‘There’s a revolution under way in Scotch whisky’

By finally looking to the future as well as embracing their past, Scotland’s distilleries – and the whisky scene as a whole – is on the cusp of a golden age, says Joel Harrison

Words by Joel Harrison

Illustration of Joel Harrison with whisky in hand
Illustration by Stuart Patience

The world of Scotch whisky has long been one of peaks and troughs. Distillation, a gift left to the Celts via generations of hearsay and teaching, was developed among the mountains and glens of Scotland, where barley was not just in plentiful supply but also a key element for survival. The ability to preserve part of its yield through brewing and distilling laid the foundations that allowed a monk’s medicine to grow into a household name, status symbol and global industry.

Today – or, at least, in a normal year – 42 bottles of Scotch are exported every second, and the industry accounts for more than a fifth of the UK’s food-and-drink exports by value. Employing more than 10,000 people directly and 40,000-plus indirectly, this once-agricultural pursuit is now a very serious business indeed.

But it hasn’t always been thus. As with all drinks, Scotch is subject to the winds and whims of fashion. And as seen in the profiles of Scotland’s ‘lost distilleries’ in the new issue of Club Oenologique magazine, there have been hard times. Herein lies the challenge for distillers: legally, Scotch whisky must be matured for a minimum of three years, in oak casks, in Scotland. For good Scotch, the maturation takes much longer. This makes it difficult to keep a consistent supply. The natural reaction to a contraction in sales is to slow production, but this leaves gaps in the inventory when the good times return – as they have today.

Port Ellen whisky distillery in Scotland
Port Ellen distillery on the island of Islay is among three that will be resurrected this year

The more established, foresighted producers have learned from their mistakes, with the larger players embarking on a series of distillery expansions. This increased capacity allows for stocks maturing away in warehouses across Scotland to be topped up continually, so that if turbulence hits demand, there is still forethought for the future. Yes, if demand slows, a surplus will build; however, with Scotch generally improving – and always increasing in value as it ages – distillers have learned the wisdom that more is more.

Scotland is joining the new global trend for small-scale, barley-to-bottle production

In contrast to this measured evolution, there is also a revolution under way. A new wave of small, independent producers is springing up – partly in response to the success of indie single-malt distillers in other parts of the world, from Taiwan to Texas. This is not a loud, kilts-up-at-the-border protectionist action, though; rather, it is a movement of small, often farmhouse operations keeping the past present in the future of Scottish single-malt distilling and joining the new global trend for small-scale, barley-to-bottle production.

Many of these new distilleries are focused on the future in a different way. Concerned about their environmental footprint, several share a desire to make as little impact as possible when producing their spirit. Start-ups such as Nc’Nean are ensuring their single malt is certified organic, made from 100% renewable energy and bottled in 100% recycled glass. Nc’Nean is limited to producing 100,000 litres of spirit a year – quite the contrast to the 21-million-litre capacity at Glenlivet. Other start-ups have a similarly boutique approach. The Isle of Raasay distillery, founded in 2017, produces 200,000 litres, while the farmhouse distillery of Dornoch sits at a tiny 30,000 litres.

As with most revolutions, what started out small and quiet is gaining momentum. Arch-revolutionary Anthony Wills built the first new Islay distillery for 124 years: his Kilchoman filled its debut casks in 2005. Another 24 distilleries were opened around the country by 2018, and by 2022 it is expected that at least another 20 will be producing spirit.

Bottles of Scotch whisky in a row
Be it through small, independent producers or the revival of historic names, Scotch whisky is thriving. Photo by Facundo Bustamante

Rarely do evolution and revolution go hand in hand – usually, they are opposite sides of the same coin: one rooted in development and learning, the other advocating a complete transformation that leaves former ideals behind. Yet in Scotland today, both strands are happily coalescing, hinting at an exciting future.

The host of start-ups, along with expansions at such stalwarts as Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and  The Macallan – profiled here – shows that Scotland’s leading industry has, after more than two centuries, finally learned to embrace the future – be that through the expansion of the big players, allowing for more prudent future planning, or through the growth in smaller, farmhouse distillers with an eye on the environment and boutique production. For now, Scotland and Scotch seem to have the right balance of big and small, of artisan versus industry, of past, present and future. And that makes it a wonderful time for whisky lovers.

Club Oenologique Issue 7 cover
Joel Harrison’s column is taken from the spring 2021 issue of
Club Oenologique, which takes Scotch whisky as one of its themes. You can purchase a copy or subscribe to the magazine here.