We’ve strived to bring you more independent bottlings here at MALT during 2019. This has included in-depth discussions with those behind the labels; shedding light on the efforts and motivations behind their releases. Chorlton Whisky, Dramfool and the Malt Affair have all kindly given their time.
Our next stop is the Netherlands and specifically the Whiskybase Archives label. Dirk, who I know, kindly took the time to answer questions from myself and Noortje. Having attended the Whiskybase Gathering for the past 2 years, I’ve always been struck by the passion and knowledge displayed by the whole Whiskybase team. Their abundant enthusiasm for Scotland’s greatest export is inspiring. We can say this for other foreign independent bottlers as well, but there is an organic and natural vibe to the way Whiskybase goes about its business, which is unique. If you haven’t been to a Gathering yet, then you are, in my humble opinion, missing out on the best whisky festival on the schedule.
MALT: Archives to many of our readers will be a new independent bottler – can you give us a brief history of the label and what you are all about?
Whiskybase: Archives started in 2011 when Menno and CJ started the Whiskybase shop in Rotterdam. At that point it seemed logical to also start an independent bottler label, as the shop is focussed on independent bottlers. Back in 2011 it was not common to become an independent bottler, at least not in the Netherlands, but in Germany almost every respectable shop had its own bottlings. That was the first start of the Archives label. Luckily at that point it was not so difficult to find older casks or even choose from multiple Littlemill casks. Times have changed a lot….
MALT: Your style of labels is very distinctive how did this come about and what sea life or animals do you have planned?
Whiskybase: With Whiskybase we “archive” all the whisky bottles we can find into the database. The name originates from this. We think you should open the bottle and saviour with friends, as the bottle is already “archived” in our system. No need to keep it for your collection ;-). But on a more serious note, we actually think you should do whatever you want with the bottle. If you rather collect them; that is just fine with us. We select on flavour though, not collection value.
Our selection of labels has a bit of strange background. All images are taken from 19th and 20th century books. Inspired by Charles Darwin on his quest to catalogue species we match the labels with every unique cask we select. No cask of whisky is the same, sometimes only small nuances but often differences on many levels. The link with these archived species and the casks of whisky was made.
The fish was actually a starting point because we like fishes. For Littlemill we selected a crab and our undisclosed Speysiders deserved something unique, that became the shellfish labels.
When we started to expand the range with unique bottlings for Taiwan and USA we thought it would be cool to use other animals. So Taiwan got birds, USA butterflies and Japan recently a Chameleon.
We have nothing specifically planned for other animals, if people would be interested in seeing certain animals on a label we would be interested to hear that.
MALT: What distinguishes you from other independent bottlers.
Whiskybase: Beside the labels? Good question and quite difficult to answer. We are not too keen on finishes or wine maturation. Sometimes a perfect cask / whisky is “finished’ into something with colour but an awful taste. We hope to do it differently.
But I learned that the people doing that cater for a market as well and they are passionate about whisky just like us. I think we should consider that 95% of the bottlers out there are doing it with passion and dedication. We can argue about taste but that is a personal thing. We might listen a bit more to our audience and are able to use that for new releases. As the feedback from the shop, tasting and online are constantly checked. But that might not be so different after all.
MALT: What are your main markets currently and any plans for the UK?
Whiskybase: Our global releases are available in Canada, Germany, Netherlands, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Belgium and Japan. And our shop can deliver worldwide so in that sense also the UK. There are currently some plans for other specific country releases but we are not pushing on that. We are able to sell much more if we bottle everything we get offered, but the quality of the casks and whisky are the most important part. Not the volume of sales. Taiwan is a big market for us and Japan has shown great interest since the start, and that is still growing as well. No specific plans for the UK yet.
MALT: You’ve recently moved into North America with a batch of releases. How difficult was this to implement and what are your future plans for that market?
Whiskybase: To be honest that was quite difficult. We have been warned upfront but even that was not even close to what actually is happening. It is easier to sell across Europe with all the different countries then in North America. It is basically a continent with 50 different countries. Every state has their own rules, there is a 3 tier system to comply to and every additional layer is adding costs to the whole process. We think in the time we are living in, this industry would have caught up with the internet, but sometimes it feels you are stepping back in time. We are at the beginning of a big shift towards online shopping. Internet sales and sending across state lines is a big issue. Luckily there is an importer that is determined and actually helped out in a huge way. But I think a lot of whisky fans in the US would be thankful if shipping liquor across states would be possible.
We hope to release multiple batches a year. Still focus on the quality. In the end it all depends on finding the right casks and offer that to the US market as well. There are many fans there and it looks like they are not offered a lot of good whisky at fair prices. We want to play a part in that and try to offer interesting casks. Like we do with all our releases.
MALT: What are your favourite Archives releases?
Whiskybase: My personal favourites, hmm that is quite difficult actually. A few in my top list: Ben Nevis 1990 as this was just something else, creamy, thick and a big finish. Not your typical Ben Nevis but after tasting it you just have to get a bottle. Loved that one and I think that will be a future classic.
Speyside 1973, the last release we did, I wish we would have bought more when it was available. But I just love speyside 1973 and this was one of the better ones I tasted out of all the releases.
A bottling I am proud of was our first Aberlour, Aberlour 1988 for Taiwan was stunning and a lucky find. It was perfect to launch in Taiwan and hearing the feedback while we were in Taiwan was great.
Every bottle has something different but these stand out at the moment.
MALT: How difficult is it to source casks in the current market?
Whiskybase: I would say more difficult than it used to be, prices are going up rapidly and availability is going down (also rapidly). But that is something I think is a broader industry problem. It is starting to become a faster moving market and you just can’t wait weeks before you decide. Mostly we have a group of suppliers that we are working with for quite some time. But even that can get difficult, they see the same price increase and we are positioned in the market as an affordable bottler. At least that is what we try to be.
Sometimes we get casks offered from individuals and that turns out to be a great find. But it is a constant effort and takes up a lot of our time. Looking at other bottlers I sometimes wonder where they get their casks from.
MALT: How do you decide what the next release will be?
Whiskybase: We look at our current inventory of casks and decide what could be bottle ready. This is based on the previous tasting notes and expected cask development. We order the samples for these casks and taste them again. Based on this we decide if it is bottle ready or not. Flavour is everything and age just a number. Sometime it is a surprise on how well developed a whisky is. Sometimes it is not ready yet. From there we look at previous releases as we want to have a nice mixture and not always the same bottlings. I must say there are the occasional lucky finds in between which we didn’t plan for and we just have the option to release it. If for instance 2 casks of Glentauchers are ready we might split this to a Taiwan release and US release or wait 6 months and do a core range release and specific market release. Nothing set in stone.
MALT: How do you select a cask or multiple casks?
Whiskybase: Many people out there think we walk around in warehouses, open casks and select the best one. But mostly it are lists we need to look at, and order samples. Which takes weeks or sometimes months. (if we get them at all). With the very small sample (sometimes 3cl) we taste with the 3 partners of Whiskybase, and individually write down our findings. If we all agree that the sample is good enough we buy it. If one of use is not convinced we don’t buy it, or have a long discussion 😉 If it is good enough or we can try sister casks we sometimes decide to take multiple casks of a specific brand / vintage combination.
MALT: Do you only buy casks or do you also purchase new make?
Whiskybase: We sometimes buy new make, not as often as we would like but sometimes we are offered spirit from a distillery we like. Or one of the new distilleries. We want to support those distilleries and buy a cask. But there are also brands that we personally like and if we get the chance to buy new make at a good price we will do that. Maybe we should be doing that more often.
MALT: Do you find that quality casks are increasingly scarce and more and more casks aren’t fit for the Archive range?
Whiskybase: There is a few things going on over here, a cask with whisky might not be good enough for Archives. But that is a matter of taste. We are with 3 people who decide on buying a cask and releasing it. But we also listen to our staff in the shop or customers who walk in. We do buy casks that are not our personal flavour profile but we are able to judge it on quality. On average we only select 1% of what we are able to taste. We search for spirit driven non finished whiskies. It is not a problem that whisky has matured in multiple casks to give it layers, but it has to be integrated and balanced. That is difficult because we tried some good whisky which was without any color (like water). We declined it as we are not able to put that on the shelves. We could have finished this in a cask to give it some color or add caramel colouring to it but that is not our style.
Quality casks are not extremely hard to find but you have to manage it. Why not spend a bit more on good wood and make an effort out of it? Something we just started doing as we noticed we actually had some good casks, but just didn’t do anything with them after bottling. It is new to our business but exciting. We love long matured whisky and something that has matured in a refill casks just tasted better. Refill hogshead is king, you just need quality spirit and a lot of patience. The influence of the cask is less and the spirit speaks more. We just have to be patient as we are looking at 10 – 15 years before you could release something like that. So from buying casks that are ready to be bottled to buying spirit that needs to mature for the next years is a big shift. We try to do both and that is exciting.
MALT: What do you think of the moves from certain distilleries to withhold use of their name for independent releases? Is this a growing trend?
Whiskybase: At first I didn’t like it and I still think it is difficult, the obvious Orkney we can explain but undisclosed Speyside (which actually can be Glenfiddich, Glenlivet, Glenfarclas and who know what more) is hard to understand. What are you buying if you buy Speyside Region, there are 50+ distilleries. Even Linkwood is teaspooned in some occasions so it can’t be called Linkwood. I think distilleries are missing an opportunity here. But I think independent bottlers can be creative enough to work around this. I do get it, it is easy to sell Glenfarclas or Highland Park or even Macallan. And we would just ride the wave of a famous name.
I just don’t believe that brands don’t want their name on a product that they can’t control the quality of. I have seen many casks without a big name that were stunning and better than the whisky the distillery was releasing. It is just not part of their business but it was and is exactly what independent bottlers do. I do see the “undisclosed” naming scheme has been increasing in the past few years, and I think it will continue to do so for quite some time. We need a big dip in the market for this to change. But currently demand is much higher than the supply.
MALT: Do you think there are too many independents bottling currently or just that too much choice can be a bad thing?
Whiskybase: There is a big increase in independent bottlings but that is ok, it works in waves and we are at a peak now, a lot of new ones popping up. Offerings of casks through websites changed the business, and it is much easier now to find casks. But most of them have the same whisky or are using the same sources for their casks. That is something that I think is not a good development. You see that the supply of casks is also going in waves and suddenly everyone has Orkney, Ledaig or Glentauchers. Don’t get me wrong we do that as well and much of this is actually depending on the supply. But I can imagine this is difficult for people who buy the bottles. It becomes hard to select the right bottler, if you tried Linkwood from 2 or 3 bottlers and don’t like it you might not try it again. Some bottlers are in it for the money and look at the very short term effects. I appreciate the passionate bottlers that educate and curate.
I do think there is a difference between the occasional bottler and an independent bottler who sources casks for the longer term. I do follow a few of the “newer” independent bottlers who are doing other things. That is good and I am curious where this will lead to. I do notice that some of the newer ones start quick and disappear after 2 or 3 years. Keeps the market moving I guess.
MALT: Have you given much thought or preparation to the soap opera that is Brexit?
Whiskybase: Totally not to be honest, we already noticed effects in April of this year. Bottling times increased from 4 to 12 weeks because other bottlers wanted their bottles shipped outside the UK. We think there will not be a big effect. One more form to fill in will not make a big difference. So we pour ourselves a nice whisky and enjoy the second act of this soap opera.
MALT: What do you think of the current state of the whisky industry?
Whiskybase: Hmm, there is something closely related to our Whiskybase site. We capture ratings and reviews and I truly believe that we are building a platform that helps people in their whisky journey. How on earth can you decide what to buy or drink if there is no guide to lead the way. We need sites, blogs and above all people who help others in their journey but we should also be open for other opinions and not just lean towards high scoring bottles. I sometimes feel that a 80 points whisky (6 on Malt?) is not good enough. We just want 90 points or higher and people are participating in a rat race for quickly buying a bottle, scoop up only the best of the best (at least that is what they think) and move on to the next one.
There are many interesting bottles out there that are not considered because we are missing a guide who is (independently) telling us that it is ok to try / buy the whisky. It is a blessing to be part of a platform that uses the voice of the crowd to rate bottles but I also think that we should have our own opinion and don’t take it all to seriously. Blind tastings to me always proof that stepping in with an open mind and just try will lead to new findings and discoveries. Build your own profile and be open to look at other flavour profiles.
MALT: Is there a burning issue that needs to be addressed?
Whiskybase: I think we are living in very exciting times, coming out of the depression and the opening of new distilleries and huge investments means there are things happening. But I think what most people should realise that the re-opening of closed distilleries doesn’t happen often in a lifetime. The whisky industry is an industry where you are planning years and years ahead. I think that is fascinating; the re-opening of Port Ellen or Brora and the wait for 10+ years before we will see releases (I hope) is a long wait. But 50 years from now people will look back at these events and it will be clear if these were smart moves. But we actually were part of that big fundamental change. I think that is unique and being part of that is a once in a lifetime event. I hope people realise this and appreciate all that is going on.
MALT: What are your plans for the next 5 years for Archives.
Whiskybase: Continue to release good quality and affordable whisky 🙂 We know that is hard to do but we want to continue down this path. Special releases for current or new partners, maybe release some unique selections as well. And trying to do more with the Whiskybase label. But those releases are mostly only for Whiskybase milestones. We always have some side projects going on but nothing funky or so. More different countries would be cool.
MALT: Until now you have released Scottish and Irish whisk(e)y and a bourbon. Can we expect to see more world whisky in the near future?
Whiskybase: Maybe, we have been looking into this but found out that the prices wouldn’t work out. The quality is there but before we can put it into the hands of whisky drinkers, it would become to expensive. Which is a pity because sometimes it is really good but we wouldn’t pay the money ourselves for such a bottle. That is the moment we decide not to do it.
That being said, there are a lot of great things going on and we will keep our eyes out for good spirit / whisky. We are not focussed on just Scotland. India, Japan, Ireland are on the radar but sometimes it is hard get access as well.
Now, how about some whisky reviews? Kicking off proceedings is the Craigellachie that was distilled on 23rd June 2006, before being bottled in March 2019. 214 bottles came from the barrel (#8101271) at 59.2% strength. Then we have an American exclusive with the Speyside that was distilled on 17th June 1992 and bottled on 30th October 2018. The barrel (#1408806) released 250 bottles at 51.5% strength
The Laphroaig was distilled on 14th February 2001, before being bottled on 13th July 2017. Hogshead #364 resulted in an outturn of 286, bottled at 53.7% strength. This release was specially selected for the Taiwanese market and sales data company ARen Trading Company. The Ben Nevis was distilled on 28th September 1990 and bottled 25th June 2018, 27 years in a bourbon hogshead. This resulted in 236 bottles from cask #22 at a strength of 58%. My thanks to Noortje for the opportunity to try this export release, the Ben Nevis and taking the photographs for Whiskybase.
Archives Craigellachie 2006 – review
Colour: pine wood.
On the nose: very malty and fresh with Custard Creams, vanilla and pine cones. Time reveals pineapple, caramel, talcum powder and there’s still that engaging airy freshness. It becomes sappier and apple-ish if you leave it to settle. Popcorn and lemon peel follow. Water quells the fire revealing more wood, pastry, melon and a light dusting of cinnamon.
In the mouth: sharp green apples and zingy from the alcohol – perhaps a candidate for water? Somewhat uncouth with more lemon, sour jelly sweeties and sherbet. Water showcases more Speyside features and it can take quite a bit of water with apple peel and a maltiness coming through.
Archives Speyside 1992 – review
Colour: White gold.
On the nose: very fruity! Meadow fruits, icing sugar and very buttery. Sweet pastry, light caramel and Kiwi Fruit. Water showcases more fruit, nutmeg, honey and frangipane.
In the mouth: sweet, ripe, plump fruits and classic Speyside flavours. Almonds, silver needle tea, dough, resin and a chalky calamine lotion note. With water, it becomes more creamy, nutty as well and still very enjoyable.
Archives Laphroaig 2001 – review
Colour: A light pine.
On the nose: enjoyable sweet peat followed by spun sugar and apples. There’s a satisfying clutch of sea salt with cream soda. Also oddly plasterboard and an interesting vanilla flavoured detergent aspect.
In the mouth: a diluted bring – this isn’t a full-on Laphroaig – with charcoal, sawdust and pinewood. In addition, there’s some liquorice, cinder toffee and a gentle bonfire that ends with a modest smoky finish.
Archives Ben Nevis 1990 – review
Colour: a rich honey.
On the nose: a waxy fruit salad with cherries and strawberries. A worn cloth sack and with time the mangoes and pineapple burst through with banana leaves. More oranges, biscuit, vanilla toffee and pancakes with syrup. Chewits and a warmed Stroopwafel – the traditional variety.
In the mouth: texture! Tremendous wax and poise with oodles of fruit and chocolate. More nuts and a rush, this is epic. Precision symmetry with the wood and spirit. Beeswax, orange peel, fennel and a herbaceous edge. Didn’t try water, no point really. Walnuts and a touch of smoke on the finish.
I enjoyed the Laphroaig, it has a subtle lightness and feeling that it was midway between ditching a large proportion of the peated bonfire we see in younger whiskies from this distillery. Thereby developing into something more interesting. The Craigellachie is a touch young and forceful. Still, plenty to play with and you can sense the potential within, but not fully realised for now.
The Speyside is something you can enjoy without too much effort – it just sells itself. There are hints at some of the other stunning Speyside releases from the Archives. This one falls a touch short being more youthful at 28 years (did I just say that?), but it remains well priced and one to plonk down amongst friends and saviour.
And the Ben Nevis? Well, you just need that in your life.
Expect more Archives coverage in 2019.