Drinks industry veteran aims to illuminate whisky fans with exciting new bottling range

A whisky industry veteran is aiming to illuminate fans with the launch of an exciting new independently bottled range that features expressions curated by a panel of industry experts, with over 200 years’ experience.

Published 18th Sep 2019
Updated 21 st Sep 2023

Named Whisky Illuminati, it is designed to give customers a unique and rare insight into how whisky changes and develops in the cask through maturation over time.

"I originally moved into Scotch whisky from the beer industry and was instantly hooked on all aspects of it," explained co-founder Keith Bonnington. "I founded The Whisky Cellar Ltd, which bottles Whisky Illuminati, in 2017 in Edinburgh after many years in the whisky industry, with the aim of offering something genuinely new and unique to lovers of Scotch.

"I wanted to bring genuine innovation to the Scotch whisky industry, without losing the appeal of its rich history and heritage, and therefore came up with the concept of Whisky Illuminati."

So where did the name Illumaniti originate from?

Bonnington explained: "Illuminati is about collective knowledge, understanding and experience. The name reflects the bringing together of a panel of industry experts - the Whisky Illuminati - with more than 200 years’ experience."

Having assembled said expert panel, Bonnington explained that they rigorously assess whisky samples from distilleries across Scotland to select the best possible casks to take forward for maturation and bottling.

"Our Whisky Illuminati panel gathers two to three times each year to review a variety of samples and identify which liquid holds the possibility of maturing into a truly remarkable whisky.

"We’ll then take their recommendations forward to come up with future exciting launches. This in-depth process results in inimitable whisky with a unique story to tell.

"We want to create an iconic brand look and feel but to maintain a little bit of mystique around the people involved.

"Our mission is to seek out and bring to market whiskies that are not only of exceptional quality but which also have a really intriguing back story or innovative new angle."

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The firm's most recent release was the three-part Solaria Series, which follows their first launch, the inaugural Candlelight Series, in 2018.

Described by Bonnington as an "industry first", the series features five Speyside single malt whiskies, and will explore how these whiskies mature in the cask, with three distinct bottlings from the same casks released over the next four years.

Whisky Illuminati

The Solaria series.

Following the first edition (1:3) release this summer, there will be a second release in 2021, with the final batch set for release in 2023.

"Obviously whisky is a very competitive market place, so to stand out you need to create and deliver something new for consumers to notice and ultimately enjoy.

"By taking a new approach and surprising and educating consumers you can overcome the challenges of launching in a relatively crowded market place."

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The Solaria Series is comprised of whiskies from the Royal Brackla, Aultmore, Glentauchers distilleries as well as one 'Artis Secretum’ - trade secret in Latin - so named due to sensitivities around the rights to the brand name.

Edition One will see only 150 bottles from three of the Sherry Butts, 120 from another lower fill Butt and 100 from the Hogshead released.

The remaining whisky will stay in the cask for a further two years before Edition 2:3 is released, followed by Edition 3:3 in 2023.

Each release was matured in first-fill Spanish Oak Sherry Butt casks, with the exception of the Solaria Series from Craigellachie Distillery, which was matured in a first-fill Spanish Oak Sherry Hogshead cask.

Bonnington noted: “This is a unique opportunity for whisky drinkers to buy into a developing cask of single malt Scotch whisky, and to fully appreciate how the character evolves in the wood over a period of four years.

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“We selected 100 per cent first fill ex-Sherry Casks from Spain to mature the new-make spirit, with the aim of drawing out maximum impact from the wood to deliver the depth of flavour and colour desired over time.”

Bonnington added that their policy is to bottle exactly as it comes from the cask, he said: “Our policy of bottling at natural cask strength without adding colour or chill-filtering means that each whisky is bottled at between 63% and 68% alcohol by volume. To fully enjoy the multitude of complex flavours, gradually adding water to taste is encouraged.

“How they develop in the oak over the duration of the three releases is completely in the hands of mother nature and that anticipation of their natural development is what makes this series so exciting.

“What is certain, is that these 2011 Vintage casks are made from the highest quality European oak, sourced from one of Spain’s finest Sherry Bodegas, and I’m confident that the whisky will develop and mellow marvellously over the next few years”.

So what next for the Whisky Illuminati and Whisky Cellar Ltd?

"The Solaria Series is only our second full series release. My notepad is full of ideas and future releases that we plan to bring to market, from the very top end of the category, down to accessible, entry level whiskies. Having two brands to play with gives us that opportunity.

"At Whisky Illuminati we’re not constrained by age or popularity of particular distilleries, instead we’re driven by a desire to uncover hidden gems often found at the back of the warehouse and brought to market under an innovative ‘series’ with a compelling story to tell."

• The Solaria Series is available to purchase from select specialist whisky retailers at a UK RRP of around £120 each. Buyers of the first release will automatically be offered the opportunity to purchase the second and third editions upon release.

Driven by a passion for all things drinks-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over 10 years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink. Recently, his first book was published. Dubbed Gin Galore, it explores Scotland's best gins and the stories behind those that make them.
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