HUNTER Laing, the Scotch whisky bottler and blender, has declared it is reaping the rewards of investing in its first distillery as new accounts reveal an increase in profits at the Glasgow firm.

Stewart Laing, managing director of the family-owned business, said the development of the £12 million Ardnahoe Distillery on Islay is already helping it break into new markets.

Hunter Laing has welcomed 24,000 visitors through the doors at the distillery on the north-east of the Hebridean island since opening on April 12, and secured a five-star rating from VisitScotland in its first six months. Ardnahoe was the first new distillery to open on Islay since 2005.

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Mr Laing, who runs Hunter Laing with sons Andrew and Scott, told The Herald the firm has been “very pleased” with the impact Ardnahoe has made in its few months. The distillery offers tours and a restaurant, The Illicit Still, with views across the Sounds of Jura.

“It’s already helping us to open up new and different markets,” Mr Laing said.

Commenting on his first move into distilling, Mr Laing noted: “It’s a very interesting experience. It takes a bit of getting used to being distiller after 57 years in the industry… but I am absolutely delighted.”

Asked when he hopes Ardnahoe will be in a position to release its maiden single malt, he replied: “The cliché is that the whisky will tell us when it is ready. We started distilling in November 2018, so I would like to think that a five year old whisky will have met our criteria to bottle.”

He added: “The reaction to the whisky [from experts] has been very, very good, from day one. [It is] very smooth, smoky, flowery, a real lovely mix.

“Jim McEwan (master distiller) has made a first-class spirit for us. We have been very fortunate to have such a good response.”

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Hunter Laing updated its progress at Ardnahoe as it reported an increase in pre-tax profits to £3.3m for the year to April 30, from £2.36m the previous time. Profits rose as the firm made a loss of £1m on Ardnahoe because of the continuing investment in the project, with the distillery not having opened in time to contribute revenue to the accounts.

The business, which has traditionally made its money from bottling and blending whiskies acquired from distilleries around Scotland and marketing them under its own brands, saw turnover climb to £9.7m from £8.37m.

Selling whisky into around 70 markets, under brands such as Old & Rare and Old Malt Cask, Mr Laing cited the impact made in European countries such as France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Scandinavia from a new Islay single malt, Scarabus, which takes its name from a deserted village on the island. The spirit is sourced from distillers other than Ardnahoe on Islay.

“Initial sales are very encouraging,” Mr Laing said.

He also highlighted the popularity of its Highland Journey and Islay Journey blended malt whiskies, as well as encouraging progress for its brands in Venezuela.

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However, Mr Laing expressed fears for Scotch whisky’s aspirations in China over the mounting coronavirus outbreak. China is one of the firm’s most-promising markets, but exports have been put on hold until the health scare eases.

Mr Laing, who said the situation in China was a “bigger concern” than US import tariffs on singe malt, noted: “I think all exporters are in the same boat, but that’s the way of it. Let’s hope we get over it sooner than later for all reasons – for the health of everybody involved and businessmen looking to sell product from both ways, out of China and into China.”

So far, he said, the company has not been affected by the Trump administration’s move to introduce tariffs in October – a response to subsidies given to Airbus by the European Union.

“There had been happy stockpiling for Christmas time, and that started back in September and October,” Mr Laing said. “So, at the moment, no, but again we await the hit, if there is going to be a hit, in the near future.

“But the bigger concern, of course, is China. It is a growing market for us. We have some nice orders but at the moment we are not shipping them.”

The period saw the firm continue to expand its stock holdings, following further investment in aged whisky. Its accounts show the value of inventories stood at £8.7m at April 30, up from £7.1m.

Asked to comment on conditions for buying older stock, Mr Laing said: “It’s still difficult in the older ages. It is very difficult for everybody.”