The Whiskey Wash — The Independent American Whiskey Bottler Arises In The United States
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In the world of whisky, Independent Bottlers (“IBs” or “indies”) have been part of the consumer landscape for more than a few decades. Going back further, the Scotch whisky industry was built upon a 19th century middle layer of merchants and traders who were the commercial tier between the Highland distillers and the Lowland blenders, the oldest among them being the venerable Cadenhead’s in Aberdeen followed by the Gordon and MacPhail Company of Elgin, Scotland. Their peers in Ireland were W&A Gilbey’s (bottlers of the original Redbreast), JJ Corry and Wm. Cowan. All started their enterprises as importers and negociants of wine, ports and brandy as they moved into whisk(e)y.
But the last forty years have released a torrent of indie bottlings, starting with the old Flora and Fauna releases from UDV (the precursor to Diageo); through MacKillop’s, Duncan Taylor, Signatory, Classic Cask, Black Adder, Dun Bheagan and the Scotch Malt Whiskey Society, to name a few. In all cases, the tradition has been a curated, middle tier of merchants.
The Independent Bottler (IB) is not an entity with an agreed upon definition, and with enough resources, anyone can get into the game with no background in the business. The term lately, however, does come with some built in assumptions: it’s typically an independent entity (company or person) that buys casks of aged whiskies (mostly Scottish malts) from either a registered distillery warehouse or broker; it’s done with the intent of reselling the liquid to the consumer in a somewhat unadulterated form, with little to no processing (blending, chill filtering, coloring) and typically at barrel or cask strength.
Additionally, the transparent display of the cask’s provenance (distillery, distillation/bottling dates, bottle number, etc.) on the label is a prominent feature. The whiskies can range from obscure blender’s malt distilleries like Blair Athol, Linkwood or Dalhuaine to the last drops of closed distilleries like Cambus, Auchroisk or Rosebank; to better known distilleries like Aberlour, Highland Park or Macallan that also offer their own versions, known as Original or Official Bottlings, or just “OBs”.
As the advent of the 21st century brought with it an explosion of micro-distillers around the world, as well as increased output from heritage distillers, it was inevitable that some form of “new” independent bottler would take shape, this time focused on American distilleries. These US-based versions, however, are following more of a mixed path, some in Scottish tradition and others striking out in new ways. In all cases, they’re balancing the virtue of transparency and innovation with the need to build a widely accessible brand.
Lost Lantern Whiskey
The husband and wife team of Adam Polonsky and Nora Ganley-Roper had a long term vision of where the American craft whiskey world was going, he coming out of the whiskey press and she from liquor retail. So they embarked on an eight month road trip (complete with an IG account) that took them to over 50 distilleries across the US to discover the range of American whiskey distilling. Forty more have since been visited. From that has come Lost Lantern Whiskey, probably the closest relative to the august Scottish independents mentioned earlier (they liken themselves as an American Signatory, described by Polonski as a “beacon of transparency.”)
Their first releases are single cask expressions from four of the distilleries they visited: Santa Fe Spirits Single Malt (NM); Cedar Ridge Bourbon (IA); Ironroot Republic (TX) straight corn whiskey; and New York Distilling’s (NY) straight rye finished in apple brandy barrel. Like their Scottish inspirations, each expression is presented at cask strength. The labels hold a plethora of geeky facts, including mashbill, quantity, strength, barrel details and age. All of the expressions are presented as non-chill filtered with no color added. Each label is headed by the Lost Lantern logo.
This is the first time a merchant bottler has dedicated itself to exclusively bottling American craft whiskies and Polonski and Ganley-Roper, in their first releases, expose the breadth of styles available. However, just as in Scotland (and with our 2 other examples above), there’s a temptation to take a decidedly more creative angle than just picking a great barrel. And in this case, creativity was matched with a logistical cleverness.
The team contacted six distilleries (Balcones, Copperworks, Sante Fe Spirits, Triple Eight, Westward and Virginia Distillery) and met at the American Distilling Institute’s Denver Trade Convention in 2018. Each distiller brought barrel samples, with a total of thirty-five samples evaluated by the entire extended team. After a marathon day at the convention, tasting, comparing and blending together, the group selected a twelve-barrel blend of all their best single malts, two barrels from each distillery. The result is Lost Lantern’s Vatted Malt Edition 1. At 105 proof and minimum two years old, there were 3000 bottles produced for sale and distribution. The Lost Lantern team are planning a release of a new cohort of single casks per quarter, all from distilleries they personally have visited and know. And the vatted malt will continue to be produced, each one from a new selection of participants.