Welcome to another instalment in our ongoing exploration of 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, Whiskybase Archives and the Malt Affair have all kindly given their time.
Next up is Gregor from Lady of the Glen, who I have known for several years although we haven’t met recently due to our growing whisky commitments. Normally, when we meet for a chat over a cuppa, we discuss anything other than whisky. Vinyl, Scotland, local issues and music form the backbone of any conversation. However, this time whisky was top of the agenda.
MALT: give us an introduction to Lady of the Glen, the inspiration and what you look to do with each release?
Gregor: initially, I’d like to say thanks for having me on your site.
I started the business in 2012 with a view to selling single casks under the brand Lady of the Glen. The name was taken from my time at Uni in Stirling; back then I used to look for the Green Lady ghost when I would walk around Stirling Castle. I really enjoyed my time at Stirling so I named the brand after something I really cared about in order to drive myself.
When I was first releasing casks the focus was on age and quality. However, in the past few years I’ve been more concerned with learning about oak and the different styles of whisky that can be made available – in line with this I’ve completed the masters in Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt and I’ve developed deeper relationships with bodegas and vineyards in Europe to source unique oak casks directly. In the past, I was releasing bourbon hogshead and I wouldn’t know what the original bourbon was; or sherry casks and I wouldn’t know what type of oak it was – French or American. Now I know exactly what I have. Now I know what I can expect, and I communicate this directly to the customer. As a result, I now find the business much more satisfying, as I can see where I’m adding value to my products. I’m producing a range of spirit that’s high in quality, authentic and varied in style.
MALT: how did you get into the world of whisky and then becoming an independent bottler?
Gregor: I didn’t have much of a connection to whisky when I started. My dad was a piper in the Black Watch and he amassed a collection from piping at weddings and events. This collection inspired me to an extent when I was younger. I got started because I managed to find two very good casks and I got lucky with a distributor in Germany. I financed the purchase of these casks with personal bank loan while I worked at a bank. I was then fortunate to get support from the Prince’s Trust, The Scottish Edge and Young Edge which allowed me to continue on my journey.
MALT: is there a certain price point or realm that you chose to operation in within the market, or do you believe in bottling the best cask possible regardless of price?
Gregor: I don’t tend to work on price points. Usually it’s based on cost price plus margin. However, my cost price is dictated by the age and the distillery the whisky comes from. In each outrun I try to follow a guideline of one affordable release, one sherried release and one release over 15 years old. This is an attempt to try to appeal to different buyers – but it’s not always possible meet this criteria.
MALT: recently, we’ve seen independent bottlers charging more for a single cask release than an equivalent official bottling. Do you think an element of greed is now entering the market?
Gregor: perhaps you could argue that there is greed entering the market, but I’ve always attempted to price stock using the same margin on top of my costs. But my cost will vary depending on the cask and when it was acquired. I would almost always expect a distillery to produce and sell a single cask release cheaper than an independent bottler because their cost base would be lower.
MALT: I know when we last talked you mentioned the sheer amount of work that had gone in releasing a large outturn of bottles. There seemed to be an acceptance that less is more in terms of workload and not flooding the marketplace. Have you now settled into a more manageable approach?
Gregor: I try to release three for four casks a quarter. However, sometimes this changes as certain products are ready sooner than anticipated. For instance, I have a few ruby and tawny port releases that used first fill casks. I assumed I could leave the spirit there for long term maturation, but this was not the case and I released them ahead of schedule. I’ve also been releasing more octaves which only take 3 to 4 months to be ready, so those are squeezed into the relevant bottling run as they can’t be left waiting for the next outrun.
MALT: you’ve moved recently into finishing and struck up a relationship to source these finishing casks. Can you talk us through how this came about?
Gregor: I was in Germany with my distributor a few years ago and I became aware that although my stock was good it was not drawing crowds like I would have liked. Everything was getting a bit samey because it was all bourbon matured. Folk would ask to try a port finish or Madeira finish and I wouldn’t have it, so I decided to change that.
The more I delved into different casks and spoke to the bodegas, the more interested and motivated I became. I had that genuine buzz when I first started the business because I was learning about all the possible flavours I could acquire from a huge array of oak styles and ex-spirit styles. I love purchasing casks from vineyards and bodegas and then deciding what spirit of Scotch would best compliment that cask based on advice from the cask maker directly, or the vineyard, coupled with my own judgement. The result is I that I now have a more diverse range of stock which is ideal for the whisky drinker.
MALT: what you have you learned by using octaves recently?
Gregor: you can usually get at least two good fills from a first fill octave, and each fill will only take about 3 months to do the job. The first fill batch will be very intense and dark whereas the second fill batch tends to more balanced. They are proving very popular because I only get about 60 bottles per release as an octave will only contain about 50 litres.
MALT: Port generally is underappreciated and from my time in Portugal it has a great deal to offer. Why port for you and for the inexperienced what should a tawny port finish showcase that’s different from a ruby port finish?
Gregor: when I visited the bodega near Porto I was going to look at only their sherry casks because I had heard mixed things about port and whisky. However, the guys at the bodega where really keen to get me to try their casks that had a port. I thought that since I was near Porto, they would probably have good port. Right enough, the port casks have been exceptional. I’ve been so impressed with the tawny port, as have the distributors, so we’ll definitely being seeing more port going forward. The difference between a tawny port and ruby is really interesting considering it’s the same spirit with only a few years difference in some cases. Generally speaking, I would expect more toffee, nutty and perhaps butterscotch flavours from a tawny port, whereas a ruby port will give more fresh berries and fruity flavours.
MALT: it’s evident you are enjoying a more hands on approach with the octave releases; being able to select a finish and dictate its influence. Has this made bottling more fun for you?
Gregor: definitely. I’m at a stage now where I feel I’m constantly learning which is very important for me. Admittedly, as I’m doing this myself, there is going to be misfires and some releases might not be what I have anticipated. I wouldn’t release anything now that I wouldn’t personally buy, and since I’m using the very best local casks and excellent spirit from some of Scotland’s finest distilleries, I’m best placed so that any miscalculation still results in a good dram.
MALT: what’s your opinion on the recent rule changes from the Scotch Whisky Association around cask types that can be used for finishing?
Gregor: these changes have been discussed for a while and I’ve no strong opinion on them. I think many companies will have already bought tequila casks and other fruit spirit casks with a view that these rules would eventually be dropped. Whisky is already a very diverse field when you consider the different spirits that are produced in each region and the different oak cask opportunities but I can see that certain limitations could be viewed as stifling. Historically Whisky was matured in anything oak, I’ve heard of ginger beer casks being used. But rules were brought in, such as a minimum of three years maturation, in order to ensure quality across the board, as long as we don’t lose fundamental rules like that then I can’t see there being a problem.
MALT: have you considered bottling in smaller sizes on a regular basis such as 35cl or 50cl?
Gregor: I have considered smaller bottles as it would reduce the price and allow more people to buy my whisky. However, I’ve not done it because my distributors prefer 70cl and admittedly I prefer owning 70cl bottles. They are ideal for tastings too. I will be releasing miniatures, but this will be so that people can try my single cask whiskies.
MALT: how difficult is it to source casks in the current market? Is what most of what you’re seeing purely bourbon cask matured?
Gregor: I don’t find sourcing cask as hard as I used to and I don’t really source casks the way I used to. I more or less pick casks from my own portfolio and add stock into the portfolio at younger ages which I can bottle later so I don’t tend to release much stock which is immediately released. Indeed the majority of stock I buy is traditionally bourbon matured and that is why I do re-racking where I want to.
MALT: do you think there are too many independents bottling currently or just that too much choice can be a bad thing?
Gregor: I’ve not been in the industry for that long but it has grown since I’ve been a part of it, so you would expect that as it grows more independent bottlers will emerge. I agree that too much choice cannot be a bad thing; in some ways it could drive the price down but I think it does run a high risk of people releasing similar stock. Not sure this makes sense??
MALT: have you given much though or preparation to the soap opera that is Brexit?
Gregor: I’ve been a member of the SWA for around 2 years and nobody really knows what is going to happen. I was told to not export to Europe in June prior to the extension being confirmed, so I would anticipate a similar guidance when the next deadline passes in October. It’s not difficult to see that there is going to be problem and a drop in sales when you’re told to not export to a market that you’ve been regularly exporting to for over 5 years.
MALT: what releases do you have incoming in 2019 and is there anything you’re particularly excited about?
Gregor: I have quite a few exciting PX octave finishes coming out, including a 2010 Blair Athol.
Last year I sourced some fantastic Marsala sweet wine casks from Sicily and Amarone red wine casks from Northern Italy which I re-racked a selection of different vintage whiskies into, so we’ll be releasing the first of these: a 13 year old Glenallachie with Marsalla wine finish, and a 2011 vintage Caol Ila with an Amarone red wine finish.
In addition, we have some first fill tawny port and ruby releases that have finished Glenlossie, Glen Elgin, Strathmill and Teaninch.
MALT: what do you think of the current state of the whisky industry and is there a burning issue that needs to be addressed?
Gregor: the industry is aware of the growing competition of other national whiskies from the US and Ireland, and other spirits such as gin. We have lost market share to these products. The likelihood is that we will continue to lose market share as these categories strengthen. Whisky needs to ensure that quality is not compromised and that pricing strategies remain consistent because a race to the bottom could result in another 1980 whisky loch. In relation to independent bottling, I’m seeing far less of the famous distillery casks such as Bowmore, Macallan, Ardbeg, etc despite the capacities of all distilleries generally increasing, so I would anticipate more effort being placed on flavour within the wider world of Scotch, with less focus on the distillery.
Thanks to Gregor for his time and providing a trio of samples for me to review as part of this article. These are due to be released anytime now.
Glen Moray 2008 PX Finish Batch 2 – review
Distilled on the 1st of July 2008 and bottled 10th of April 2019. Bottled at 57.10% strength, this 10-year-old is available for £85.60. 50 litres were taken from the ex-bourbon barrel #5585, and finished in a Pedro Ximenez octave for 3 months resulting in just 62 bottles.
On the nose: honeyed and shortbread, vanilla and dark chocolate with orange oil. Marzipan followed along with honey peanuts? Apricot, stone fruits and toffee. With water more oils and fruits appear, especially apples and peaches.
In the mouth: a plesant texture with tobacco on the finish. Prior to this it is a bit uncouth in places with orange pips and almonds. Water isn’t hugely successful revealing apples and more orange notes.
Linkwood 2006 PX Finish Batch 2 – review
Distilled on 13th of July 2006. Bottled at 59.90% strength, this 12-year-old is available for £89.98. 50 litres were taken from the ex-bourbon barrel #87, and finished in a Pedro Ximenez octave for 3 months resulting in just 62 bottles.
Colour: olive oil.
On the nose: light with meadow fruits, sweet pastry dough, honey and green mango. There’s syrup and a certain poise to it with all-spice, cinnamon bark and pineapples.
In the mouth: more balance but still that harsh woody aspect from the Octave. However better than the Glen Mory with tobacco, apples, wine gums, olives and a wood finish.
Tamdhu 2007 PX Finish Batch 2 – review
Distilled 24th September 2007 and bottled 10th of April 2019. Bottled at 61% strength, this 11-year-old is available for £78.40. 50 litres were taken from the ex-bourbon cask #6833, and finished in a Pedro Ximenez octave for 3 months resulting in 60 bottles.
Colour: tablet that’s a Scottish delicacy.
On the nose: buttery with wet tweed and a hint of a hard cheese. Then more honey, toffee apple with a diluted orange squash. Time is beneficial; revealing more fruit with a touch of smoke, palm sugar and lemon.
In the mouth: much better with improved balance and integration, very more-ish. Figs, tobacco, chocolate and Kiwi fruit. Quite sappy, cracked black pepper, a stewed black tea then apples and pears.
An interesting trio of PX finishes, each bringing something different to these distilleries. At their heart exists a core similiarity, but enough variation between the casks to prompt further debate.
Speaking with Gregor, he confirmed that these octaves were used for batch 1 of the finishes; there was enough life in the octaves to do this new batch. By all accounts, the initial releases showcased a more aggressive and forceful aspect due to the wood. Here instead, things are more subtle and to a degree balanced. The most successful is obviously the Tamdhu, which I think worked well. The Glen Moray I would have preferred to try as a straightforward ex-bourbon expression, whilst the Linkwood retains more character.
Plenty of whisky for thought and some enticing whiskies clearly in the pipeline.
Photographs kindly provided by Lady of the Glen.