Sometimes the world of single malt whisky reminds me of that scene in The Matrix. You know, the one with the blue pill and the red pill: you take the blue pill, the story ends and you wake up in your bed, believe what you want to believe. Or you take the red pill and find out how deep the rabbit hole goes.
This somewhat obtuse association came to me over the weekend when a chap ordered "a Laphroaig 18 year old" while I was working behind the bar. I asked him if he was after the distillery bottling or one of the other Laphroaig 18s we had by independent bottlers.
He gave me a confused, mildly annoyed look and told me he had no idea what I was talking about. So I quickly brought down the bottles and explained the differences between the three 18-year-olds from the same distillery.
He stuck with the blue pill. The independent bottlings seemed sacrilegious, he told me.
Fair play, too; whisky is confusing enough as it is without throwing independent bottlers (and bollocks analogies) into the fray. But some of the most innovative, value-for-money whiskies I've tried in recent times have been independent bottlings (IBs for short), and if you have even a passing interest in single malt whisky, it pays to keep an open mind.
Down the rabbit hole
What are IBs? Basically, there are companies out there that buy casks of whisky from distilleries – or, in rare cases, buy spirit which they mature themselves - and then release that whisky under their own separate label.
But unlike most single malt brands, for instance – your Glenfiddichs and Glenlivets, which have a clear distillery profile and aim to produce a consistent product every time – these bottlers often seek out expressions that are subtly, or even completely distinct from your average distillery bottlings.
Quality over quantity
So are they any good? And why would distilleries wilfully choose to part with their casks?
Obviously, it's in the interest of the IBs to consistently bottle unique, quality whiskies to keep punters coming back for more and to ensure distilleries have the confidence to keep selling them casks of their whisky.
Even so, some distilleries refuse to sell casks to IBs, a growing trend due to stock shortages, while others don't allow their distillery names to be listed on the bottle if their whisky is bottled independently.
But the reason many distilleries still offload and trade stock is because certain casks might, for any number of reasons, not fit in with their plans. The cash flow brought in from selling casks is also a factor here, especially for smaller distilleries.
Finding the one
Because these bottling companies are often small, independently-owned concerns, their whiskies can be hard to come by.
But if you'd like to get a taste of some of these rare, innovative, often single cask releases, click through the gallery above to find some of the best IBs to look out for in bars and retailers across Australia.
Have you dabbled in independent bottlings? Do you think they're as good as distillery releases, or better? Let us know in the Comments section.