The Phantom Distillery

One of the most coveted bottles in Saturday’s 2019 Premium Spirit Release comes from a non-existent distillery on Islay… or does it? Welcome to the world of Independent Bottlers, brokers of rare, exclusive and unique Scotch and other spirits.

Oliver Chilton, blender for Elixir Distillers. Supplied photo

Last year, one of the hottest items in the BC Liquor Stores Premium Spirit Release—selling out in 24 hours—was the Port Askaig 100 Proof Islay Single Malt Scotch Whisky. Offered again this year, it’s the spirit of Islay in a bottle: a nose full of spicy oak spice, with sea spray, smoke and dark earthy, kelpy flavours, bottled at a robust 50% ABV for rich texture. Yet anyone who’s been to the town of Port Askaig, on Islay’s east coast, will be puzzled: there’s no distillery there.

“We actually get people calling us asking for distillery tours,” chuckles Oliver Chilton, its blender. Chilton works for Elixir Distillers, an Independent Bottler (IB). An integral part of the whisky industry in the UK for more than a century, IBs are like stockbrokers of whisky: they buy inventory from distilleries, and age, blend and bottle it as a new product that typically doesn’t identify the exact source. They’re often not chill filtered and don’t, unlike most Scotch, have artificial colouring added—making IB bottlings sometimes more authentic than distillery single malts themselves.

Port Askaig 10-Year Scotch. Supplied photo

So Port Askaig, the single malt, comes not from that town but from a distillery “close to the village”; there are at least three nearby, but anyone who’s tasted a lot of Caol Ila would put their money on it as the source. There’s no age statement on the bottle, because, “Something being old doesn’t make it good, just like being young doesn’t make a whisky bad,” says Chilton. “You should always buy for flavour,” he says, “And then buy for trust: a bottler that’s releasing interesting things you learn that you like.”

That said, a 10th-anniversary expression is also part of the 2019 Premium Spirit Release. The Port Askaig 10 Year Old Islay Single Malt is the Scotch version of Wonka’s Everlasting Gobstopper, revealing layers of creamy malt, sherried fruit and butcher’s woodsmoke on an everlasting finish. At $124.99 for a 10-year-old, and only 10,000 bottles available worldwide, it punches way above its age statement.

Elements of Islay Peat. Supplied photo

Elixir also produces the Elements of Islay series, apothecary-style bottlings that isolate the flavours of many of the island’s iconic single malts. How does this IB manage to nab so much good whisky from the most-coveted regions in Scotland? “My boss was obsessed, buying it up in the early 2000s when there was a glut of whisky and it was cheap,” says Chilton. Just as in the financial markets, this IB has a solid strategy of buy low and hold. Get it while you can.

—by Charlene Rooke

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