The popularity of our national drink seems to be ever growing, whatever the global challenges

Scotland’s national drink seems to be going from strength to strength, with exports continuing to grow despite challenges such as Brexit and Covid-19.

There are now almost around 140 Scotch whisky distilleries operating across the country with more on the cards. Openings in the pipeline include The Cairn Distillery from Gordon & MacPhail, which also owns Benromach in Forres, and 8 Doors Distillery, which will be the most northerly whisky producer on mainland Scotland. But it’s not just whisky that is in demand: there is increased production in Scotland of gin and, more recently, rum.

And more are coming to these shores to see where the magic happens. In 2019 – the last full year before the pandemic lockdowns – there were 2.2 million visits to whisky distilleries, making the industry the third most popular tourist attraction in Scotland. Others travelled to take part in festivals such as Spirit of Speyside.

Scotch whisky saw its exports reach £4.5 billion in 2021, accounting for three quarters of Scottish food and drink exports. In the first three months of this year, figures from trade body the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) showed that exports reached £1.21 billion, up 36 per cent from the same period in 2021. And IWSR Drinks Markets Analysis predicts global growth in Scotch whisky sales of around 17 per cent in volume between 2021 and 2025.

Billy Walker, owner and master distiller at The GlenAllachie Distillers Company in Speyside, describes the thirst for Scotch as “almost insatiable” at the moment.

Walker marked 50 years of working in Scotch whisky with the launch of a limited-edition series of Speyside single malts last month. And last year the company increased its total sales by 43 per cent to £14.8 million from £10.3 million in 2020.

He knows the industry well, having worked with well-known brands such as Ballantine’s and GlenDronach. In 2016, he sold the BenRiach Distillery Company to US drinks giant Brown-Forman for £285 million. The following year he led the consortium that bought GlenAllachie Distillery from Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky arm Chivas Brothers.

He adds that GlenAllachie is seeing strong demand in a range of markets including North America, Europe and Asia, where the amount that consumers are willing to spend on luxury goods has increased hugely.

The Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival is celebrating its 23rd year and attracted several thousand visitors over six days last month. It is one of the world’s largest whisky festivals and made its full and in-person return after the pandemic by offering more than 550 events. Visitors came from around the world, from North America to Norway and Malaysia.

George McNeil, managing director of Johnstons of Elgin’s retail division, has taken over from James Campbell as chairman of the Festival. McNeil says: “I was delighted to see international tourism returning this year. And the distilleries were delighted to have their doors open and see people coming through.”

Local communities and businesses will also be pleased about the effect of the festival. The festival’s direct sales were in excess of £200,000, and McNeil says the total economic impact to the area will be even higher. In 2015 the economic benefit of the festival to Moray was £1.4 million.

McNeil is confident that economic growth will increase. “We believe 2023 could see a return to the numbers of the 2019 festival. There is no reason why not. The numbers we got this year were fantastic,” he says.

The next event in the calendar is Spirit of Speyside Distilled Food and Drink in Elgin Town Hall in September. As well as whisky, this celebrates other products from gin to local produce.

Looking ahead, McNeil says: “There is a lot of optimism. There’s a desire to ensure we deliver a luxury and premium experience through the festival.”

Scotch whisky in numbers

  • 44 bottles (70cl @40 per cent ABV) of Scotch whisky are shipped from Scotland to around 180 markets around the world every second.
  • More than million casks lie maturing in warehouses in Scotland waiting to be discovered.