A GROUP of up and coming independent Scotch whisky distillers have joined forces to stake their claim for a 12-month break from business rates to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic.

Isle of Raasay, Ardnamurchan, Isle of Harris, Holyrood, Nc’nean, Ardnahoe, Kingsbarns, and Lindores have written an open letter to Scottish ministers to underline their eligibility for a one-year holiday from the property tax.

Businesses in the retail, hospitality and leisure sectors in Scotland have been granted 100 per cent relief from non-domestic property rates, one of their biggest monthly outgoings, for one year under emergency measures to support firms through the pandemic. It was one of the earliest measures introduced by the UK and Scottish Governments in response to the crisis in March.

But the relief has not been extended to a number distillers in Scotland, despite their retail and hospitality operations forming a significant element of their business models.

In an open letter to the Scottish Government published today and seen in advance by The Herald, the eight distillers note that their businesses depend on income from visitor centres, including cafes and visitor shops. Some of those provide much-needed jobs in rural areas. But the distillers have had to close outlets under lockdown measures to halt the spread of Covid-19, blocking core revenue streams.

Despite the closures, the distillers are continuing to pay tens of thousands of pounds in business rates to their local councils each month.

“This letter, therefore, requests the Scottish Government provides clarity to local authorities on qualification by these distilleries: some of the signatories have been refused and others are seeking confirmation from their councils,” the distillers say.

Until the coronavirus pandemic, visits to Scotch whisky distilleries had been one of the fastest-growing areas of the Scottish tourism industry. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association suggest there are more than two million visits to Scotch whisky distilleries a year, making the industry the third most popular tourist attraction in Scotland.

And its potential for further growth is underscored by major investment by giants such as Diageo in upgrading visitor facilities at their distilleries.

The eight distilleries say they attracted more than 200,000 visitors between them in 2019. They employ around 110 staff collectively in their visitor experiences, many of which are in rural locations.

But one distiller fears he might not be able to open again this year. The roadmap guiding Scotland’s emergence from lockdown envisages social distancing continuing into late summer at least, and the distiller said it may not be financially viable to open if it means trading with a greatly reduced capacity.

The distillers state in the letter: “We recognise and appreciate the support of the Scottish and UK governments with various programmes that have been put in place to address the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, not least of which is support for our valuable employees.

“Due to the current Covid-19 pandemic we have been required to close our visitor centres, including cafes and retail shops. We are all SMEs: modest, independent craft distilleries which all rely heavily on a business model that welcomes tourists, weddings and other events to earn revenue.

“In doing so we provide a typically warm Scottish welcome to tourists from across the world, are key contributors to a growing and valuable whisky tourism sector and, in many cases, act as local anchors for other businesses and services around us that also rely on visitors.”

The distillers add: “We are all proud to have created a substantial number of jobs in the communities in which we operate out distilleries.

“Finally, in many cases we have done our part in the fight against Covid-19, producing hand sanitiser at our cost, or raising funds for the NHS or other necessary community services which have been put under strain in the current environment.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Ministers are listening to concerns from businesses as we continue to explore how best to help. It’s precisely because we recognised that there were a number of individuals and smaller firms ineligible for support from the UK Government, or not yet in receipt of the funds they need to survive, that we introduced a £100 million grant fund, which has been topped up to £185m, to support SMEs and newly self-employed people.

“We recognise that the tourism and hospitality sectors have been hit hard and this week we increased our Creative, Tourism & Hospitality Enterprises Hardship Fund by £10m to £30m.”