I remember when I first got into whisky, the scale of the undertaking was equally exciting and daunting. Even when I just kept my attention on Scotch, there was an abundance of distilleries and brands all vying for my attention, my money, and my heart. And this was just the official bottles on offer. For a large of part of my time drinking whisky, both as part of and beyond my career, I skirted around independent bottles, only occasionally dipping my toe into the pool of ‘unofficial’ releases.

The idea of an unofficial bottle might sound dodgy to some, perhaps suggesting something nefarious; mysterious bottles sold by a guy who knows a guy with a knack for sourcing goods that fell off the back of a lorry. But indie bottlers aren’t the Del Boys of the whisky world, flogging hooky Scotch to unsuspecting punters. Au contraire, reader, independently bottled whisky is totally legit and can often offer a great dram at a fair price. I’ve discovered it’s a wide and wonderful world, and one well worth diving into.

An independent bottler buys casks of whisky from distilleries and then bottle them under their own brand labels. While not distilling the whisky themselves, they may request that the spirit is made to particular specifications (I.e peated to a certain ppm). Bottlers have the ultimate influence over the final flavour of the whisky, selecting the cask type(s) and choosing how long to mature the spirit for.

Some bottlers such Berry Brothers & Rudd and Gordon and MacPhail have been in the game for well over a century, and have suitably impressive reputations to match. G&M in particular have made headlines by releasing some incredibly well-aged malts in recent years, such as the 75 Year Old Mortlach and the 80 Year Old Glenlivet that make up their Generations range. At the other end of the price spectrum, their Discovery series has some of the finest ‘entry level’ whiskies available.

Other newer companies such as North Star Spirits and That Boutique-y Whisky Company, both founded this side of 2010, have quickly established themselves on the whisky scene and their releases are revered among both collectors and drinkers. Their ranges can offer the full spectrum of whisky out there, from older expressions and established favourites to showcasing younger whiskies from newer distilleries.

One of the great things about independent bottlers is that they can provide a platform for some lesser-loved distilleries. The likes of Linkwood, Balmenach and Tormore are often more likely to be found under an independent label rather than an ‘official’ one, often because their parent companies dedicate most of that distillery’s production to blending. Now, we’re not saying independent bottlers are saving these whiskies as such, especially since the industry wouldn’t survive without the sale of blends, but it’s great to be afforded the opportunity to try such drams.

On top of trying something new, an independently released whisky may also offer an alternative take on a distillery you’re already familiar with. Many distilleries, particularly larger ones, will have a variety of vintages or age statements and cask finishes across their range, but most won’t derivate from a house style that is closely associated with their brand. Indie bottles provide an opportunity to try the same spirit but from a different angle, pushing both that brand and the drinker out of their normal comfort zone.

For example, legendary bottler Cadenhead have a whole series dedicated to experimenting with wine and sherry casks across whisky from different distilleries. On a personal level, the first time I was able to try bourbon matured expressions from the famously sherry-casked Aberlour and Dalmore were through independent bottles (one from Malts of Scotland, the other from G&M - both delicious).

Another point of departure for independent bottles can often be the ages at which they’re released. Decades of marketing have conditioned many casual whisky drinkers to expect the same age statements appearing across different distilleries’ ranges: 12, 15, 18, 21, etc. While this is certainly not a rule, it’s certainly a common trend. Independent releases are significantly less-likely follow this pattern, offering up the potential for some interesting and uniquely aged whiskies.

As whisky drinkers we also know that age is just a number (at least in most cases), but it’s undeniable that whiskies with impressive age statements are often highly regarded, widely sought after and can come with a weighty price tag. However, if you’re lucky, you might be able to find an independently bottled, well-aged expression from your favourite distillery for a slightly lower price than a distillery released alternative.

Cask strength expressions are also generally more common among independent releases than they are from distillery bottlings. The idea of providing an undiluted or ‘pure’ Scotch is a guiding principle for many bottlers, and it will often be a main point of difference that can set them apart from official releases. And it’s hard not to appreciate getting more ABV-bang for your buck.

If the idea of variety isn’t enticing, then maybe you could be intrigued by an element of mystery. In almost any whisky shop you’ll find labels declaring that the liquid within comes from a secret or undisclosed distillery. It’s a fun way to approach whisky, drinking without any preconceived ideas of what to expect, the same way you would at a blind tasting. Even though some of these whiskies are easier to figure out than others - there are only so many distilleries on Skye or Orkney for example, and Dramfool’s cheekily titled “Cola Ali” releases aren’t fooling anyone -, it can nevertheless be a fun guessing game among fellow geeks.

Perhaps the kings of the mystery bottle are the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, whose releases are all coded. The only clues to the flavour are brief notes on age, cask, region and strength, alongside a playful, often perplexing tagline (“1.263 - Soft or Stiff Peaks?”). The keys to crack the SMWS codes are easily found online, but where’s the fun in that?

Of course, all of this is not to say that independent bottles are inherently better than their ‘official’ counterparts. As with ‘standard’ expressions of whisky, indie bottles can run the full gamut of flavour profiles, from the sickening to the sublime, just as they can run from value releases to the high-end premium products.

One of the most appealing things about independent bottles is also their biggest downside. They are often small batch in nature, only releasing a few hundred bottles of a given expression. So if you find a whisky that you absolutely love, you will have a much harder time tracking down another bottle - if you can at all -, especially when compared to more commonly found brands.

Even so, independent bottles offer a wonderful alternative to a distillery’s own releases. It might be a cliche to say that variety is the spice of life, but one of the greatest joys of whisky is how much of it there is to enjoy, and indie bottles provide a plethora of colourful and diverse drams to discover.