For the casual consumer, the whisky business might seem a straightforward affair—distilleries age whiskies in casks, bottle them after a set period of time, and then sell them to consumers on the market.
But the keen connoisseur will know that in addition to the bottles of golden alcoholic nectar sat on store shelves, there also exists a more obscure selection to choose from—whiskies independently sourced and bottled by a certain group of aficionados that live and breathe whisky.
One such person belonging to this group is Eiling Lim, an ex-marketing and business admin executive turned independent bottler of whisky.
She actually began as someone who didn’t even like it. But, one fateful day when she was 25, she tasted her first single malt whisky, from an independent bottler. She loved it.
The next big step in her journey came a little later, in December 2013.
“My husband Luc and I chanced upon some whisky samples brought to the house by a friend,” she said. “The day was sunny, the weather was cool, and it was a beautiful day to try some whisky.”
On that fateful day, Eiling and her husband decided to try a dram of Littlemill 1990—a sampling that would eventually convince her to start her own business.
“We both felt that there was something very special about the cask it came from, but unfortunately, the remainder of the cask only yielded 68 more bottles.”
Right at that moment, Luc (previously an independent bottler himself) convinced Eiling to try out the business .
“It was a big step to take but every success begins with a step,” she said. “I thought it was really a good idea to start the business as I wanted to bring a bigger variety of quality whisky into Malaysia.”
Her Own Unique Flavour
For Eiling, the satisfaction derived from being an independent bottler has much to do with the opportunity to discover and bring in new and distinct flavours to the Malaysian market.
“Being an independent bottler, in my point of view, is a way to set my bottles apart from others in terms of variety, quality, scarcity, and price,” she said, explaining the process behind independent bottling.
To simplify things, whisky bottlings can be broken down into two methods—the official bottlings (OB) done by the actual whisky distilleries, and the independent bottlings (IB) done by enthusiasts like Eiling, where they personally handpick and purchase casks of whisky from distilleries to be bottled under their own labels.
And while independent bottlers can opt to mix and blend whiskies from different casks (leading to blended malt whiskies like Johnnie Walker and Chivas), Eiling instead opts to keep whiskies specific to their own casks and free of extra water, colouring, and other additives (leading to a purer and more authentic product).
“I try every single cask I bottle and sometimes I try the same whisky two to three times and on different days before I decide to buy it,” she continued. “I have very strict requirements in selecting casks to be bottled.”
“Together with my husband, we try 20 to 30 different casks on average every time we choose a whisky to bottle.”
With this sort of control over the overall product, Eiling claims that she also has an advantage when it comes to quality and flavour.
“If you’re into whisky, you’ll want to try a single cask bottling because you can then taste the real interaction between the whisky and the wood used to age it,” she said.
A Discerning Market
As for her market, Eiling says that she sees interest from bona-fide whisky lovers looking for something a bit more exclusive and unique.
“The world of independent bottling is full of people who have a passion for good whisky and who can appreciate single-cask whiskies,” she said. “They know the difference between a commercial bottling and one from a humble cask without added colour or water.”
“My bottles are rarely sold in bars because of the scarcity and the price—these bottles are already sold out to end consumers and loyal followers of my label.”
These figures, she says, vary greatly depending on her schedule of travelling and buying casks. But so far, response for her selections have been vastly positive—in one particular tasting session, Eiling managed to sell between 150 to 200 bottles in a single afternoon.
For Eiling, this is indicative that she’s headed down the right path, and that there is indeed a future for a business like hers in Malaysia.
“I have customers that followed me from the day I bottled my first release, and it’s been very good motivation for my business,” she said. “From all the bottles I’ve released, all the whisky has never gotten a score lower than 85 from reviewers and whisky lovers.”
More Left In The Barrel
But not content with just positive reviews and loyal followings, Eiling is also hopeful of making a dent in the local whisky drinker’s market, beginning with convincing more whisky drinkers to opt for independently labeled options instead of the mainstream ones.
“It’s very difficult because most of the time, a bottle of whisky is put on the table to show off and people don’t want to spend too much money on a brand that nobody knows or recognises,” she said. “However, the younger generation of whisky drinkers as well as whisky ‘geeks’ are more adventurous and they’re supporting the independent bottling community the most.”
She also mentioned that moving forward, her challenge was to also deal with the rising global cost of whisky.
“As whisky prices go higher, not many people will be able to keep up and eventually there’ll be a loss of interest,” she explained. “Therefore I’m keeping my prices reasonable and maintaining the quality of my bottlings.”
Finally, Eiling also revealed to us her plans to grow her business, including starting a second label for those new to the independent bottling scene as well as introducing more varieties of liquors to her existing label including rum, Spanish vermouth, and a series of gins that will incorporate distinct Malaysian flavours such as pandan, jackfruit, and galangal ginger.
But despite these new introductions, Eiling is still fixated on helping grow the Malaysian whisky-drinking scene.
“The future for the brand is to continue to bottle quality spirits and drinks, but whisky will remain the core of my business,” she said. “My main focus is Malaysia right now because it’s my home country.”
“There is so much whisky knowledge to impart, but only to those who are willing to try,” she added. “People are creatures of routine and it’s our job to show them that there’s more out there than what they know.”
Feature Image Credit: Eiling Lim