Home Articles American Independent Bottlers Don’t Source Whiskey. They Tell A Story

American Independent Bottlers Don’t Source Whiskey. They Tell A Story

by Chris Perugini

If you’re a bourbon drinker, you’re probably familiar with the concept of sourced whiskey. Sourcing is the concept in which a distillery or non-distilling producer (NDP) buys and sells whiskey that they did not distill themselves. This practice is employed in many whiskey-making countries around the world but is most commonly associated with American whiskey. While sourcing is more widely accepted these days, advocates against the idea cite the disingenuous connotations of the practice, suggesting that selling someone else’s product is less authentic than creating it in-house.

This sentiment is very much the product of a contemporary whiskey market. Sourcing has always been a part of the whiskey world, and some of today’s most sought-after legacy brands are sourced products. However, the modern whiskey enthusiast expects more transparency from producers than ever before. Over the last decade, distilleries and NDPs have responded accordingly, regularly sharing release details about mash bills, barrel entry proofs and which warehouse floor the whiskey aged on.

This new influx of production data is enough to satisfy most whiskey connoisseurs, but many sourced products remain a black box, especially products that are blends of straight bourbon or rye whiskies from multiple states. If you’ve ever seen a bottle label indicate that the whiskies were distilled in Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky, you know just enough to not quite know the full story. Recently, a new wave of transparent whiskey production has taken shape in the United States, based on a business model that has been successful in Scotland for decades.

No Two Barrels Are Ever The Same

How Does Independent Bottling Work?

Independent bottling is similar to sourcing in that the company selling the whiskey did not distill it themselves. Unlike most sourced whiskey, though, there is full transparency about the source distillery on the label—often in a prominent location. Why would a distillery choose to let someone else sell their brand of whiskey? The answer lies in the unpredictability of the whiskey-making process. Two barrels filled with the same new-make spirit on the same day, stored next to each other in the same warehouse, could yield two end products that tastes completely different. Because of this variability, some casks may not produce the specific flavor set a distillery needs for their product line.

These off-profile barrels can find a new home with an independent bottler (IB) in a win-win transaction: the distillery offloads barrels they can’t use and the bottler gets to list the distillery name on the label. Even distilleries that don’t allow the use of their official brand name will choose an IB trade name instead. For example, you won’t see a lot of independently bottled Balvenie or Laphroaig, but there’s plenty of “Burnside” and “Williamson” out there on the IB circuit. Distilleries will also sometimes sell unusual or experimental casks to independent bottlers. These aren’t necessarily “bad” barrels, but casks whose flavors don’t align with the product strategy of the brand. Distilleries also historically sold surplus barrels to independent bottlers, though this has become less common as global demand for whiskey continues to surge.

Once the barrel is in the hands of the independent bottler, they can do whatever they want with it. Some barrels are bought and sold quickly, but most continue to age in the bottler’s warehouses. Many barrels are moved to secondary finishing casks before bottling, imparting new layers of flavor on top of the original base spirit. For some casks, secondary maturation could mean the difference between a lackluster release and a product worthy of bringing to market. Some bottlers will also sometimes vat together a small number of barrels from the same distillery for an IB release.

In the United States, the concept of independent bottling provides a very different opportunity for the many, many distilleries crafting whiskey throughout the country. A small distillery making great whiskey in Ohio or Montana may never have the marketing budget or distribution network to spread their brand outside of its local market. An independent bottler changes things significantly. By releasing products with the source distillery name prominently featured on the label, small distilleries get the opportunity to reach a national audience while the IB handles the hard part of marketing, selling and distributing the whiskey themselves.

Lost Lantern’s Midwest Collection

Independent Bottlers Are On The Rise In The U.S.

There are two main legacy players in the American independent bottler space. The U.S. branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society (SMWS) has been in operation since 1993, serving the American single malt drinker with unique barrels of scotch whisky for over thirty years. The SMWS has since branched out to include bourbon, rye, rum, gin and armagnac among other spirits, but remains heavily focused on sourcing and selling scotch.

Single Cask Nation was founded in 2011 by self-proclaimed whisky geeks Jason Johnston-Yellin and Joshua Hatton. Similar to the SMWS, they focus heavily on scotch whisky but have branched out to other styles including bourbon, rye, rum and American single malt. Both of these companies source whisk(e)y from around the world with an emphasis on Scotland, leaving much of the craft American whiskey market completely untapped.

Thanks to a rapidly-growing whiskey consumer market, there is a new generation of independent bottlers focusing exclusively on smaller American distilleries. Vermont’s Lost Lantern is the torchbearer of this new-wave, American IB movement. Founders Nora Ganley-Roper and Adam Polonski are passionate about finding great American whiskey and began operations with a two-year, coast-to-coast road trip in search of the right barrels. Similarly, Two Souls Spirits, based in Florida, partners with producers across the country to select and release single barrels from distilleries that don’t have a national footprint.

Both companies emphasize transparency, with detailed articles about their processes, technical specs on every product page and an extremely active social media presence. Between these two producers, distilleries from non-traditional whiskey making states Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio and New Mexico have gotten national exposure. Lost Lantern and Two Souls go so far as to give some of their releases descriptive titles, setting the stage for each expression’s flavor profile. Two Souls’ latest bottling from Wollersheim Distillery is called “Wisconsin Waffles,” featuring waffle and maple syrup tasting notes, and Lost Lantern’s “Gentle Giant,” from Balcones Distillery in Texas, showcases a softer whiskey from a distillery known for big, bold flavors.

Unlike traditionally sourced American whiskies, there’s a lot of variability in the independent bottling world. With an ever-evolving lineup of single barrels from distilleries across the country, don’t expect to find two IB expressions that taste exactly the same. What IB bottles lack in consistency, though, is made up for with unique flavor sets that you may not otherwise find from your favorite distillery’s standard range. More importantly, for the craft producers around the US, independent bottlers connect small distilleries to the consumers most likely to appreciate their products, no matter where they live.

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