The festive rush is supposedly on with the television littered with adverts of seasonal cheer. Encouraging us to spend, spend, spend, like never before. After a difficult year for all, including the majority of retailers, we’re all hoping that the pivot point into 2021 will mark an upswing in fortunes.
For independents bottlers, the time is now to get those casks emptied, bottled filled and out to eager consumers and retailers. Buying habits have changed and as a consequence, the purchasing habits of retailers. I tried to get a sense of this in my recent interview with Royal Mile Whiskies but understandably, they weren’t that forthcoming on the issue. However, by admission, habits had changed and in doing so, what they looked to stock. If you haven’t read it already then I’d suggest you do so.
The tailbacks at bottling halls right now must be eyewatering, and of late, we’ve brought you several releases from a variety of independents including Single Cask Nation. The easiest thing is to pump out some tasting notes, accompanied by scores and move on. Job done. But that’s not the Malt way and we know that you want more information and opinion. So, we’re doing it again, today.
Earlier this year, marked the Chapter 7 debut on Malt and on the whole, these releases were well received including some strong contenders. It made for a welcome alternative to many of the single cask releases we’re seeing from UK independents that are on the youthful end of the spectrum and come with an aggressive finish or knackered wood. We caught up with Selim of Chapter 7, to learn more about his background, the year that is 2020 and what to expect in the near future…
MALT: Can you give us an introduction to Chapter 7 and why you made that move from whisky enthusiast to independent bottler?
Selim: Chapter 7 is an indie brand I started in 2014. A Whisky Anthology where I would compile whiskies from diverse. In 5 years, I have bottled 45 editions, so Chapter 7 remained small and part-time, as a side activity next to my salaried job. In 2019 I decided to take things further and partnered with a long-time client for whom I’ve been procuring and bottling, and an entrepreneur who is as passionate and curious about whisky as I am. In April 2020, we released the first batch of 7 editions with new branding under 3 series: Monologue, Anecdote and Chronicle. Monologues are all about single casks. Anecdotes are intriguing (very) small batches and Chronicle series is going to be our expanding range of ongoing small batches. We’re adding another series in January 2021, called Prologue, a small batch blended malt for the US market. Chapter 7 also bottles for 2 more small indie brands owned by my partner.
The adventure started in 2013. I’d been working for 20 years and the 10 last years, I was involved in seafood processing. In 2013 I exited this venture and had some time to think about my next move in life. I’d always wanted to get involved in whisky, my passion and hobby, which I inherited from my grandfather, but I knew very little about the business side and had no contacts. I had a couple of different ideas in mind and at the end, I chose the toughest but the most interesting path of independent bottling. The idea of discovering different whiskies, adding new chapters to a Whisky Anthology seemed like something I could do for the rest of my life.
MALT: There have been so many political decisions that have impacted on whisky this year such as lockdowns, tariffs and Brexit – how have these affected you? Going forward into 2021 what you are expecting, or hoping for?
Selim: 2020 is the year Chapter 7 was reborn with high expectations from a small volume base. We released the first batch in the midst of the first lockdown. Most importers didn’t want any stock because of the lockdown. I concentrated on online retailers, which was something I’ve been neglecting until now. I’m happy with the results and we reached a good online coverage and also started working with importers in some new markets.
The US tariff was a slap because the US is our major target market. At the moment we’re concentrating on blends to avoid the tariff. Let’s see, hopefully the new administration will see that it’s hurting the industry and costing lots of jobs on both sides of the ocean and reverse this decision. Brexit though is scaring me more because there still are a lot of unknowns.
In 2021 we’d like to build awareness and trust and expand into new markets. We’ll start experimenting more and bring some innovative blends and whiskies from outside Scotland into the range. I’m hoping to see Whisky events coming back at some stage in Q3, which will be fun and a great way to meet whisky fans face to face.
MALT: Glad to see the back of 2020? Are you seeing retailers less able to take up stock or speculative purchases after a difficult year?
Selim: I’m glad to see we managed it quite well until now. What I saw in retail was a period of hesitation followed by a big effort for adaptation. Nobody knew how the market will react to the lockdown. A couple of clients told me they were not doing any purchases because they couldn’t foresee what was next. Within a month though, online was booming and off-trade accounts were improving their online presence to capture their loyal customers in their homes. The confidence is back, and I don’t have the impression that they are holding back. I’m more concerned about small local businesses that weren’t ready for such a drastic change and on-trade businesses which continue to suffer.
MALT: We’re starting to see more of Chapter 7 in the UK now. Is this a concerted effort to break into the market here? What would you say is the selling point of Chapter 7, or the feature that distinguishes you from a busy market? What are your main markets for the range nowadays?
Selim: Moving Chapter 7 from Switzerland to Scotland made a big difference in accessing UK retailers. Some reviews and social media helped Chapter 7 a lot as well. I’d like to thank everyone for their effort and time reviewing us.
In the UK, there is a large knowledgeable crowd of whisky enthusiasts. The only way to get yourself heard is to bottle good stuff at a fair price and make it easily accessible. There are many established indie bottlers with much better access to casks than us. It’s not easy to compete with that so our selling point at the moment is all about bringing quality spirit and we try our best to stay competitive. Once we prove our quality we can go for more unique propositions with own blends, innovative products and some non-Scotch whiskies.
At the moment our main markets are the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand and The Netherlands. A couple of new markets are just about to start including the US.
MALT: Our readers are always fascinated by the process of acquiring casks. Can you explain the ins and outs of this and if you have to buy blind?
Selim: There are different sorts of independent bottlers. Some are the backbones of the indie scene with a long history and some were brought to life by founders who spent many years in the industry with contacts in sourcing, bottling and/or sales.
Chapter 7 probably is one of the only examples that had no contacts whatsoever at the start. Kind of a crazy project right? Since 2014, I’ve managed to meet different brokers that I source casks from. For us, there are 2 types of purchase. We make batch purchases of sister casks half-blind as it’s not imperative to get samples drawn from all the casks. We make a decision based on a few samples from a batch. Once the casks are in, we taste them all. For instance, our Williamson and Caol Ila releases were selected from a batch of sister casks. We’re using the rest of the casks from the two in an amazing tailor-made blend. We have a few ageing batches like that which we’ll be partly bottling for Monologue, and partly using for Chronicle, partner blends and own blends. As for the older malts, they come singly (at least to us!) and we make our decision based on taste because the risk is high.
I bought blind on a few occasions when I knew the opportunity was much greater than the risk. I think it also depends on how you operate. If you have 50 aged casks in stock and you don’t have time pressure, buying blind is less of a risk because you can age the cask further or rerack for a couple of years in a different finish that you think will take the spirit to a new dimension. We’re not there with our aged stock yet so we’re very cautious when it comes to aged single casks.
MALT: I know some independents buy on the basis of a distillery name, vintage and cask type when faced with the blind buying model. I can see the value in that but doesn’t explain how you bottled a Jura! A welcome surprise. Anything in particular about buying that cask and do you think unfashionable distilleries are more affordable now via brokers such as the Mannochmore?
Selim: Many people have been asking me about the Jura. It’s simple. I was perplexed by the complexity. It’s a challenging dram difficult to decipher. We absolutely had to bottle it! I believe indie bottlers have a mission to find or curate stuff that are out of the ordinary. Otherwise, why would someone buy an indie bottle and not an OB? A single cask can really stand out from large vatted batches aiming consistency. Even to someone who knows a distillery’s character very well, some casks may be unidentifiable. That’s why I always keep an open mind and try everything.
I prefer using unexposed rather than unfashionable for malts like Mannochmore. When I first started Chapter 7, my aim was to bottle malts from lesser-known distilleries. They are more affordable because they are malts used for blending, available in bigger quantities and are not trademarks yet. We see more and more malts of this sort gaining popularity because they are good and more affordable.
MALT: Are casks from the big names such as Bowmore, Tormore, Laphroaig etc. becoming increasingly scarce and too costly when they do appear?
Selim: Big names are less scarce than what people think. Tormore is not yet a big name [Ed: it’s clearly the biggest] yet but you never know. Mortlach for example, was quite available when I started but it has become scarce in the last few years. It’s true they are very costly if you haven’t aged them yourself, but brands that go direct to consumers can still buy casks from big names. The reason they aren’t surfacing much is they represent a higher value as an investment than bottling.
MALT: What’s your thoughts on the rise of being unable to name certain distilleries due to restrictions imposed on casks?
Selim: This will become the norm for many more names in the coming years. We see more distilleries launching OBs and more sensitivity in trademark protection. We’re seeing some established indie brands already switching to full no-name ranges because they want to ensure ongoing supply from distilleries that they do regular business with. I have some no-name younger malts in stock next to ones that are older and can be named from the same distillery. So, things are moving towards more name restriction for sure. That’s why it’s important to build a strong brand identity associated with quality. It’s better to continue drinking great whiskies without a trademark than not having any. On a positive note, this may bring prices for certain malts down.
MALT: I know you mentioned the Malt scoring system prior to submitting your outturn earlier this year. What’s your thoughts on scoring and tasting notes in general? Or do you just trust your judgement and let the market decide?
Selim: Yeah, I was a little nervous to send you guys samples to tell you the truth. I’ve been following Malt-Review for a while, so I knew that your scoring system is different. This actually makes your reviews intriguing because I know a lot of people who just look at scores and only read the text if they see a high score. With Malt-Review, a 6 or a 7 can be a positive review so people spend more time reading.
In general, reviews are very important of course. I have to trust my judgement to do what I’m doing but having an expert opinion is a great way of testing yourself and your product. You don’t have to agree with the scoring. On Whiskybase, our best rated 2 whiskies from the last batch have respectively 12 and 17 points gap between the best and the worst scores. This clearly shows people perceive things differently. I try to gather opinions from reviews, virtual tastings and Whiskbase and try to evaluate something as subjective as whisky relatively objectively. The reviewer has a difficult task that needs tremendous effort and I think it’s a lot of responsibility when you reach a certain level of following.
MALT: What’s your favourite bottling from this release and why?
Selim: I think Imperial is my favourite. Not only because I love this delicate and complex spirit, but I see it as a precious piece of history. It’s one of those casks I feel privileged to have bottled and now it’s a great chapter in our Whisky Anthology.
Thanks to Selim for answering our questions and now for the whiskies…