The next in our ‘From Cask to Glass’ series, where we talk to our clients and learn the stories about why, how, when and whatfor people buy whole casks of Scotch whisky. The answer in this case is in the title – “An Independent Bottling Story”.
Aspiring Indie Bottler – Aaron Milligan
Our subject this time is a young Scot – 28 year old Aaron Milligan. A born Fifer, but not a lifer; Aaron moved to Australia two years ago, and now spends his days clinging to the earth with his feet as it carries him upside-down through the void of space.
One has to have a pretty good reason to leave Fife for the inverted Australian life, and Aaron has the best of causes: he moved for love. Having met his Australian partner while they were both travelling in Croatia, Aaron is now busily jumping through Australia’s hoops to settle down with his sweetie as a fellow Aussie.
He did a stint of hard graft on a farm before returning to the world of finance which he trained for in Scotland. But Aaron has an itch to do something a little different with his time, and is slowly gearing himself up to do some independent bottling of Scotch whisky. And this is something we can help with…
Aaron bought a cask with us this year. Just the one, for now – but every great building starts with a single brick. Despite Australia’s burgeoning (and very successful) whisky industry, Aaron wanted to go Scottish.
Perhaps it was homesickness. Perhaps it was a desire to remind the ascendent Australian whisky industry where its roots lie. Perhaps it was more complex than being boiled down into a single trite reason – either way, Aaron was determined that his independent bottling was going to be a Scottish malt. And he’s been doing his research.
‘My partner is starting to roll her eyes because that’s all I’ve been talking about these last few months.’
Aaron’s a young man and not yet loaded down with the bags of money that accumulate with age. As he put it;
‘I’m not wealthy enough for a Macallan”
Well, quite. Macallan are still very much at the top of their game, and they can make eyes water with their prices. Casks of Macallan are the crown jewels of the malt whisky world. But here’s the wonderful thing about whisky: with some craft, dedication and a little luck any distillery can become hot property – enough to get collectors and enthusiasts salivating. Springbank, anyone?
Forecasting the Future
Aaron knows this, and was looking for a cask from a distillery that is affordable now, but could be precious and unobtainable in the future.
‘I was looking at distilleries I was hoping would be more of a household name in the next 5 years. In Australia I’m part of a few facebook groups, and Glenglassaugh started popping up, as well as Glenallachie – oh and Benriach’.
Sharp-eyed (and obsessively nerdy) readers may have spotted a connection between those distillery names. Billy Walker – the former master blender with a magic touch when it comes to distilleries. Billy is famous in the whisky world for taking over almost unknown distilleries and transforming their reputations – taking them from obscurity to celebrity in the space of a few years.
First Benriach, brought out of mothballs in 2003, now a pillar among creative Speyside malts. Then the GlenDronach in 2008, now one of the most highly regarded producers of sherry bombs around. Glenglassaugh in 2013 – unknown then, gaining traction now, Billy Walker uplifting in progress. And most recently, GlenAllachie in… what? 2017? What happened to the pattern, Billy? You’re supposed to rescue a languishing distillery every 5 years, like clockwork! I guess GlenAllachie was worth jumping the gun for.
The Cask Itself
Whispers of Billy Walker’s magic touch had reached Aaron’s ears – and he was biding his time for his cask – maybe one from that particular pantheon. It would be perfect for his independent bottling project. And then one day, there it was; on a Cask 88 mail out – a cask of Benriach 2yo spirit! Aaron gave us a call and… it was already gone. The first of Billy Walker’s golden team, BenRiach does not hang around.
But have no fear – this story does have a happy ending. Aaron had got in touch with Struan, one of our sales managers, who may not have had the BenRiach any longer, but did have a cask each of Glenglassaugh and Glenallachie, both at 5 years. Three years ahead of the BenRiach in maturity, too! But which one to choose?
It was a close call at the time, but after some deliberation the first-fill hogshead of Glenglassaugh won out.
‘My snobbery at the time – I saw the Glenallachie was a refill and thought ‘ah; it’ll take longer to develop those flavours’… but if I knew now, I probably would have bought that, and then got another cask to finish it in.
This is always an option worth remembering. If you ever find a whisky from a distillery you love, but aren’t totally convinced by the cask it’s currently in – go for a re-rack! Re-racking is a whisky term that means moving the contents from one cask into another, usually for the purpose of tweaking the colour and flavour of the whisky. It’s a great way to get more personally involved with your cask of whisky, and leave your own mark on the spirit. And don’t hurry into anything. The best decisions, like the best whisky, can take a while to mature. Aaron offered the following advice for those looking to get into independent bottling.
Speak to Struan [a Cask 88 Sales Manager]. Struan has actually been incredible, from the outset. When I first spoke to him I was interested, but not sure when I’m going to buy, 6 months or even a year from now. He got on the phone, spent a lot of time with me, answered all my questions (there were a lot of things I wasn’t sure about as well). I really appreciated it, and 6 months down the line I bought that cask!
Aaron is biding his time for now. His cask of Glenglassaugh is 5 and a half years matured, and not in a hurry to get bottled. Australia’s alcohol duty is also pretty crushing – so Aaron’s going to save up a bit before he has to confront it – and this extra time gives him a chance to get a re-rack sorted out.
Australia’s whisky industry has the great advantage of being able to collaborate with the excellent local wine industry when acquiring casks, leading to an unusual situation. Australian whiskies are very commonly wine-finished in Aussie wine casks,
‘To the point that bourbon casks seem like the unique cask. [Australian Wine casks] are so popular here – everyone is doing it.
They really do do things upside-down in Oz.
‘But if I decide to release something in the UK market, I’d definitely do an Australian wine cask because that’d be unique over there’.
But Aaron has an even more special plan for his Glenglassaugh, something to make it really stand out from the crowd. He’s currently in negotiations with a Hungarian winery to see if he can get a hold of a Hungarian virgin oak cask. Very unusual, a very cool independent bottling indeed as there will be potentially bags of flavour. Virgin oak can be a very intense finish.
Time to Think
He’s also got plenty of time to devise the bottles and label designs for his first release of whisky. He knows that he wants something that looks modern and vibrant – and may even design a kind of cartoon/pop arty aesthetic himself.
‘I’ve been having lots of wild ideas, and I’m not set on one yet!’
Scotch Single Malt Whisky, matured in first American and then Hungarian oak, eventually shipped to and sold in Australia. I don’t think the forefathers of whisky in Scotland would quite have believed it if you’d told them about this plan in the 19th century. But whisky adapts, it moves on, it pushes boundaries – and young businessmen like Aaron Milligan are the drivers of these changes. We hope that this first bottling fulfils his dreams for it, and leads to many more in future.
Whatever happens, Aaron is overjoyed to be in charge of everything himself. He enjoys grabbing the bull by the horns and bringing his own project into the world:
When it’s your own thing you can do anything that you feel is right. What’s both exciting and scary is that if I get it wrong, at least I know it’s my fault… but if I get it right it’s going to feel so good!’
At Cask 88, we’re delighted to be able to seek out and provide the casks that become part of stories like these. From Cask to Glass, in this case a potential independent bottling, we want to see the whole process.
We’ll keep an eye on Aaron’s cask over the next few years, and be on hand to help when the time comes to bottle. We can’t wait to see how the whisky comes out, and we hope to raise a dram of Aaron’s own whisky with him someday… and hope it doesn’t fall out because of how upside-down we’d all be. Because Australia.