A new breed of American whiskey producer is copying a trusted page from Scotland’s book of whisky-crafting traditions—they blend and bottle whiskeys that someone else has distilled.
Called independent bottlers, they search out the best and oldest barrels from both craft distillers and major producers across the U.S. and Canada, purchase them, and then create innovative blends, usually in small batches of a few hundred bottles. Some of these blends are made to become standard, repeatable brands, while others are simply one-off bottlings. And not all purchased barrels are bound for blending.
“We mainly do blends, but occasionally we will find a barrel that is particularly interesting— something unique—and earmark it to sell as a single barrel,” says Joe Beatrice, the founder of Barrell Craft Spirits [sic], an “independent blender” in Louisville, the heart of bourbon country.
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In the way they are assembled, these new blended American whiskeys are similar to the Scotch blended malt whiskies, such as Johnnie Walker or Chivas Regal, which were dominant during the late 20th century before single malts began gaining market share.
Dave Schmier, the founder of Proof and Wood in New Canaan, Connecticut, says the practice of independent bottling also has historical roots in the U.S. “Before Prohibition, most of the bottlers along Whiskey Row in Louisville were not distillers—they bought barrels and blended them,” he says.
A New Era of Independent Bottler
When Vermont-based independent bottler Lost Lantern released its first vatted whiskey in 2020, it was a blend of barrels from six craft distillers—Balcones in Waco, Texas, Copperworks in Seattle, Santa Fe Spirits in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Triple Eight Distillery on Nantucket, Massachusetts, Westward Whiskey in Portland, Oregon, and Virginia Distillery Co. in Lovington, Virginia. “Our process is to first visit a promising distillery and choose barrels we like and take samples from them,” says Adam Polonski, the cofounder of Lost Lantern. “When we get the samples home, we taste them again, then buy the barrels we want for blending.” Because of their growing reputation and the costs involved, Lost Lantern’s blended whiskeys often sell for more than $100 a bottle.
Independent bottlers also make an important semantic distinction between “blended whiskeys” and “whiskey blends.” “A whiskey blend may legally have neutral spirits [unflavored alcohol] in it, while by blended whiskeys, we mean the same as blended malts with no neutral spirits,” Beatrice explains.
Barrell Craft was one of the first of the new breed of indies. “I got the idea to make whiskey without going to the expense of building a distillery in 2012, and it took me more than a year to put things together,” says Beatrice, a former internet entrepreneur. “We sold our first case in 2014.” Today, he produces more than a million bottles annually, including blends finished in previously used barrels housing everything from pear brandy to sherry.
Lost Lantern took a similar path but, Polonski maintains, they had an added motivation. Polonski, a trade journalist, formed Lost Lantern with Nora Ganley-Roper because “there are so many really great craft producers out there who only sell locally,” he says. “Lost Lantern can help give them national exposure,” either by using their whiskeys in blends or selling single barrels.
Giving credit where credit is due to craft distillery partners is important, says Blake Riber, a whiskey blogger who founded Seelbach’s in 2018 to sell online whiskeys made by both craft producers and independent bottlers—whom he calls “blenders.” “Blenders are beginning to get some respect,” he says, citing the practice some years ago for some distillers and bottlers to fake or not reveal their sources. “But today, blenders like Lost Lantern and Pursuit are very transparent in telling who distilled their whiskey.”
Pursuit Spirits was founded in 2018 by hosts of the Bourbon Pursuit whiskey podcast, Ryan Cecil and Kenny Coleman, to bottle and sell single barrels from craft distillers to their built-in audience of whiskey lovers. But because a barrel may produce around 200 bottles or less, “A single barrel isn’t scalable,” Coleman notes. A blender, on the other hand, can produce hundreds of bottles by combining barrels, so Pursuit began blending as well.
Although independent bottlers don’t distill whiskey, Beatrice says there is an art in blending it. Like others, he has built up a library of barrels, and he and his team “sit down and ‘whiteboard’ what we want in a blend, then we have lots of trials in the laboratory before coming up with what we will blend.” But rather than dumping everything into the 6,000-gallon blending tank Barrell Craft uses, they first assemble less than half according to formula, then slowly build up the rest in 10 percent increments, adjusting by taste as they go along.
Expanding a Craft Distiller’s Network
Marketing strategies of the independents vary. Pursuit, Coleman says, originally planned to be “totally digital” in selling directly to podcast “patrons,” but now also has sales through distributors. Lost Lantern put together an extensive retail network. “We don’t actually sell directly to consumers, but we partner with online-focused retailers that, between them, can ship to around 40 states,” says Polonski. A minority of independent bottles are sold through brick-and-mortar retailers.
So, what’s in it for the craft distillers? Cash-strapped producers may need this upfront money. But Herman Mihalich, the founder and distiller at highly-rated Dad’s Hat near Philadelphia, points out he can make more money bottling the barrel himself than by selling the same barrel to a blender.
However, like most craft distilleries, he sees an upside. “Lost Lantern contacted me last fall,” says Mihalich, “and when they tasted barrels, they talked me into selling them two—one that was finished in a vermouth cask, which isn’t all that common.” He transferred the two barrels via food-grade containers to Lost Lantern to bottle, not as blends but as single barrels.
“I consider it a win-win situation,” he adds. “I’ve been in the business 10 years, but this is still good publicity.” Most of the handful of independent bottlers currently operating do extensive online promotion, and Mihalich took part in a virtual media presentation featuring his two barrels on Lost Lantern labels—188 bottles of Lost Lantern Dad’s Hat rye for $90 per bottle and 119 bottles of Dad’s Hat vermouth-finish rye for $120 each.
“Today’s consumers are no longer scared of the idea of buying blended whiskey,” concludes Schmier. “Now, they are increasingly asking us, ‘What’s next?’”
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Roger Morris is a Delaware-based writer who for the past 20 years has contributed articles on wine, food, and popular culture to about a dozen publications in the U.S. and Europe. Currently, he writes for World of Fine Wine, Drinks Business, Meininger’s, VinePair, Wine & Spirits, and Global Drinks Intel, among others. In prior years, he taught writing at Arizona State University and the University of Delaware and was an industry marketing executive.