It's no secret that the Highlands & Islands plus the Cairngorms National Park area play host to some of Scotland's most superior food and drink in the form of whisky, fish, and everything in between.

And, giving a well-earned nod to the work invested by restaurants, distilleries and food and drink companies, the Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards is set to honour the very best of the bunch having released details of the 41 shortlisted entrants to this year's awards.

Over the past few months, the 14 judges have read their way through dozens of written submissions, sampled a variety of the best of Scottish produce ranging from buffalo, goat and salmon, salad dressings, biscuits and cheese to ice creams, cordials, whiskies and craft beers, and deliberated their conclusions at length until the winning businesses were agreed upon. 

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This year the judging panel was chaired by Stephen Rankin, director of UK Sales at the Awards' headline sponsor Gordon & MacPhail.  The judges comprised experienced individuals from all sectors of the food and drink industry, including Head Chef Charlie Lockley of the Michelin starred Boath House near Nairn and representatives from industry organisation Scotland Food & Drink and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

Chair Stephen Rankin commented:  "It was a genuine pleasure to chair the judging panel again.  The expertise, integrity and professional approach of the judges was outstanding and the diversity and extremely high quality of submissions was an on-going reminder of the imagination, passion and skill which is prevalent throughout the industry.

"I would like to thank the many companies and individuals who entered the Awards and congratulate them on their submissions.  As HIFDA grows in stature, more and more companies are keen to gain the recognition an award brings.  This obviously makes the judging process more challenging; but it really does signify that being shortlisted for an award is truly a fantastic accolade. 

"It was fantastic to review such a diverse range of entries from a brilliant blend of well-established companies to youngsters and new businesses just starting out in the industry.  The latter group's bravery and willingness to take on responsibility has to be admired and recognised.

Charlie Lockley was a first-time member of the judging panel this year.  "I was honoured to be asked to be a judge this year." he said.  "I didn't really know what to expect or what was expected of me, but I found the process and the experience 'behind closed doors' a real eye-opener and an informative learning curve. 

"It was a highlight for me to learn about the great work which is going on in the area's restaurant scene - much of which goes unrecognised.  These people, who are are so passionate and enthusiastic about what they are doing, put such extraordinary effort into running excellent restaurants and getting their names out there.  I can't wait to go and visit them for myself and to see (and taste) the results of their hard work first-hand."

The Highlands & Islands Food & Drink Awards complement the work of the Highlands and Islands Food & Drink Forum and are supported by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE).  They celebrate excellence and achievement in the industry and recognise industry players at the top of their game. 

Crystal Mackay, HIE's Development Manager for Food & Drink said:  "HIE is extremely pleased to see such a high level and quality of entries received from across the region for the Highlands and Islands Food and Drink Awards.  Our fantastic natural larder is a key strength for the region and growing the food and drink sector is a priority for the agency.  We welcome and thank all the dedicated companies across the Highlands and Islands and Cairngorms National Park area who entered and we wish all the shortlisted companies the best of luck in the forthcoming awards."

Shortlisted finalists have been announced in 12 categories including Best Drink, Export, Independent Food & Drink Retailer, New Product and Restaurant of the Year.  The winners of two additional categories not open for general entry, namely Ambassador of the Year and the Judges' Award, will be made at the discretion of the judges and revealed at the Awards Ceremony. 

The winners of all the awards will be announced at the Awards Dinner and Ceremony at the Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness on Friday, 24th October.  The event attracts around 300 representatives from the region's top food and drink businesses who gather annually to celebrate all that is best in the industry in the Highlands and Islands and Cairngorms National Park area.

Shortlist 2014

Best Drink Award

Ben Nevis Distillery, Fort William - Single Cask Matured in Port Wood 21 Years Old; Single Cask Matured in Port Wood 10 Years Old

Cairngorm Brewery, Aviemore - Range of 12 Bottled Beers: Black Gold; Caillie; Stag; Cairngorm Gold; Nessie's Monster Mash; Sheepshagger's Gold; Trade Winds; Wildcat; Blessed Thistle; Autumn Nuts; Ginger Rodent; White Lady

Highland Cordials Kiltarlity - Raspberry & Mint; Nettle & Ginger; Elderberry

Lerwick Brewery, Shetland - 60 North

Loch Ness Brewery, Drumnadrochit - Range of 6 Bottled Beers: lightNESS; wilderNESS; redNESS; lochNESS; darkNESS; hoppyNESS

Tomintoul Distillery, Glenlivet - Tomintoul Speyside Glenlivet Oloroso Sherry Cask Finish Single Malt Scotch Whisky Aged 12 Years@ 40%; 10 Year Old 'Old Ballantruan' Speyside Glenlivet Single Malt Scotch Whisky @ 50%

Best Eatery Award

Bandstand Bar & Restaurant, Nairn
Eilean Dubh Restaurant, Fortrose
Frankie's Fish & Chip Shop, Cafe & Take Away, Shetland
The Bothy, Burghead
The Pier Cafe, Lairg

Best Marketing Initiative Award

Dalwhinnie Distillery, Dalwhinnie
Good Highland Food, Moy, Inverness-shire
The Scottish Salmon Company, Isle of Lewis

Environment Award

Isle of Eriska Hotel Restaurant, Isle of Eriska
Isle of Skye Sea Salt Company, Isle of Skye
Ninth Wave Restaurant, Isle of Mull

Export Award

Brewmeister Brewery, Keith
FAO27, Avoch
Loch Duart Ltd, Lairg
MacLean's Highland Bakery, Forres
The Scottish Salmon Company, Isle of Lewis

Food & Drink Business Growth Award

Brewmeister Brewery, Keith
FAO27, Avoch
The Island Smokery, Orkney

Healthier Food and Drink Award

Buth Bheag, Kyle of Lochalsh
Loch Duart Ltd, Lairg
The Scottish Goat Meat Company, Keith

Independent Food & Drink Retailer of the Year Award

Allarburn Farm Shop, Elgin
Buth Bheag, Kyle of Lochalsh
Skye Farm Shop, Isle of Skye

New Business Award

Black Isle Dairy, Daviot
Mr C's Bar, Thurso
Orkney Buffalo, Orkney
Skye Farm Shop, Isle of Skye
West Coast Delicatessen, Ullapool

New Product Award

Black Isle Dairy, Daviot - Dairy Ice Cream Range
Coast & Glen, Inverness - Coast & Glen Fishbox
Saladworx Ltd, Dornoch - Special Edition Homecoming Scotland 2014 Whisky & Thistle Dressing/Marinade/Dip
Shetland Cheese Ltd, Shetland - St Ninian's Soft Cheese
The Argyll Smokery, Dunoon - Kiln Roasted Smoked Trout
Tomintoul Distillery, Glenlivet - Tomintoul Tri-pack, featuring one 5cl bottle of Tomintoul 10, 16 & 25 Years

Restaurant of the Year Award

Corrour Station House Restaurant, Fort William
Isle of Eriska Hotel, Isle of Eriska
Kylesku Hotel, Kylesku
Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, Cairndow, Argyll
Station Road at The Lovat Loch Ness, Fort Augustus

Young Shining Star Award

Annie Body - Annie's Bakery, Wick
Tammy Rendall - Associated Seafoods Ltd, Buckie