HUNTER Laing, the luxury whisky blender and bottler, has revealed that China has emerged as its fastest-growing market as it inches closer to opening its first ever distillery.

The Glasgow-based firm, run by whisky veteran Stewart Laing with sons Andrew and Scott, revealed it is actively looking to take on more distributors in the world’s second biggest economy to capitalise on growing demand, sparked by the popularity of premium Scotch among middle class consumers.

The growth in China came during a year which saw the firm achieve a modest rise in profits as it laid the groundwork for the construction of its distillery at Ardnahoe on Islay. The £8 million distillery, which is based on the north-east of the island, is now on course to open in time for the start of the Islay Whisky Festival in May.

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New accounts show Hunter Laing lifted pre-tax profits to nearly £1.2 million in the year ended April 30, up from £1.1m, despite expenses climbing due to costs associated with the distillery project and an increase to staff numbers to 25. That number is now close to 30, with recent hires including the arrival of legendary Islay whisky distiller Jim McEwan, formerly of Bruichladdich and Bowmore, to head the production team at Ardnahoe.

The firm, which was set up by Stewart Laing after splitting the assets and brands of long-established blender Douglas Laing with brother Fred in 2013, show administrative expenses climbed to £1.9m from £1.6m, which also reflected the opening of its new warehouse complex in East Kilbride, on which it now pays business rates. The company saw revenue rise marginally to £6.6m from £6.5m.

Hunter Laing director David Armour signalled that it had been a satisfying period for the firm against the backdrop of rising costs, while highlighting the significant strides it had made with the construction project on Islay and in international markets.

While Hunter Laing, which sells its whiskies to around 65 countries, enjoys its biggest overseas market in North America, it is seeing its fastest rate of growth in China. This has come as Scotch whisky distillers are starting to see a revival in the country after sales were depressed over several years by a government-led crackdown on corporate gift giving.

Mr Armour, who noted that Taiwan continues to be a strong market for Hunter Laing, said: “The biggest area of growth we see at the moment is China. We went to an exhibition out there and had a tour round with the distributors, and we see that market starting to open up now.”

Asked why China is proving to be a lucrative market, Mr Armour pinpointed growing demand from the “growing middle class… particularly for the high-end quality stuff.”

He added: “The middle class see it as a bit of a status symbol to buy premium Scotch whisky.”

Closer to home, Mr Armour downplayed the affect that Brexit will have on trading, pointing out that “Europe is not the biggest market we sell into.” He added: “Assuming that we continue to trade on the same terms with the Far East and to the Americas, the Brexit issue, fingers crossed, won’t affect us too much. We have actually benefited a bit from the fall in the exchange rate over the last 18 months.”

Meanwhile, Mr Armour highlighted the rapid progress which continues to be made on the development of the firm’s distillery on Islay, where the stills are now in place and the building has been roofed and cladded. The stillhouse overlooks the Sound of Islay, with views of Iona, Mull and Jura.

Asked when Hunter Laing hopes to release its first whisky from the distillery, he said there is a possibility it could issue a five year old spirit, but noted it is more likely to be in the eight to 10 year old range.

The period saw the firm continue to invest in whisky stocks, with the value of its inventories rising by around £600,000 to £6.6m.