As strange as it may sound, it is only in the last three to five decades that most distilleries have seen fit to bottle their own whiskies as single malts. Prior to that, the vast majority of whiskies distilled in Scotland were produced almost exclusively for blends. With few exceptions, most of the available single malts prior to the 1970s were bottled by independent bottlers like Gordon Macphail and WM Cadenhead. Distilleries like Glenfiddich, Macallan, Glenmorangie, Bowmore and Glenlivet began bottling their whiskies as single malts, and exporting them globally, in the 1960s. Other distilleries would follow in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Some products – like John Dewar & Sons’ “The Last Great Malts” series – have only been launched in the last few years.
Independent bottlings are whiskies bottled by a third party, and not the distillery which produced them. Not all distilleries actually bottle their whiskies as single malts, and many that do have limited ranges. Independent bottlings fill this niche in the market, generally releasing single casks and small batch single malts that can vary enormously from the distillery’s core offering. If you are a devoted single malt aficionado, chances are you’ve come across more than a few independent bottling in your day. If you haven’t yet dipped your toes into the world of independent bottlings, then you may be missing out on some of the world’s finest whisky, and it is high time you took a look at what they have to offer.
The oldest – and one of the finest – of all the independents is WM Cadenhead’s. Established in 1842, Cadenhead’s, as they are affectionately known, are a stubbornly traditional firm, with an exceptional range of whiskies. Along with Gordon Macphail, Cadenhead’s is one of Scotland’s best independent bottlers, with a range of old whiskies that is envied by the rest of the industry. Until the last few years, Cadenhead whiskies were only available from their network of shops in the U.K. and Europe. The Small Batch line was created four years ago to satiate selected whisky specialists around the world, and to distribute the company’s aging overstock.
WM Cadenhead was acquired by J.A. Mitchell & Co. in 1972, the family-owned firm which also owns the Springbank and Glengyle distilleries. After acquiring Cadenhead’s, and its stocks of maturing whisky, Hedley Wright – J.A. Mitchell’s colourful chairman and owner – is said to have spent the next few decades wandering Scotland with his check book. Wright made frequent visits to “his friends” at various distilleries across Scotland, purchasing casks as he went. Hedley kept track of his acquisitions on a series of legers, releasing casks bit by bit to the team at Cadenhead’s for bottling. To this day, the firm doesn’t even know the full extent of the casks they are sitting on. However, so long as Hedley keeps the flow of rare and old whiskies coming, Cadenhead’s will continue to be one of Scotland’s most interesting independent bottlers.
Today, Cadenhead’s is headquartered in the scenic coastal town of Campbeltown on the Kintyre Peninsula, within walking distance from its sister businesses, the Springbank and Glengyle (Kilkerran) distilleries. The Cadenhead’s Shop and Whisky Tasting Room serves as a visitor centre and retailer for the three brands. They offer daily tours and tastings Monday to Saturday. While Springbank Distillery may be the main draw, the Cadenhead Warehouse tour is not to be missed. Mark and or Cameron will take you into the bowels of a dark, dingy old dunnage warehouse to sample some stunning whiskies, right out of the cask.
Campbeltown is a bit of a trek, 4 hours by car from Glasgow, near the end of the Kintyre Peninsula. The town is charming, with much to see in the surrounding area, justifying at least a two-day visit. The world-famous Machrihanish Dunes Golf Course is just ten minutes away. In my opinion, Campbeltown is best seen in conjunction with the islands and Arran, Islay (and Jura) over a week-long tour. Caledonian Macbrayne, Scotland’s west coast ferry service, has a special pass for just such a route, called a Hop Scotch. But if Campbeltown is just too far to go, keep your eye open for one of the many other Cadenhead shops in Edinburgh, London and across Europe. In Canada, Cadenhead Small Batch whiskies can be purchased from Kensington Wine Market.
Cadenhead are celebrating their 175th Anniversary this year, so let’s raise a glass for their continued good spirits! ~ Andrew Ferguson