Cadenhead’s is Scotland’s oldest independent whisky bottler. They were established in 1842 and are still going strong, with stores across the country and stacks of fantastic whisky being released each year. They select their own casks and don’t go in for any chill-filtering or colouring. I’ve really enjoyed several of their bottlings to date but I was intrigued to find out more about their operation. So I managed to get a few question to Mark Watt – King of Whisky at Cadenhead’s, and the man who’s been steering their range – to find out a little more on what life is like as an independent bottler. It turned out to be a fascinating glimpse into the industry, and one from a different angle to that of distillers.
Malt: The whisky industry has never been in better health, and distilleries are becoming strong brands around the world. But there’s very little spoken about life as independent bottlers. Given Cadenhead’s has been established for a very long time, is the whisky business in a good state for independents too?
Mark: It certainly is a good time for IB’s at the moment with worldwide demand for whisky increasing all the time; this does make it harder to purchase casks from some people, but at Cadenhead’s we are in a fortunate position to still be able to buy (albeit at much higher prices than we used to) and have historic stocks that will sustain us for several years ahead even without future purchases.
You’ve not been the boss of Cadenhead’s for all that long, so when it comes to the historical brand, are you conscious of preserving a tradition or are you hoping to bring a classic bottler into newer territory?
Very conscious of preserving traditions and doing things in the Cadenhead’s way. Focus on the quality of the whisky is the key factor in everything that we do and we will not compromise on that for any reason. All we are looking to do really is to increase slightly the number of bottlings we are doing per year and add a few more countries to those we have historically always been in. This is not about world domination!
For those of us who dream of one day bottling our own whiskies, what’s the process behind deciding on what to release next? Do you buy up casks and store them in a warehouse until they’re ready? Or do you approach certain distilleries that are of particular interest to see what they’ve got at any given moment?
There are many factors in this decision. At Cadenhead’s we have stocks of whisky from 102 Scottish Distilleries ranging in age from 0 to nearly 50 years old. So we buy whisky at all levels of maturity; some we buy to lay down for the long-term future some are partially matured and we will warehouse further and sometimes we buy casks of whisky that are ready to be bottled now.
When choosing the releases, we look at what we have bottled recently and try to offer something different every time, so that every time there is a release from Cadenhead’s – whether it is under the Authentic Collection or the International range – we are always offering something new. Just because something has sold quickly doesn’t mean we will just bottle another cask; we are looking to offer a new range every bottling.
Your very well-regarded releases are as much a comment on your judgement and taste. So when you finally pop your head in a cask, what is it you’re looking for? And do you have to get others to give the thumbs up to what you think is great, or is it totally your call?
Initially I make a list of things that we think could be good for the next bottlings. We will draw samples and then assess them. Ideally I will get Grant, Ranald, etc to go through the samples with me once I have narrowed them down to get a second opinion or to help with the writing of tasting notes. Choosing casks is an odd way to drink whisky; by that I mean you are immediately looking to see if there is anything wrong with the whisky to see if it should be eliminated rather than automatically looking for distillery characteristics etc. When selecting casks of whisky or putting a vatting or a blend together I always think to myself, would I be happy to stand up and talk about this in a tasting? If the answer is no then it doesn’t get bottled.
I noticed you’d recently been out in Japan. Are there any plans to release more Japanese whiskies and are there many problems involved in acquiring Japanese stocks?
I would love to bottle some Japanese whisky, but no matter how many times I head out there and who I try to ply with whisky to sell me a cask, as yet it hasn’t happened (same with Anthony at Kilchoman) but I will keep trying.
Are you finding it tough to acquire any stocks from particular Scottish distilleries given the health of the market? And who’s keeping casks to themselves?
It has been tougher to get casks, and the prices that we have to pay now are much higher, but it is always swings and roundabouts within the whisky industry. I was speaking to a broker the other day and he was saying if you go back say 20 years, if you wanted to buy a cask from a top-class Speyside distillery, they would say you can only have that if you buy some casks of Ardbeg as well! How times change.
As someone who approaches the whisky industry from a slightly different angle to distillers, what do you find frustrates or annoys you about the wider industry? (Or can you not say…?)
I have to say there are many things that frustrate and annoy me about the whisky industry. Maybe I need a few whiskies first before I jump on to my soap box.
One of my main gripes at the minute is about packaging of whisky, and by this I mean press releases for new whisky that go on and on about the packaging and how great it is rather than the quality of the whisky that is inside the bottle! It seems that we can justify huge prices for a whisky because the box is “nice”; nothing wrong with nice packaging, but the quality of the whisky needs to match the price tag in my opinion.
As for non age statement whiskies, I don’t have a problem with them as such – J&A Mitchell have been doing them for years – Springbank CV, for example – and I don’t remember people complaining about those bottlings. That said NAS whiskies used to be entry-level whiskies, and that is what I think is annoying people is high prices with no age statement to back it up. Whisky being a victim of its own success of marketing age statements for years. All in all, though, it is the whisky that counts – any what you like. Drink what YOU like not what someone else says you should like – as long as it says Cadenhead’s on the label of course.
A final rant would be investing in whisky. Yes I can understand why people are doing it – but people appearing on TV and on the Internet stating that Whisky X will double in price in 5 years is not helpful for anyone. The problem is that people used to drink whisky, then the collectors came along and pushed the price up for drinkers. Now investors have pushed the price up for collectors and therefore drinkers also. What I think is that prices will not continue to rise as much as they did in the past, as there are too many people collecting whisky these days, and too many collectible whiskies. It used to be if you had a limited edition bottling of say 3000 bottles, 2800 of them would get drunk. Now out of 10,000 bottles I would imagine little more than 1000 bottles will be drunk. People pay lots of money for the old legendary bottlings such as Black Bowmore, the old 21 year old Springbanks, Bunnahabhain Auld Acquaintance etc, as people had tried these and raved about them and they had a cult following. Today there are many investable bottles that no one has tried, and in 10 years time when people are trying to sell them then how many people will remember them?