and throughout the many superb off-licences in Ireland. There are certainly flaws within many of the independent brands in Ireland, some with claims to fictitious distilleries and undeniably fabricated brand histories. Others have danced along the line of truth and transparency delicately as if giving themselves a leg to stand on by attempting to appear unguarded about their whiskeys problematic provenance when questioned directly about it. However, although this category has generated considerable confusion throughout inquisitive consumers, without many of these brands, particularly in the past decade, the industry would not be where it is today and some of these brands have grown to be globally recognised and revered.
Origins of Independent bottling
When considering the origins of Independently bottling as a category you’ll find that the practice dates back to the earliest boom in Irish whiskey distilleries in the mid-late 1700’s, much earlier than the Single Pot Stills, Single Malts or Single Grains were in the minds of distillers. Up until the early 1900’s, the stocks of Irish whiskey produced by the distilleries throughout Ireland were sold by the cask rather than by the bottle. The many whiskey bonder bars would purchase casks of mature stock from their partner distillery and would bottle the whiskey themselves. Wines and spirits merchants, such as Mitchell & Son and W.A Gilbey’s in Dublin would have sent their empty/or almost empty sherry, port and claret casks to Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery to be filled with spirit before bringing back to mature in their own cellars.
These two examples provide the easiest way to explain the practice historically and how it formed in the centuries to follow. Whiskey bonders or merchants who chose to buy mature stock from the distilleries would be provided with personalised labels and in some cases caramel colouring (e150a) along with a colour template to ensure consistency on the colour of the distilleries whiskey.
Powers from the John’s Lane Distillery, bottled by J&J O’Byrne, Limerick.
What is sometimes referred to as white label bottlings in enthusiasts and collectors circles, refers to the common practice in the 19th century of distilleries providing labels, such as the one pictured above, to the bonder to put on their bottles when bottling the product in their cellars or stores. Nowadays you will see many of these labels on empty bottles in the cabinets of former whiskey bonding bars across the country, and it is very unusual to find one intact such as the Powers pictured above, making it all the more collectible.
Although this practice was commonplace and widely used as the preferred route to market for many of the distilleries throughout Ireland in the 19th century, there was always the issue that the whiskey provided by the distillery in the cask purchased may not make it into the bottle without having been tampered with in some way or form. Some bonders attempting to profiteer by diluting the whiskey with water, or others attempting to make a superior product and gain market share by the addition of some port or sherry. This steered the distilleries to eventually realising they had no control over the consistency and quality of their product, the only solution would be to begin bottling themselves. Cork Distilleries Company ‘Map of Ireland’ Pure Pot Still Old Irish Whiskey (the predecessor to Paddy Irish Whiskey), was the first such product released in 1877, shortly followed by Powers Gold Label, yet it was nearly 90 years later in 1963 when Jameson released their first in-house bottling ‘Jameson Ten’ renamed ‘Crested Ten’ shortly after.
Although the issues with consistency eventually gave rise to many distilleries terminating the cask wholesale side of their businesses in favour of bottling, the practice only totally ceased during the Irish whiskey industries collapse in the 1950/60’s. There were still a number of reputable wine and spirit merchants who continued to have their casks filled at Jameson’s Bow Street Distillery from the 1900’s until the 1960’s. The two we are most familiar with today are W.A Gilbeys, where Redbreast originated and Mitchell & Son Wine Merchants the creators of the ‘Spot’ whiskey range.
Taking Mitchell’s Spot Whiskeys as an example, Green Spot, in particular, had been arguably Ireland’s most notable independently bottled product produced throughout the 1900’s up until the point the brand was signed into the Irish Distillers Pernod Ricard portfolio. You can see from the image below that the whiskey brand which they created was named after the colours which would represent the different age statements of their products, however, the original labels stated ‘Blue Seal’, ‘Green Seal’ etc displaying the Mitchell family seal on the labels rather than the ‘Spot’ we are familiar with today.
In 1933, someone within Mitchell’s team at the time made the decision that they should change the word ‘Seal’ to ‘Spot’ as the colours were inspired by the spots of paint on the cask to indicate the age of the whiskey contained and it undeniably had a better ring to it, leaving the image of the family seal in place. This is one of the clearest indications of marketing taking precedence in the promotional material surrounding an independently bottled product, building their own brand while co-promoting the distillery on the label.
The strength of this branding decision still stands out within the Irish whiskey industry today as Green Spot, Yellow Spot and Red Spot have all been re-imagined as part of the Midleton Prestige Whiskeys with Blue Spot soon to follow no longer independently bottled. As with any other consumer product across the globe, if the brand is powerful enough to gain and retain consumers consistently throughout its life span, inevitably a bigger player will come along and either swallow it up or see it as something they can build even further. The latter being the case for The Spot Whiskeys and Pernod Ricard.
The future of Independent bottling
You see, in the Irish whiskey category in 2020, these types of bottlings no longer exist as independent products, collaborative bottlings between bars, specialist retailers and premium hotels are becoming ever more popular however these generally appear in the form of Single Cask Bottlings ‘bottled for’ the collaborator. The Palace Bar in Dublin owned now by third-generation publican Willie Aherne, a historical whiskey bonder and one of Ireland’s most iconic whiskey bars. They created 4 independently bottled Palace Bar Whiskeys through their relationship with the Teeling family, this was a recreation of their own bonders bottling which sparked others to follow suit such as the Temple Bar and Garavans of Galway.
For the Aherne Family and The Palace Bar, these bottlings of their own brand product slowly became unsustainable as the source of their product had apparently ‘dried up’. However, The Palace has since released a Redbreast Single Cask, a Dingle Single Cask and most recently a Green Spot Single Cask to significant success, revered by collectors and drinkers alike. These are no longer their own brand of independent bottlings rather collaborations bottled for them. Arguably though, these recent bottlings aligned with globally recognised brands have amplified The Palace Bar’s brand even further than their own brand bottlings had, which may close the book on whiskey bonders independent bottlings in the future.
The point of these examples was to begin a story of Independent Bottling, an explanation, and idolisation in some instances, and an increasingly frustrating analysation in others. We now understand that independent bottling has a significant history, we can see why there were issues with consistency of product and why the distilleries began to veer away from the practice. We know how some of our most love began in this form but no longer can be categorized as an independent bottling and we have seen how the Bars who would like to re-ignite their whiskey bonding heritage may need to think differently now.
This story will continue in the Winter 2020 and Spring 2021 editions of Irish Whiskey Magazine where we will talk about how the Independently bottled category has developed in the past decade. We will discuss how Whiskey bonding has been revitalised in its truest form recently, how strategic partnerships have led to some brands relying heavily on 3rd party whiskey in the growth of their brands and how others rely on the availability of this whiskey indefinitely, and how some brands have appeared which seemingly are only trying to capitalise on the Irish Whiskey trend purely for profit.
With knowledge of how transparency and provenance have become ever more important in Irish Whiskey and the fact that some Independently bottled brands are attempting to lead the way into the future with Transparency at their core. We will attempt to convey the barriers which they are up against and explain how crucial it is that we champion their efforts and allow these brands to flourish, as they should. To be continued…
Hailing from the wild coast of Inishowen in Co. Donegal, Mark has worked within the Irish whiskey Industry for the past 8 years. Known for his breadth of knowledge, exceptional presentations and no-nonsense approach to Irish whiskey brands, enthusiasts and collaborators alike. His unrelenting devotion to the Irish whiskey industry and his passion for Irish pubs set him apart as one of the people to know in the spirits Industry in Ireland. You can follow Mark’s wonderful insights on his site Cask Strength Communications.