Independent bottlers of Scotch whisky have become an integral part of the Scotch whisky industry. At last count, there were over 300 different independent bottlers of Scotch whisky. Many are based in the UK, although they are becoming particularly prevalent in Europe and Asia.
US based independent bottlers of Scotch whisky have also been a rapidly growing sector, albeit from a small base of companies. One of the most prominent is San Francisco based ImpEx. The company is an importer that represents several prominent UK based independent bottlers, as well as individual distillers, while also being an independent bottler in its own right.
Recently I sat down with Sam Filmus, cofounder and President of ImpEx, to talk about the import and distribution business as well as their recently launched line of independent Scotch whisky bottlings.
JM: You are an importer and a distributor and now also a specialty bottler of Scotch whisky. Which came first and what was the rationale for expanding the scope of your activity?
SF: We actually started out in 1997 when we founded JVS Imports. JVS later became our California Distribution company and in 2008, ImpEx became the importation arm of the business. We still run both as sister companies to this day. JVS is the California distributor for all of the ImpEx brands and also distributes other beer, wine, and global spirits.
While we were representing brands in CA that were imported by others, we felt opening our own import operation would open the boundaries and develop the brands nationwide. This also paved the way for the vertical integration of leveraging JVS here in CA.
JM: ImpEx has a close working relationship with Elixir Distillers, formerly a division of The Whisky Exchange. How did that association come about? Do you represent all the Elixir ranges in the US? What other Scotch whisky producers are you importing?
SF: With Elixir we represent quite a few of their brands including Port Askaig and Single Malts of Scotland, both of which are independent bottling (IB) operations as well as Black Tot Rum. There are a few more in the pipeline.
On the Scotch side we import Kilchoman, GlenAllachie and MacNair’s, Ardnamurchan and Adelphi (an IB), then the Scotch offerings from both Single Cask Nation and The ImpEx Collection as Independent Bottlers.
JM: You’ve recently begun bottling your own proprietary Scotch whisky range. There are hundreds of independent bottlers of Scotch whisky around the world and competition for the best casks is quite intense. Why do you think you can be competitive in this area?
SF: We are fortunate enough to have forged some great relationships over the years in this industry. Along with those comes access to some lovely casks. We call the offerings in The ImpEx Collection “gems” because we strive to find something special and unique to offer in our range of bottlings.
The ImpEx Collection is not just limited to Scotch. We also offer Rums and other World Whisky with plans to integrate some Mezcal this year. Having a large selection of spirits to entice consumers gives us the ability to be very well rounded and well received. My career in the Scotch industry started with representing IBs so there has always been a special place in my heart for this and it drove the start of The ImpEx Collection.
The ImpEx Collection released a special expression (the first from Japan), Secret Japan 17 YO Single Grain Whisky, over the Holiday season. This is available at specialty retailers across the US and has a recommend retail price of $300. These casks were selected by Chris Uhde, ImpEx Beverages’ Vice President, because they represent both the classic elegance of whisky as well as the future of what whisky will become.
We are in the process of beginning to bottle Edition Two of The ImpEx Collection which we plan to release in Q3 of this year. We hope to include some Mezcal Expressions with this Edition in addition to the Scotch, World Whisky, and Rums you saw in Edition One.
JM: M & H, an Israeli single malt whisky company, is also being handled by ImpEx. Israel isn’t typically associated with malt whisky. How did that relationship come about? Beyond its place of origin, is there anything unique about Israeli whisky?
SF: We were watching the development of this distillery since the early stages. It was the stars aligning that brought their team to meet ours in Edinburgh where the decision was made on the spot that our goals and philosophies were the same and we would be a good match. Working with the folks at M&H is truly a pleasure.
I would say the thing that makes Israeli whisky so unique is the hot climate maturation which allows whisky to be ready in shorter periods of time without sacrificing taste or quality. Seeing the reception of this brand along with multiple awards and accolades proves everything you read above. It’s always great to see the reaction from consumers when they taste this for the first time.
JM: Kosher malt whisky has been a small but rapidly growing product niche. What makes a whisky kosher and how is it different from conventional whisky?
SF: We are fortunate to be able to offer Kosher certified expressions from both M&H and from Penderyn. The process and the casks have to be examined and certified by the rabbinate in order for products to be considered Kosher. While both companies strive to produce amazing Single Malts, having these Kosher certifications allows them to branch into an additional group of followers and widen the response.
JM: You also handle Ohishi, a Japanese rice whisky. How is the aroma and taste profile of rice whisky different from malt whisky or whiskies based on mash bills of different cereals?
SF: Rice whisky is definitely different in taste and profile. We are fortunate that the brands from Japan we represent offer the consumer something that they have been craving but not finding over the last few years, an age statement and varying wood treatments.
My business partner, Chris Uhde, has really done an amazing job on expanding and creating something special with these offerings.
In general, rice whisky produces a much softer style of distillate/whisky and the interaction with the wood is much different. Rice whisky only requires one distillation where malt usually requires multiple distillations. Rice whisky also gives you more of the Umami feel that I haven’t been able to find in any other grain or malt whisky.
JM: Rum is another category that ImpEx has focused on. What rum brands do you import and what opportunities do you see in the rum sector?
SF: We represent Black Tot Rum, Rum and Cane Merchants, and some offerings from both The ImpEx Collection and Single Cask Nation. We have been very strategic when it comes to the rums we have chosen, with a focus on finding rums that are appealing to whisky drinkers as well as sophisticated rum drinkers but are definitely not just your average rum.
We want to bring experiences to consumers and the stories behind both the brands and the juice are always important to us when we are deciding on brands to represent. We still see rum as a large and growing category and are exploring different ways to bring rum to the American consumer.
The folks at Elixir have done a great job in offering different limited expressions for Black Tot along with the core Finest Caribbean Rum. Rum and Cane Merchants has its three core regional expressions (always a marriage of only two casks) and we have added some Single Casks from them.
Single Cask Nation brought in a Brazilian Rum in their Release 8 line-up. The ImpEx Collection brought in casks of Tropically Aged Rum from Jamaica (Long Pond and Clarendon) which we bottled here in California for Edition One and we will be bottling two more with Edition Two. The selections for The ImpEx Collection expressions are always from one Single Cask and the age statements represent the amount of time the Rum has spent there
Below are tasting notes on a selection of the independent Scotch whisky bottlings from ImpEx.
The ImpEx Collection, Springbank 1993, 25 YO, 47.5% ABV, 750 ml
Springbank is a Campbeltown favorite whose honeyed, peated style is a throwback to the classic single malts of the 19th century. The whisky offers up distinctive honey notes, with earthy slightly smoky peaty notes in the background. There are pronounced notes of tropical fruit along with licorice and anise flavors. A rich complex dram with a long finish that ends on a slightly bitter note.
The ImpEx Collection, Orkney, 1999, 21 YO, 50.8% ABV, 750 ml
There are only two distilleries in the Orkneys: Scapa and Highland Park. References to Orkney are typically indicative of a whisky sourced from Highland Park. The whisky features the delicate floral potpourri aromas of dried flowers, especially dried heather, a profile typical of Highland Park whiskies.
There are additional notes of orange zest, a bit of smoke, a persistent cooked cereal sweetness, as well as spice notes of cinnamon and a savory marine note aroma. The finish is long, sweet, with a lingering cooked cereal note.
The ImpEx Collection, Caol Ila, 2008, 12 YO, 58.4% ABV, 750 ml
Caol Ila is a classic Islay malt. Its peating levels can vary from very slight to pronounced, although its peaty character leans toward earthiness and smoke more than the medicinal notes typical of its Islay neighbors.
The whisky is pungent with pronounced, briny, earthy peat and distinctive smoked fish aromas. There are sweet notes, along with candied citrus zest, cooked cereal and digestive notes. There are additional flavors of red and black berries, along with expresso coffee and chocolate notes. For a young whisky, it offers up an astonishing degree of layered complexity with a long and satisfying finish.
The ImpEx Collection, Cameronbridge, 28 YO, 51.8% ABV, 750 ml
Ultra-aged grain whiskies have become increasingly popular in recent years, this is especially true of grain whiskies that have been matured in Sherry casks. The ImpEx Cameronbridge grain whisky was matured for 28 years in an Oloroso Sherry butt. Cameronbridge, owned by Beverage giant Diageo, is the largest grain distillery in Europe.
The whisky offers up notes of fresh apple, butterscotch, vanilla sugar with a hint of maple syrup, along with orange zest, hints of smoke and spice notes of cinnamon, cardamon and nutmeg.
The finish is medium length, sweet and nutty with a slight bitter note.
These are outstanding whiskies. They offer up a layered, nuanced complexity with a rich satisfying finish. They are all single barrel selections, which means their availability is limited to their initial bottlings. Once they’re gone, they are gone forever. All the more reason to grab a bottle if you find one that you like.
A second set of selections is in the works. These are slated for release later in the year.