Scotch malt whisky is still a growing business – and it’s one that is huge among independent retailers – most will have a range far bigger than any other spirit – but it is getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd and make a difference. The problem? The supermarkets are doing a better and better job. They’ve realised that there is money to be made here and that they don’t need to give that much shelf space up to have a reasonable range.
A few years ago you could walk into a supermarket at be faced with Glenfiddich, Glenmorangie and Glenlivet – it didn’t really matter that these were the 10/12 year olds – that was what they were that was what was available and they were the brands people bought in droves. I remember my father was on special occasions given a bottle of malt by someone – it was always Glenfiddich or occasionally Glenmorangie. I remember it sitting there not being drunk (which was an incredible achievement in our house) and then my parents would probably drink it with Soda because that was how they drank whisky.
But in the years since more and more whisky brands have come into the supermarkets – in fact some distilleries will have 2 or 3 expressions in a decent sized Tesco or Sainsbury. Which makes it all the more difficult for independent merchants to stand out and be commercial at the same time. Anything with a following is immediately listed by at least one supermarket leaving independents with those ‘unknown’ whiskies. I say unknown but the reality is that among fans most distilleries are at least known.
The other issue is that the supermarkets do some crazy pricing on whisky from time to time – of course this is great news for consumers – this Christmas for instance Sainsbury’s are selling Aberlour 10 year old for £20 – that’s a crazy good price or Strathisla 12 year old at £25. These are the sorts of names that supermarkets are now selling. I call these part of the third generation of supermarket malts, the first being the three I talked about above, the second includes brands such as Balvenie, Ardbeg and Laphroaig whilst this ‘3rd generation’ tends to be the less well known distilleries owned by the major players.
Diago and Pernod Ricard own a huge swathe of distilleries giving them enormous control – but also making it really easy for supermarkets to stock a decent range. But fortunately multiple expressions and options plus lots of interesting distilleries make it possible for independents to stock a really decent range of malt whisky whilst maintaining a point of difference from the supermarkets and their low pricing.
Look at independent bottlers – some great ones out there and the quality of the spirit and bottling is sometimes brilliant and individual. BUT be warned there are some bottlers who are not so good, some bottlings are dodgy casks – if you don’t trust a bottler implicitly then make sure you taste before you buy from them.
Buy from independent distilleries – there are some distilleries who are independent family owned businesses who would not sell to supermarkets even if they were chased.
Buy from distilleries who value independents – there are distilleries who have set out to be in independents only and where the quality of the spirit is good they are able to sell significant volumes through specialists.
Buy range extensions or limited bottlings from established distilleries – Glenfiddich 12 year old may not sell very well in an independent merchant but when they released the special Snow Phoenix bottling and independent with stock could have sold their allocation 50 times over. The same is true of Arbeg bottlings which retailers can sell out of before they get stock in.
Buy from closed distilleries – sadly there are a good number of distilleries that are now closed – some are more missed than others but pick up the right bottling for the right price and you’re sitting on gold dust. Port Ellen and Rosebank are two names to look out for (I’m enjoying a nice 1990 Rosebank bottled at Cask Strength while writing this – it really is a profound experience)
So given the above – I’ve come up with a list of 10 for independents but bear in mind that indies can easily stock 200 malts and make really good money from it. It does require some decent investment and in the bigger the range the longer the overall turnover will be. My suggestion is to build up to you maximum so you have more malts than at any other time around the beginning of November. Sell through on lots of them over the next two months and then slowly build up from January through tot November bearing in mind that less whisky is sold over the summer.
1. Ardbeg – 10 year old is in the multiples but list it and then head to Corryvreckan and the amazing Uigeadail – one of THE best whiskies ever made in my opinion. This will also give you some access to a limited number of bottles of annual special editions – these you can sell at decent margin with no work at all – who doesn’t want that!
2. Dalmore – I really like the 18 year old – but the 15 and 12 are really good too. Presentation is immaculate and the style is really popular with consumers.
3. Springbank – what’s not to like about Springbank – they make some brilliant distilleries in Campbeltown, are indepdendent and family owned and make a range of three malts brands in their distillery all of which are different. From the newest ‘Hazelburn’ and unpeated malt to Longrow a heavily peated malt with Springbank itself sitting in the middle. There is a fair degree of experimentation here too with limited releases selling out fast giving the whole distillery an added boost. Look out too for Kilkerran malts from the Glengyle distillery owned by Springbank at a seperate site in Campbeltown.
4. Glenfarclas – like Springbank, Glenfarclas remains indepdendent and it too is not a whisky that ‘label’ buyers are going to grab off shelves but the liquid in the bottles is exceptionally good and the pricing more than fair particularly at the top end. With Macallan 25 year old now retailing at over £500 if you can even get hold of any Glenfarclas 25 year old at around £115 is a complete steal. I cannot imagine why any independent retailer would not get behind this brand.
5. Arran – a newish distillery on the Isle of Arran I was not that taken with some of the early releases from this distillery but more recent releases starting with the 14 year old have really raised the bar. Also available are a range of wood inspired malts simply called ‘The Arran Malt’ with no age statement these can be bought in Sauternes, Amarone, Port finished and Sherry and Bourbon cask versions – the scope to play here is huge. I particularly like the Amarone finish. It’s also well worth getting an allocation of Machrie Moor, the peated version of Arran, not only is it lovely it’s limited and for any retailer that’s a big bonus.
6. Balblair – an often overlooked distillery – and I think unfairly so. The packaging is really good and maybe this puts people off but I really like the whisky and with it’s vintage range it offers something a little but different. The younger 10(ish) year old releases are lovely but really look out for bottlings from the late 80s or mid 90s (1989-1997 really) that seems to be a really (really…) sweet spot for the spirit.
7. Bladnoch – for me since Rosebank and Littlemill are shamefully no more, this is the best of the Lowland Malts but it seems to have been managed in a slightly strange way for a period of time. Currently it’s in administration and so Scotland stands to lose another of it’s brilliant lowland malts. One problem retailers have had has been knowing what is what – listings with suppliers have never helped determine which one bottling is the one to start off with.
8. Mortlach – if there is one malt that when you suggest it as an option to whisky drinkers they’ll go for it then Mortlach is it. It doesn’t seem to matter whether it’s the now much mourned over Flora & Fauna Malt or an independent bottling it does seem invariably to be really very good. Diageo are cashing in a little on this now with a trio of new releases which are a little pricey. I haven’t yet tasted any of them but I am sure they will be brilliant. My one concern is that the over elaborate packaging might mean that too much money is spent marketing and packaging it and not enough on the spirit – or that the packaging will make it take off in travel retail and overseas markets pushing prices higher still.
9.Glendronach – owned by the Benriach Distillery Company (who now also own Glenglassaugh), whilst I like Benriach I personally prefer Glendronach in style. That said both or either are a good bet in pure quality terms – whilst Glenglassaugh could very well be the best of the lot – certainly old bottlings are brilliant.
10. Edradour – little Edradour – said to be the smallest of the distilleries this was bought from Pernod Ricard in 2002 saving it from closure. Today the malt produced here is thick and almost unctuous and decidedly different from anything being made out there.
There are of course many many others that could have made the list, some were very close to being included but just didn’t make in – not because they were not good enough but because I chose to include something else instead.