As a whisky drinker here in Singapore, chances are you’ve drunk from independent bottlings i.e. bottles that didn’t come directly from the distillery.
Why does that matter? Not too long ago before the whisky boom here these bottles – Independent bottlings (IBs) – were only found at specialist retailers and bars; mind you, these weren’t many.
These days, however, it’s an integral part of any whisky fan’s journey and certainly the only way to learn the range of a distillery’s character. Having attended a couple of events recently, I came to the conclusion that arguably, we might have the best scene in the world for such endeavours. This might be stating the obvious for some, but when you’re so used to the pace of its growth sometimes it’s hard to see how far it’s come and how progressive and open-minded we are now when it comes to trying new things, like cask finishes and unusual food pairings.
**We’re just kidding, please don’t do this with your rare whiskies unless you have a crate of the stuff…
Bigger presence of indie events
The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and none more so than the prevalence of more events that feature independent bottlers. You might typically associate pop-ups with mainstream brands a la Auchentoshan’s Born & Raised in the City series but these days you’ll see more indies getting into the game like Cadenhead’s recent collaboration with Cheeky, which gave visitors the opportunity to sample Cadenhead bottlings for as low as $5.
The Whisky Store, which is the distributor for Cadenhead, also works with other local bars to share casks that are to be bottled, such as this Linkwood. The store also handles the distribution for another big name: the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS), which conducts monthly tastings for the bottlings and you can expect to see new bottles every quarter. You need to be a member to purchase bottles though. Meanwhile, a bit closer to the present, INTERCO-MLE will be holding a Blackadder tasting featuring Japanese craft distilleries in September; this is particularly interesting as you’d have a chance to try out some new make spirit from a new distillery, Shizuoka, which uses the equipment once used by the now legendary Karuizawa. Whether or not it means that the whisky is going to be as good, nobody knows. But undeniably, part of the charm comes from the idea of heritage.
The Spirit of Independence
One of said events was The Spirit of Independence, which celebrates the vibrant world of the indies and featured traditional distributors (Le Vigne), bars (The Wall, The Single Cask), and even indie distributors who are fans who have basically turned their passion into a small business (Spirits Castle, INTERCO-MLE, Friends with Drams, Italian Wine Club).
Traditionally, Whisky Live is the whisky show highlight of the year, if not in terms of scale, then in terms of how one can experience as much whisky as they can in one sitting, preferably without cosplaying a Merlion. Then there’s The Malt Affair, whose strength is in vintage or hard to find whiskies at affordable prices. Could there be room for a show just for modern independent bottlings? As it turned out, yes.
Variety is the spice of life, and shows like these are not just eye-openers, they also represent an opportunity to explore the road less travelled and keep their love for whisky fresh. Considering that there are over 120 active distilleries in Scotland alone, there’s virtually no end to your adventures. Not to mention that ‘malternatives’ like rum are slowly picking up the pace as well.
While it remains to be seen if a second iteration will take place, but I’m pretty sure from the positive response that such events won’t be a thing of the past. In any case, Whisky Live will be up this year in November, while TMA Vol.5 is on the cards.
Official Bottlings (OB) vs Independent Bottlings (IB)
It had always been the case that OBs and IBs live in their own respective worlds. For one, it’s only natural for distilleries to want you to pick up their offerings. Imagine, should you get independent bottlings that is not to your liking, the distillery’s name gets besmirched for products they did not oversee to the end. These days, bad experiences tend to be in the minority, and often, it is a question of preference.
Bruichladdich crossed the divide year or so ago, by officially sanctioning events that feature both Original Bottling (OB) and IB expressions of the distillery. As far as we know, it’s the first of such an endeavour in an official capacity, and still is. The cynic might think that such an event would be rigged in favour of the OB, but having attended more than one of these, that could hardly be further from the truth. They were all decent whiskies with different personalities. If there were any ill-intent on the part of Chloe Wood and Brendan Asher Pillai, it would be to mislead its audience at every possible turn, and relishing in their anguished guesses as one by one the twists are revealed.
You might think that you could do one of your own, which is a fair point, but in an effort to fool its fans and knowledgeable audience, they’ve had to scour the most obscure or interesting expressions, and that entails acquiring rarities such as an Octomore Comus 4.2 that had been aged for a further eight years, which they obtained directly from Adam Hannett, the head distiller, personally. There’s no attempt to hard-sell the OBs, which is probably something the cynics will appreciate.
With the dynamic duo of Chloe and Brendan always looking to one-up the previous session, we can only sit with bated breath to see what’s coming next. The series will continue to run, so follow The Single Cask if you want to keep tabs of upcoming Bruichladdich OB vs IB events. They also have an upcoming Port Charlotte event in September, which you may be interested in if you are Port Charlotte fan.
Sessions: Rosebank through the Ages
Meanwhile, how many places are there in the world that could do a tasting consisting of four decades of the closed distillery, Rosebank? It’s fascinating when you realise that in Singapore, apart from The Auld Alliance, which is already considered one of the world’s best and will have the means to, a humble little bar called The Swan Song, in conjunction with Friends with Drams, had just organised such a tasting.
As part of a regular series of tastings collectively called Sessions, the Rosebank tasting featured examples from the 90s, 80s, 70s – and yes, they are mostly independent bottlings – culminating in a very rare Cadenhead dumpy Rosebank distilled in 1966 that rarely ever surfaced for sale; a testament to their ability to source for such rare specimens. While money can certainly buy you plenty of whiskies, it is practically useless if you don’t where to find the good ones. If you don’t already know that we have bars here that stock the good stuff, you do now.
Needless to say, the tasting lived up to the hype and is a perfect response to why Ian Macleod Distillers bought the Rosebank trademark from Diageo and the old Rosebank site from Scottish Canals (don’t ask) to rebuild the cult distillery, which is slated to reopen next year in 2020. The 1966 Cadenhead dumpy is a good example of why many regard Rosebank as the best of what the Lowlands can offer. Follow Sessions to keep up to date on upcoming tastings.
If all of this seems kind of boring and uptight to you then Dram Club might be one of those things that appeal to the chaotic neutral in you. This mysterious event pops up every couple of months; you get your ticket and you aren’t allowed to talk about it.
You can’t post about it on social media as well (except a week after), and for good reason: it gets really down and dirty – sometimes personal – as two combatants, who are prominent people in the whisky scene, try to take each other down with insults (mum jokes optional) as they go for the jugular a no-holds-barred deathmatch of one-upmanship with (more importantly) their selection of whiskies; hence no videos. The winner is decided by vote, so there’s no point winning the verbal barbs if the drams aren’t up to scratch. The last showdown featured Sarah Thallon from The Whisky Store matching up against Joseph Seah from La Maison du Whisky in a cross-Atlantic showdown (Bourbon vs Scotch). Joe won that one, but I’m not sure if he’s still alive right now.
Not quite the wholesome, professional image that any product will want to have, but as a participant, just going there and being a d*** in cheering and jeering while having nice drams is kind of a nice change of pace. What’s not often said is that these whiskies are well-chosen for their price range.
If I have any legitimate complaints, it’s that the combatants are sometimes too friendly to each other. Boooo, where’s the blood, people? Plans for a fifth instalment are already in place, so if this floats your boat then follow Dramocracy for future updates.
It’s mind-boggling to think that we’d have the privilege to have these many options at our fingertips, all within the heart of the city. Many of these endeavours and ideas stemmed from people who weren’t working in the spirits business prior; they were led here by their passion and ingenuity. I suppose you can call that the true spirit of independence.
[Additional Dram Club photos courtesy of Brendan Asher Pillai]