Extremely Good and Incredibly Scarce

Extremely Good and Incredibly Scarce

The very rare single malt scotches you should be drinking—if you can find them
By Susannah Skiver Barton

June 8, 2023

“Rare.” The thirstiest byword in whisky. Today’s legions of rare whiskies owe much of their heaving consumer demand to Pappy Van Winkle, the cult bourbon that launched a thousand brands. But perhaps their true, more pedestrian, but no less intoxicating predecessor is the Beanie Baby. Indeed, what the Beanies’ corporate parent and whisky makers both figured out is no great secret: scarcity sells. And in whisky, as in the floppy stuffed animal market, that scarcity can be manufactured. 

Whiskies touted as “rare” may be genuinely limited due to time and supply constraints, as collectors in pursuit of extra-old age statements have come, painfully, to understand. But producers can also pull a variety of levers to create a “rare” spirit that’s designed to command both attention and a higher price. A whisky might be finished in an unusual barrel that yields a limited number of bottles. Or sold as a single-cask offering, available to a select few. Or bottled at cask strength instead of its usual 43% ABV. Yet these producer strategies, while effective and increasingly common, don’t necessarily mean the spirit itself is all that special—or even good.

What is a whisky lover to do in a world awash with ordinary rarities? 

It turns out there does exist a truly hard-to-find category of whiskies notable for their well-earned scarcity and remarkable quality: unusual releases of independently bottled single malt scotch. 

These whiskies are seldom found because they’re seldom intended to be sold on their own; most are distilled and matured exclusively for use in blends. Their rarity is inherent, rather than by design. And they’re fabulous—if you can find them.

Thank your blended whisky for rare single malts 

A bit of history: in the 19th century, Scotland’s whisky industry began to evolve into something resembling its modern form. At that time, blends made up the majority of the industry’s output. And the biggest producers were blending houses that created unique whiskies by combining relatively neutral grain whisky with more flavorful malts, often blending spirits from up to a dozen or more distilleries. 

As blending companies and brands proliferated, Scottish malt distillers began to realize the benefits of being different. A distinctively flavored malt whisky was more memorable to drinkers, and therefore quite valuable to blenders, each of whom had their own proprietary recipes. The blending companies grew bigger, and began to buy up malt distilleries to guarantee supply. In 1893, for example, Johnnie Walker’s then-parent company, John Walker and Sons, acquired Cardhu Distillery, which remains at the heart of the brand’s recipe more than a century later.

These whiskies are seldom found because they’re seldom intended to be sold on their own. Their rarity is inherent, rather than by design.

Today, multinational spirits companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard own dozens of malt distilleries, many of which make whisky solely for blending (single malts attract far more attention, but blends still make up about 90% of all scotch sales by volume). You likely wouldn’t recognize these distilleries’ names, as they’re essentially anonymous supply sources for popular blended brands. 

Casks from these distilleries are commonly traded or sold between the parent companies in order to fill out their blend recipes with component whiskies. For example, Pernod Ricard-owned Chivas Regal might be looking for a whisky with waxy or meaty characteristics that isn’t available from a distillery within their portfolio, so they’ll source the necessary spirit from an outside distillery. In this system, casks from these little-known distilleries can sometimes make their way out of the blending pipeline and into the hands of independent bottlers, known as IBs.

How independent bottlers work 

IBs are an unusual animal in whisky: they don’t distill, though they sometimes mature or finish single malt in their own casks with the intent of selling it under a label of their own. IBs may fill their own casks with unaged whisky straight from a distillery, or they may source mature whisky cask-by-cask, always (unless specifically prohibited by a non-disclosure agreement) crediting the distillery that made the whisky alongside the IB’s own name on the bottle. With legacies sometimes stretching back a century or more, independent bottling companies like Gordon & MacPhail, Cadenheads, Adelphi, Duncan Taylor and Signatory are firmly entrenched in Scotland’s whisky industry. Newer IBs such as Càrn Mòr, Blackadder and Single Cask Nation have expanded this tradition. 

Distilleries typically prize consistency and may sell to IBs as a way to offload excess whisky that didn’t mature quite as expected—the whisky isn’t bad, just different than the distiller anticipated. These spirits are gold to independent bottlers, who seek interesting, delicious, high-quality single malt, much of which would otherwise get blended away rather than bottled on its own. To find these unusual specimens, IBs must sort and sample their way through hundreds of casks to find the few that exhibit both unique characteristics and exceptionally fine quality. 

Supply of such whisky is rarely guaranteed. Most IBs have to rely on the sporadic availability of mature casks, many of which turn out to be unworthy of bottling. And even when an extraordinary cask is identified, it may yield just two or three hundred bottles, possibly fewer if bottled at cask strength, as many are. 

Distilleries for your hunt: (L-R) Benrinnes, Kininvie, Glenburgie

Scotch that’s hard—but not impossible—to find

So, welcome to the wonderfully unpredictable world of IB whiskies. Let us now attempt to find some.

The most obvious search tactic is to start with a trip to a retailer that boasts an unusually deep whisky selection. If you don’t find what you’re looking for on the shelf (which you probably won’t), do something surprisingly few people do—ask if they can order it. 

If you’re not ready to make a full-bottle investment (which can start at under $100 and run well into the thousands of dollars), try a visit to a bar with a large and intelligently curated whisky list. Brandy Library in New York, Jack Rose in Washington, D.C., and Multnomah Whiskey Library in Portland, Oregon all qualify here, and each offers drams from IB bottles that sold out at retail long ago. 

Yet another option for serious scotch enthusiasts is to join the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which occasionally bottles some of these rare whiskies and offers them for sale to its members.

If you’re taking a trip overseas, you may be in luck. Independently bottled scotch whiskies are more widely available in the U.K. and Europe, so consider visiting a wine and spirits specialist such as Berry Bros. & Rudd in London, Cadenheads and Royal Mile Whiskies in Edinburgh, or La Maison du Whisky in Paris, all of which have especially good IB scotch selections. 

On occasion, rare whiskies from IBs come up at auction, usually via internet-based houses such as Scotch Whisky Auctions and Whisky Auctioneer. Often the IB whiskies go for little more than their original retail price—and far less than the limited-edition Macallans and Ardbegs that tend to dominate auction sales. It’s also worth noting that distillery owners will occasionally release a single malt from an anonymous distillery (Diageo’s Flora & Fauna line is known to do this), though these are still hard to find, particularly in the U.S. But even IB releases of known names offer tremendous value relative to the “original” bottlings put out under a distillery’s own label. Gordon & MacPhail, for example, offers a cask-strength 1989 Highland Park, aged for 32 years and bottled in 2021, for £790 (just about $1,000), compared to the distillery’s own 30-year-old bottling that carries a suggested price of $1,350. This value holds true at the higher end, too, with most of the finest IB whiskies going for thousands—rather than tens (or even hundreds!) of thousands—of dollars.

Incredible scotch for below-market prices? That might be the rarest thing of all.

Start your ultra-rare scotch hunt with these distilleries

Whiskies from these “anonymous” distilleries are often found under many different IB labels (or in Diageo’s Flora & Fauna line, which offers single malt bottlings from a variety of the company’s own distilleries). When searching for these rare gems, be sure to look for the distillery name, rather than a specific bottler or brand.

  • Benrinnes
    Round and mouth-filling, this whisky gets its meaty richness from production quirks, like the use of worm tubs—old-school condensers that consist of a simple pipe twisting through a vat of cold water. The low level of copper contact creates a heavier, more sulfury whisky, ideal for maturing in expressive sherry casks and for extended periods. Parent company Diageo offers a 15-year-old expression in its Flora & Fauna line in the U.K.; beyond that, look for bottlings from Signatory and Single Cask Nation.
  • Dailuaine
    Once the largest distillery in Speyside, this workhorse turns out a weighty malt that’s often deeply fruity, thanks to a longer-than-average fermentation of 75 hours. Much of it goes into Johnnie Walker, but the occasional Flora & Fauna bottling and IB offerings pop up every once in a while.
  • Glenburgie
    One of the core malts in the Ballantine’s blend, a 15-year-old expression of Glenburgie was released by its parent company, Chivas Brothers, a few years ago, though it never made it to American shores. You’re better off looking for a bottling from Gordon & MacPhail, the most likely IB to have stock of this fragrant, grassy single malt.
  • Glenlossie
    A paragon of balance between delicate structure and oily body, Glenlossie gets its unique nature from its purifiers—pipes on the neck of the stills that redirect heavy alcohols back into the pot to be redistilled. It’s almost impossible to find (outside of an infrequently released Flora & Fauna 10-year-old), but rewarding when finally tasted; look for floral and spice notes, with bright citrus oil.
  • Inchgower
    Fans of Clynelish (another lesser-known, but easier-to-find single malt) will love Inchgower’s similar waxy, maritime character, which often takes on a pronounced salinity. The malt plays a major role in the Bell’s blend, alongside Blair Athol—yet another delicious rarity to seek out. Inchgower has popped up in Diageo’s annual Special Releases in the past, and it occasionally surfaces in the Flora & Fauna series.
  • Imperial
    Perhaps it’s unfair to list a whisky from a closed distillery, but it’s impossible to resist one recommendation: the gloriously bright, ethereal single malt of Imperial, closed in the 1980s and demolished a decade ago. There seem to be plenty of Imperial casks left, and insider speculation hints that many of them are now in the hands of Sukhinder Singh, former owner of the Whisky Exchange and founder of Elixir Distillers. Elixir is the parent company of the Single Malts of Scotland IB brand—a good bet for future bottlings.
  • Linkwood
    This delicately fresh whisky gets its intense fragrance from long fermentations and extra copper contact during distillation. Likely the easiest to find of the whiskies on this list, it’s most often available from Signatory and Gordon & MacPhail, and it occasionally surfaces among other bottlers, as well as in Diageo’s Flora & Fauna line.
  • Kininvie (the one you’ll never find)
    Speyside sibling distilleries Balvenie and Glenfiddich are the golden children that divert most attention away from the family’s black sheep: Kininvie. Housed in a glorified shed, the little-known distillery provides malt for Monkey Shoulder and other William Grant & Sons blends. But on just a few occasions, in highly limited quantities (we’re talking single casks), Kininvie has been bottled on its own. Good luck tracking it down—and if you do, let us know what you think.