By Kurt Maitland
Josh Hatton is a good friend and fellow whisky lover who also happens to be the President and CEO of Single Cask Nation. My love of independent bottlers has been brought to light on The Whiskey Reviewer, and the U.S.-based Single Cask Nation is one of the better ones, having made a point of identifying great one-off whiskies and bringing them to market. They also run The Whisky Jewbilee, so when it came time to do a sitdown, obviously we have a lot to talk about.
KM: So tell me a bit about yourself and how you got into the business?
JH: Well, first and foremost, I am a husband to my wonderful wife and dad to my sweet daughters. Without them I wouldn’t have the inspiration to do all of the many and varied whisky-released things I do. I’m also a musician and a whisky dork. Oh, I love cats, too.
Back in 2008 (or so) I started a blog which was the perfect outlet for me to write down my tasting notes and to be a little silly. Read through any of my reviews and you’ll find that I take whisky way more seriously than I take myself. I tried to create a blog that was fun to read while you’re getting your whisky tasting notes.
Rather than join a big company, I wanted to do things my way and start my own business. My passion is for independent bottlers and I wanted to start a U.S based IB company. I’ve always felt I had an entrepreneurial spirit, but it wasn’t until I got into whisky that I decided to take a leap of faith. I had contacts in the whisky world (via my blog) and a good friend, and soon business partner, Jason Johnstone-Yellin who had contacts of his own that helped to grow Single Cask Nation from buying, bottling, and selling one cask in 2011/12 to now doing that 15-18 per year (not including our Whisky Jewbilee festival bottling).
KM – Can you tell me what inspired the creation of Single Cask Nation?
JH: Community, first and foremost. SCN is a membership based community and we wanted to tie that sense of community in with the whisky itself. We have a private members-only Facebook page that we are very active on and are always there to answer questions and carry on whisky-related conversations. The idea behind Single Cask Nation was that we would release whisky for whisky geeks, by whisky geeks, and offer these whiskies at a price point that would not break the bank.
KM: How do you pick the whiskies you release in a given year?
JH: Nowadays we aim to bottle around 15 to 18 casks per year and we understand that the yearly out-turn needs to be interesting and diverse from the perspectives of flavor, distilleries we’re bottling whisky from, and cask maturation style. Additionally, we always make sure that 50% of our releases are matured in casks that previously held something other than wine or sherry. This is a nod to some of our kosher-keeping customers who may wish to stay away from these types of casks, depending on their view of wine and sherry casks, as they relate to the laws of kashrut, or kosher.
We also like to ensure that we’re bottling more than Scotch whisky as many of our Single Cask Nation members also love bourbon, rye, Irish, or Indian whiskies.
Additionally, because we are “Single Cask Nation,” we have the freedom and opportunity to bottle any type of spirit that was matured in a single cask. Watch this space!
KM: What qualities are you looking for in the whiskies you select?
JH: We have a very specific way in which we review whiskies. We often compare a great single cask to a great novel. When nosing and tasting the whisky, like a novel, it must have a beginning, middle, and end. All of these components must make sense to one another or the whisky does not work for us. Like a book, if your protagonist starts off her journey and takes an odd turn that doesn’t make sense to the book at hand, you’d say “why did the author write this in? That doesn’t make a bit of sense.” Much in the same way, if the cask sample we’re reviewing has a great nose but the palate doesn’t make sense or does not evolve from the nose in a proper or interesting way we should be asking “why would we bottle this? The nose and palate and finish do not match up.”
We’re a small company. Everything we bottle must be approved by us. Everything we bottle should be something we’d also love to drink, and something we could afford to drink!
Finally, we understand that many people may add water to their cask strength whiskies. However, we also understand that there are people that are new to cask strength whiskies and may not know to do this. Therefore, we make sure that anything we bottle must be drinkable at the given ABV (even if it’s 69.95% ABV). A nice, oily and rich mouthfeel is key and an integral part of all the whiskies we bottle.
KM: What independent bottlers do you look up to/or are inspired by?
JH: Great question. The reason people buy whiskies from this IB or that IB is because that, over time, they’ve found their palate matches the palates of a particular IB and then these folks become fans of this or that IB (sorry for the run-on and poorly constructed sentence). We’ve had great whiskies from so many different IBs but find our palates most often enjoy Samaroli, Exclusive Malts, and Gordon MacPhail bottlings (though, in the end, we prefer ours. Our bottlings are our babies after all).
KM: So let’s talk a bit about the Jewbilee. Currently you are expanding to new cities so obviously it is going well. Can you tell us a bit about the festival? How it started and what it offers to the whisk(e)y fan.
JH: Whisky Jewbilee is a pure rush for us. Jason and I spend 6 months out of the year planning each event; tweaking it, making it better, etc… all for a 3-hour payout on the day of the event. If you’ve ever [seen] me or Jason at a Whisky Jewbilee event (Jason is behind the SCN table and I’m milling about the crowd), you’ll notice that we’re a bit frantic, but enjoying every minute of it. The SCN table is usually has a good line of people waiting to taste our new whiskies and the festival bottling.
Whisky Jewbilee started NYC in 2012 and was basically an answer to WhiskyFest moving their event from a Wednesday night to the Jewish Sabbath. Before we launched the event we spoke with our friends at WhiskyFest to let them know what we were thinking of doing and they gave us their full blessing. They’re good people. The event has grown in NYC over the past five years, and in the past two years we’ve expanded to both Chicago and Seattle. NYC is a late spring event, Chicago is an early Autumn event, and Seattle is an early Spring event.
Whisky Jewbilee is unique for many reasons. One of which is our festival bottling. We’re the only US based whisky festival that features a commemorative festival bottling for each festival. We’ve partnered with great distilleries such as Heaven Hill, High West, Westland, Koval, and Wild Turkey to make our festival bottlings unique and as special as can be.
While it is the Whisky Jewbilee, our event is for all whisky lovers first and foremost and all peoples are welcome. What’s more is we make sure the food is kosher catered, in all three cities, to ensure that everyone can enjoy their time comfortably with food in their stomachs while they imbibe up to 300 different whiskies.
Also, we cap the attendance at all Whisky Jewbilee events to ensure that attendees can comfortably move around the space and learn from the people behind the tables, and so the exhibitors have a chance to give their full story to the attendees.
Finally, Whisky Jewbilee is a charitable event and we choose a new charity to partner with every year. The idea of charity and helping others is near and dear to us.
KM: And last but not least, Single Cask Nation has recently made the decision to expand into the retail markets. Can you tell a bit about how you came to that decision and what the differences will be between the online and retail bottlings?
JH: Basically, we got to a point in Single Cask Nation where we saw an opportunity to grow in a way that simply was not possible five years ago. We could continue to grow SCN membership slowly over the next few years or we could expand to now include a retail line that gets our brand in whiskies in front of more eyes and in more mouths, respectively. Current SCN members will be able to enjoy online-only and retail shelf bottlings moving forward. We’re hoping, too, that we’ll gain new members who will find us on retail shelves, do a little research and find that there are many more bottles to be purchased online that are not available on store shelves. The two lines will remain very separate. Casks bottled for online with be online-only and vice versa. We don’t want to the two lines to dilute each other and we don’t want to take sales away from the retailers that put our bottles on their shelves. Furthermore the retail line allows us to focus on 8-13yo single casks at very affordable prices. The online platform gives us the freedom to bottle more casks from the distilleries we have direct relationships with and to bottle older casks as well. That said, we do expect to release some older casks for retail. Right now, this is all new so we want to make sure there is a clear definition between online-only and retail-only bottlings.