It started with a little dram of Littlemill, which Eiling Lim and her husband Luc Timmermans loved so much that they just had to have all of it.
“Someone brought us a sample of a single malt from Littlemill, a distillery I had never even heard of before at the time,” she said during an interview in Kuala Lumpur. “When we tried it, we fell in love with it and just had to have it. We bought the remainder of the cask, but after that, we wondered what to do with it. Were we going to drink all the bottles ourselves?”
At the time, Lim, who was born in Ipoh, had just moved to Belgium to be with Timmermans, a former independent bottler of whiskies, and had not found a job yet. “So I thought, ‘why not start an independent bottling business just like my husband did?’. So I ended up starting a company just to market that remainder cask!” she said.
And that was how Lim, 32, became arguably Malaysia’s first and only independent bottler of whiskies.
Launched in 2014, her first release, that 23-year-old Littlemill, was sold out in two days, mostly thanks to word of mouth. Granted, there were only 68 bottles available worldwide, but it’s still a pretty impressive feat.
“Maybe people saw the Chinese name on the bottle and thought it was a Japanese whisky!” she said with a laugh.
Since that first bottling, she has released 10 other whiskies under her brand, Eiling Lim, many of which are limited to just over a hundred bottles each.
An independent bottler is a whisky company that buys whiskies from different distilleries, and bottles it in their own designed bottles and labels.
Although most distilleries often have their own official bottlings, those tend to be blends of different malts within the distillery (unless stated otherwise) that are meant to produce a consistent taste profile that represents the distillery’s identity and DNA.
Although some of the whiskies Lim has released bear well-known names like Auchentoshen, Caol Ila, and Bunnahabhain, these are not official bottlings from these distilleries. Most independent bottlings, however, tend to be single cask whiskies, which means all the liquid only comes from one single cask from that particular distillery, and therefore have a unique flavour profile that may differ from the official bottlings.
According to her, she has three criteria for the whiskies she and Timmermans pick for bottling.
One, the whisky has to be “better than good”. Simply “good” is not enough. “We could have bottled a lot more whiskies, but we didn’t want to lower our standards. For us, it has to be a very special dram to be worth bottling,” she said.
Secondly, these are whiskies that are meant to be drunk, not put on the shelf to be admired, so they have to be whiskies that are highly drinkable.
“These are whiskies that we personally love drinking, so I want people to actually open the bottles and drink the whiskies as well,” said Lim.
Last but not least, Lim also wants her whiskies to be affordable. “We don’t bottle whiskies based on the name or the brand. We like trying different whiskies, and want to offer more variety, rather than just those from the famous distilleries, which tend to be more expensive,” she said, adding that her prices range from €90 to €400 (RM412 to RM1,832), which is relatively affordable compared to most whiskies of equivalent quality and age.
True enough, some of her bottlings are from distilleries that most casual whisky drinkers would not have heard of, including Glenlossie, Glen Keith, and the aforementioned Littlemill.
The oldest bottling in her range is a 43-year-old from Ben Nevis distilled in 1970 and bottled in 2014 (unsurprisingly, there were only 60 bottles available).
She doesn’t just limit herself to single malt Scotch. Among her range is a unique “Older than Old” Blended Malt Whisky, as well as a 22-year-old Irish “Peated” Single Malt.
She is also not afraid to go out of the norm when it comes to the more well-known names. Her latest release, for instance, is a nine-year-old Caol Ila that was distilled in 2006 and bottled in 2015. A distillery on the island of Islay, which is famous for its peaty whiskies, Caol Ila’s youngest official bottling is a 12-year-old, but don’t let the relatively young age of Lim’s bottle fool you.
This is hardly your typical Caol Ila, which tends to be have quite significant peat influence. This particular nine-year-old, however, hardly has any peat in it. Instead, on the nose, you get a bright grassiness that gives away the youngness of the malt, but on the palate, there is a certain maturity and balance that you don’t normally get with a nine year old malt.
This is a whisky that is very different from the regular Caol Ila malts, and really highlights the distillery’s new make spirit (the unaged spirit that comes directly off the still), she explained.
According to Lim, it was always her intention to make her bottles available in Malaysia as well.
“There is just too little variety of whiskies around here. You can only get the official bottlings, or maybe some independent ones from the bigger independent bottlers, which is not enough for such a growing whisky scene,” she said.
“So I thought, why not bring something different into Malaysia, something that people might not even have heard of before.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the oldest bottling in Eiling Ling’s range is a 34-year-old from Bunnahabhain distilled in 1980 and bottled in 2014.
For more info about Eiling Lim bottlings, email email@example.com, or visit www.whollyspiritsasia.com or eilinglim.com.
Eiling Lim’s whiskies have become Michael Cheang’s new benchmark when it comes to whiskies. Drop him a note at the Tipsy-Turvy Facebook page (www.facebook.com/mytipsyturvy).