A new article in the very much requested and even more awaited “Interview with the Bottler” series! Yes, I am sarcastic. Today I’m gonna translate in English the report of that time I bothered with my questions the founder of Anam na h-Alba, the German bottler Tom Skowronek.
Tom released the first bottles in 2011, and nowadays Anam na h-Alba is an established player in the colourful landscape of the German independent bottlers. I first heard about Tom on a German whisky forum, and I finally managed to meet him in person at the Hanse Spirit, the Hamburg whisky festival. Tom managed to tolerate my Star Wars T-shirt, and so here we are! You’ll find as usual my questions in bold and Tom’s answers in italic. Sometimes you’ll also find among the answers my YTN: Yours Truly’s Notes.
– Hi Tom, tell us about Anam na h-Alba: what the hell does it mean, and why did you choose such a peculiar name?
Anam na h-Alba is gaelic and it means “The Soul of Scotland”. For many years my nickname in various forum was Anam Cara (soul mate), a nickname my girlfriend gave me. The other users knew me as Anam, and it seemed logic to me to keep using the same nick. Scotland was another logical choice, and just like that Anam na h-Alba was born. And in the end whisky is just this: the soul of Scotland (or at least a part of it).
– How did your adventure as an independent bottler start? Long long ago in a galaxy far far away?
It started in some whisky forums, through some private cask splittings, at the beginning just by taking part to such initiatives and then (from 2009) as organiser and promoter. When I became unemployed (I’m a specialised insurer) I had enough contacts to make a job out of my hobby.
– As an independent bottler, what is your interaction with the distillery managers? Is it more like the one Luke has with Obi Wan or more similar to the one Darth Vader displays with Emperor Palpatine?
Actually there isn’t much interaction, or least that’s what happens with the oldest distilleries. I buy my casks only though brokers. The interaction seems to be different, instead, with the newest, more artisanal distilleries.
– How do you choose a barrel? Do you close your eyes and trust the Force?
I get some samples from the casks I deem interesting, that will be nosed and tasted. Both aspects have to convince me. My wife (who doesn’t drink whisky) is the “nose” of the company and she does a preselection. I then let my friend Christian Priess try the samples, as a countercheck. Normally we meet with our impressions and then I take the final decision. Anyway, I never buy a cask without trying it first!
– What are, in you opinion, the most difficult challenges for an independent bottler? How do they change when you become more well-known in the whisky world? Is it more difficult to be an independent bottler or to sit on the Iron Throne?
At the beginning you have to make a lot of sacrifices, because you’re just one of many. Then you have to keep your customer base and have good contacts. Obviously the quality of the whisky you bottle should be constant, and also one should try not to release too many bottles per year, in order not to… saturate your potential buyers.
– Do you have any new projects you wanna talk about? Are you planning something big, like Napoleon when he was planning great escapes from the Elba Island?
Anam na h-Alba is not only an independent bottler: we are also the German importer for the Strathearn and Dornoch distilleries. They won’t remain the only ones, but we want to focus on the small artisanal distilleries. Besides that, in May we organise our annual whisky festival: Just Whisky Oberhausen.
– We actually met at a whisky festival: to how many events do you take part each year?
Around 15-20 big events per year.
– Do you still remember you first bottling? Which whisky was it?
My first bottling was actually kind of a “double package”: a Bunnahabhain 20 years old ex-sherry (first fill) and a Dailuaine 27 years old, also ex-sherry (but this one refill), back in 2011. Actually, before that I did select a special bottling for a whisky forum: a Caol Ila 27 years old, but I was still a private customer.
– How do you develop/create new bottlings? Do you try to find something that is going to satisfy your customer base or this aspect is not a key factor? You know, a bit like George Lucas trying to satisfy some horrible perversions of his fans introducing characters like Jar Jar Binks?
No, this aspect is not too important. A whisky must convince me personally and the other two/three people involved in the decision. Luckily, it seems like my personal taste is actually compatible to the taste of many others 🙂 (YTN: I kept the smiley as in the original text: I personally lead a very unholy crusade against smileys. DEUS LO VULT!).
– Do you also read some whisky blogs? Where do you get information/ inspiration from?
Almost never, the time is always short (YTN: 😦 ).
– Is there a bottling you’re particularly proud of? I don’t know, like Michael Bay is proud of that explosive mess of metal that is Transformers?
There are quite a few I’m proud of ;-). Among the others, one of my first to bottles (the Bunnahabhain 20 years old, ex-sherry first fill), some Glenfarclas I bottled for our old Whisky Club, or a Springbank 22 years old dark sherry (YTN: well, I actually tried this one, and it was awesooooome! Italian review here).
– Thank you so much for your patience, Tom! You can find the latest news from this Ruhr area on the site: anamnahalba.com. Take a look!