Interview: Jason Johnstone-Yellin of Single Cask Nation (Part I)

I had the pleasure of interviewing the Co-Founder and Vice-President of Single Cask Nation: Jason Johnstone-Yellin. Single Cask Nation is an independent bottling company based in the United States. To my knowledge it is one of two independent bottlers here in the States and the only one who focuses on single cask scotch. Single Cask Nation has had two releases totaling six exclusive bottles that you won’t find anywhere else. If you’re a whisky enthusiast then you owe it to yourself to check them out. This is part one of the interview, part two here.


What is aim behind Single Cask Nation?
Jason: The focus for us will always be single cask. Jewish Whisky Company is the LLC which controls Single Cask Nation, Whisky Jewbilee and Whisky Tours of Scotland which is on hiatus and will be back in 2014. Single Cask Nation purposely doesn’t have whisky in it’s title. As much as the focus will remain scotch and single casks of scotch, we’re also expanding beyond that into world whiskey, american bourbons, american ryes, anything that has been in a cask – we have interest in it. What we are always looking for is something unique.

We built the company on the back of the Arran Pinot Noir which was a phenomenal cask. We had a really good contact at Arran who introduced us to that cask. It was something very unique that you’re not going to find in the market place – and it tastes brilliant – so this is [an example] of what we look to bottle.

Arran 12, Pinot Noir Cask

So then we managed to pull off the Kilchoman 4 year old. This was one of those whiskies where we wondered if we really wanted the number four on the label. Sadly, whisky drinkers have been trained to look for 10 year olds, 12 years, 18 years and so forth. There is a story to be told here in this being four years old and this being a very oily spirit. If you tasted it blind you would’ve never guessed it was four.

To complete our first release we got the BenRiach 17 year old that is peated and aged in a second fill ex-bourbon cask. BenRiach is known for a very fruity tropical new make spirit, when you taste our BenRiach 17 you get the fruit, but it’s framed by the smoke. We thought it was a very interesting way to approach BenRiach. This was our guiding trio. The three main components we look for are: interesting, unique and delicious. We wouldn’t bottle it if we didn’t want to drink it.

How did you evolve from blogging (www.guidscotchdrink.com) to launching Single Cask Nation?

Jason: I made the relationship with Josh online, I was in Seattle and he was in Connecticut. As two [whisky] bloggers, we got along really well together. One day we started talking about a company. And it made sense to build on what he had already established which was the Jewish Single Malt Whisky Society blog (www.jewmalt.com). He built that [brand] so we really wanted to keep the Jewish connection. We figured there was something we could do for the Jewish market – it’s such a vibrant whisky market where guys are very knowledgeable. So we felt with Josh’s experience in running his blog and fielding questions from Jewish consumers, we thought it’d be nice to carry that on.
So here we were blogging away, both running very popular whisky blogs; both drawing about 30,000 hits a month. People were thoroughly trusting our palate and we had developed very good connections in the industry. One day we were talking and realized that people were really trusting our palates to buy the stuff that we’re tasting from the industry. Then we thought: Wouldn’t it be really exciting if we were tasting and bottling our own stuff? It seemed like such a fun thing to do. Also, Josh and I are huge fans of independent bottlings. There is a certain whisky nerdom here that we are very proud of.
From the very beginning we thought: How can we partner with distilleries to bottle their stuff, talk up these distilleries and also put their product in front of the Jewish market and fellow whisky lovers. It seemed like such a simple idea and a no brainer for us. We had seen some of the other things that prominent whisky bloggers transitioned into and were inspired. It’s really interesting seeing guys turn a passion into a career. This was potentially our way of doing that. What we’re now finding is that continuing to successfully run a whisky blog as well as launch a whisky company is a lot of work.

What’s the process of selecting and buying casks for bottling? How do you get access? Do you have an importers or distributors license? 
Jason: Before we launched the company, we spent 18 months doing due diligence. I’ve been in whisky for 15 years now and tasted a lot of things. I know whisky. But, how do we make our idea come to life in the United States? Very quickly we came to realize that we were building a 21st century e-commerce whisky company on the back of pre-prohibition laws. I was like WOW, these two things could not be more different. What we’ve been very careful with is crossing every T and dotting every I as we navigate the US three tier system. We adhere to the three tier system. There’s an importer, distributor and retailer.

However, what’s very important to us is that our members interface solely with us. So if you’re interested in Single Cask Nation you go to the website, you become member and you purchase bottles online. We want that to be as easy as possible for our members. We’re Single Cask Nation, you’re a member, sign up and we’ll send you whisky. We did a lot of hard work behind the scenes to make the [purchasing] experience seamless for our members.

With regards to our selection process, we go directly to the distiller and tell them what we can do for their brand and distillery in the United States. We ask them, “Please allow us to bottle single casks.” Sometimes they’ll say “yes absolutely,” sometimes they’ll say “no” which will become a yes and other times they say “no, that’s not something that we do.”

If it’s a yes, we’ll receive samples from them, then run through the samples to narrow it down. Because they have so many casks available they’ll usually ask us what we’re looking for. Either we’ll have an idea of what we’re looking for or we’ll do some quick research. We’re always looking to find that needle in the haystack.

What’s really fantastic is that every distillery that has sent us samples has said, “If you find one you like, brilliant, but if you don’t find one you like, don’t feel that you have to select from what we sent you. Come back to us and we’ll send you another batch.” Because we want to represent the distillery they’re very keen to send us more good stuff so that we can choose the dram that feels just right. That’s the highlight of the job – going through the single cask samples.

Do you have a bottling warehouse site in the US? Where does the bottling take place? 
Jason: If we independently bottle a cask of Scottish single malt, we want to be able to call it scotch. So, we must legally bottle it in Scotland to call it scotch. We can’t bring it into the US and call it scotch. Some distillers have their own bottling halls, others have an off site bottling warehouse. Right now we’re not operating at a volume where we need our own bottling plant so we piggyback at the moment. There are bottlers all over the place who are ready to do this.

Kilchoman 4 yr, Bourbon Cask
Part two coming soon!
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