Well, it’s about time we covered an independent bottling. They are an exceptionally important part of the whisky industry on numerous levels – for both producer and consumer. Their full importance is probably a post in itself (stay tuned), but for those that don’t know: indy bottlings (as they’re colloquially known) are, very simplistically, when someone bottles a whisky they didn’t produce. This isn’t to say that independent bottlers can’t sometimes also be producers (Adelphi have their Ardnamurchan Distillery, Wemyss Malts have Kingsbarns in Fife), but their indy bottling arms are concerned with casks acquired from other producers.
Whisky casks have long been traded across the industry, primarily for blending. A blended whisky requires different styles – and not all blending companies have distilleries that produce all those styles in their stable (some blenders don’t have any distilleries at all). Even Diageo, with 28 malt distilleries in Scotland, needs to source whisky from outside of their stable to create Johnnie Walker. So, naturally, if someone has a style you want (say something fruity) and you have a style they need (peaty for example) it only makes sense to do a trade. This is a huge simplification – but if you scale it up to the hundreds of thousands of casks being traded, there is a lot of liquid kicking around that’s not going to go into a bottle with the distillery label you know and recognise, and it can’t all go into blends.
Naturally, with the rise of Single Malt Scotch Whisky over the past few decades, more and more of these casks are going to be bottled as single malts (or even single casks) rather than bounce around until being blended. This, inevitably, has lead to us now having more independent bottlers on the market than ever before. In fact, at times, it feels there are too many to keep up with – and by default surely too many to guarantee quality across the board? However, as a rule, indy bottlers are a great way to experience different expressions of distilleries you love – and for those of us in the business of selling to a consumer, to introduce people to new liquid. Though the consumer can at times be distrustful (I’m surely not the only bartender who’s had to try and convince someone: ‘yes this is Caol Ila. No, I know it’s a different label. But it SAYS caol ila and that’s still where it’s made, just someone else bottled it), there’s a lot of liquid the likes of which would not find the market if it wasn’t for indies.
So, to the independent bottler James Eadie, who’s whisky I’m going to get round to talking about at some point I swear. James Eadie was a blender born in Gleneagles in the 19th century – and in 1877 he registered his Trademark X blend. Some of these bottles survived, as did his ledgers, and his great-great grandson Rupert Patrick has since revived the brand – and done everything possible to recreate accurately the Trademark X. These ledgers, as well as providing the basis for the blend, gave rise to a range of independently bottled single malts. The cask finish range (as in this Benrinnes) is based on the distilleries, and types of casks, named in these ledgers (where possible – for example newer distilleries won’t be excluded, but they will ideally be matched with the woods Eadie used). This, at least, is the abridged version of the story I was given by the sales rep from my whisky wholesaler a couple of years back when I was still managing a bar (I hasten to add that that rep was my predecessor in my current roll).
My instinctive response was, frankly, ‘Bullshit’. We are met with so much contrived provenance and history in the whisky industry that it’s difficult to hear such a tale as that and not have internal alarms go off. Once I saw the range featured a lot of distilleries from the Diageo stable (perhaps the biggest sellers to indy bottlers, and the easiest to come by) it all started to seem far too convenient. However, the range contained good liquids at good prices – and as a bar manager you’re not going to let some dubious marketing spiel stop you buying products you know you can sell.
However, between that role and my current I got to know the company better. The consistency of quality, coupled with reasonable pricing, seemed to belie the idea of making a quick buck through a nonsense gimmick. Having spent some time with Hugh Barron, who looks after the sales side of James Eadie, he once lamented to me ‘I love port finished whisky, but we’ll never be able to do one – cause it’s not in the fucking ledgers’. If the history wasn’t important – surely you wouldn’t let it prevent you bottling what you wanted? It seemed more and more, and in fact I do believe today, that there is at the heart of (the company) James Eadie a determination to do right by (the man) James Eadie’s legacy.
This Benrinnes then (as I hear an audible sigh of relief that I’ve actually got to the point). I’m a fan of the Benrinnes Distillery in general, so when I saw this release – cask strength with a long (36 month) oloroso finish – I was pretty sure I was going to like it. The nose is big – a bit tannic, quite a lot of sandalwood and a bit of leather. The palate has a bit more distillery character than you might think, with some nice cereal notes shining through the heavy cask influence. The mouth feel is very creamy – and there’s a sense of it being overcooked (ie. having slightly too much sherry influence) on the finish. This is something I like – though I know plenty of others don’t.
Benrinnes, a Speyside distillery, is one of those known for having a very ‘meaty’ quality – akin to Mortlach and Dailuaine. While this release certainly reflects that in the mid palate, it lacks the heavy sulphur notes that fans might be used to. This is because the partial triple distillation method (the specifics of which I barely understand when reading, let alone be able to put into writing) which contributed to this flavour was abandoned in 2007 for standard double distillation. This Benrinnes was distilled September 2008, so is some of the first of a slightly different new liquid – though close enough as to keep fans old and new happy. Upshot: for a single cask, eleven year old, cask strength Benrinnes at about sixty-five quid – it’s a lot of whisky for that money.
Obviously as stated I work closely with James Eadie helping wholesale their whiskies into the on-trade. The sample bottle I have reviewed was also gifted to me – though not with an obligation to review and I wouldn’t hesitate to pay the RRP for it. There is an outside chance that some of my on-trade customers might see this review, and purchase this or other JE whiskies from me, so I could stand to benefit from it in a round about way.
Distillery/Brand: Benrinnes (James Eadie Bottling)
Region: Speyside, Scotland
Age: 11 years
Cask: Oloroso Sherry Finish (36 months)
Non-Chill Filtered: Y
Natural Colour: Y
Price: Approx £60-£65