Purple heather on the hills, the whiff of smoky peat and crystal clear waters: for generations Scotch has been defined by the landscape that helps hone the precious spirit, woven with evocative tales of distilling’s chequered history.

It’s a tartan-trimmed image that has served Scotch well – the sector contributes more than £7 billion to the UK economy and accounts for 77% of Scottish food and drink exports.

Now, though, rather than linger on old-fashioned imagery of Scotland to sell their spirit, whisky producers are presenting a fresh face with barely a sprig of heather or sliver of tartan in sight.

In some cases, the stories they are weaving around their spirit could scarcely be further removed from the traditional whisky-soaked ideal of unblemished Scottish scenery and centuries-old distilling traditions and tales.

And instead, they are aligning themselves with everything from rock stars to community environmental projects and even Scotland’s less glamourous industrial heritage in the hope of standing out on the shelves.

Such as at Ardgowan, a new distillery in Inverclyde, which has bottled a series of whiskies with names inspired not by Scotland’s nature or tartan-trimmed history, but by the sweat and grime of the Clydeside shipyards.

Its Clydebuilt range – Riveter, Sailmaker, Coppersmith and Shipwright - pays tribute to the river’s maritime heritage and shipyard craftsmen with names like Sailmaker, Coppersmith and Shipwright.

The latest, Riveter, was launched amid industrial displays at Govan’s Fairfield Museum, which is dedicated to the Clyde shipyards.

The Herald: Ardgowan Distillery's Clydebuilt range is inspired by shipbuildingArdgowan Distillery's Clydebuilt range is inspired by shipbuilding (Image: Ardgowan Distillery)

“The decision to use the name 'Clydebuilt' was  a two-fold choice – it’s a phrase and imagery synonymous with a tremendously important era in Scottish history, and it also gives us a strong sense of place and pride in where we are on the banks of the Clyde,” says Martin McAdam, CEO, Ardgowan Distillery.

“Inverclyde is intrinsically linked to Scotland's iconic shipbuilding industry and some of the world’s greatest ships were built right here on the River Clyde.”

Likewise, The Glasgow Distillery at Hillington which opened in 2012 and creates spirits said to be inspired by historical stories from the city.  One of its brands is hooked around 18th century city riots.

Other distilleries with longer histories are pivoting too as they strive to engage a new generation through links to personalities from music, sport and art or, in some cases, creating stories around real-life far less famous individuals.

Bladnoch, established in 1817 and the oldest privately owned Scotch whisky distillery in the world, which could easily have stuck with the ‘heritage and heather’ option.

Instead, its new limited-edition series of whiskies celebrate real-life individuals as a means of cementing them in the minds of shoppers.

Chapter 1 of Loch Maberry: Stories of Bladnoch pays tribute to a local character referred to as ‘Mr Arnold’ who it says discovered Bladnoch when he owned a home close to the distillery, in Dumfries and Galloway’s Wigtown, and became a fan.

The Herald: Bladnoch Distillery has created a new whisky with one of its 'fans', Mr Arnold.Bladnoch Distillery has created a new whisky with one of its 'fans', Mr Arnold. (Image: Bladnoch Distillery)

He was invited by Dr Nick Savage, Master Distiller at Bladnoch, to select a cask for bottling, a process which the distillery plans to repeat with other real-life characters.

Others have embraced household names: last May Rod Stewart announced he was teaming up with Loch Lomond Distillery to produce  ‘Wolfie’s Whisky’ - a blended 40% ABV Scotch.  

The distillery says the dram was ‘inspired’ by the singer’s reflect rock ‘n’ roll heritage and early hell-raising days with the Faces.  

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Ballantine’s has a new limited-edition AC/DC whisky, part of its ‘True Music Icons’ range that includes The Queen, a limited edition bottle inspired by Queen’s Greatest Hits II album, with crest designed by Freddie Mercury.

And Chivas has partnered with leading K-Pop artist, LISA, for its Asian market.

The Herald: Ballantine's has created a limited-edition AC/DC whiskyBallantine's has created a limited-edition AC/DC whisky

In sport, Loch Lomond has collaborated with Colin Montgomerie to create two limited-edition single malt whiskies to mark The 152nd Open at Royal Troon this summer.

While FIA Ladies World Rally champion, Louise Aitken-Walker, has just unveiled a unique whisky bearing her name, marking 33 years since her triumph, using casks at Invergordon Distillery.

The list goes on and on... Lagavulin has long-standing links with actor and writer Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson in NBC’s Parks and Recreation...  The Dalmore’s Luminary Series No.2 was created in partnership with acclaimed architect Melodie Leung, Director at Zaha Hadid Architects, and V&A Dundee.

The Herald: Rally legend Louise Aitken-Walker has collaborated with Invergordon Distillery to create a new whiskyRally legend Louise Aitken-Walker has collaborated with Invergordon Distillery to create a new whisky (Image: Contributed)

The shift from the traditional ‘heather, hills and copper stills’ image is against a background of a hugely competitive Scotch whisky arena, where disruptive newcomers are vying for space alongside others with centuries of heritage.

The re-emergence of mothballed distilleries with their own rich stories of revival and new beginnings are adding to the crush, leaving some brands with the tricky challenge of coming up with engaging themes and fresh stories to entice consumers to try their whiskies.

The modernisation of whisky’s image goes beyond the label on the bottle too. Some distilleries are tearing up their old-style visitor centres in favour of glossy modern interiors courtesy of chic designers, adding fashionable boutique style hotels and restaurants with barely a tartan carpet in sight.

Such as on Islay, where Ardbeg has unveiled plans to turn Port Ellen’s Islay Hotel into a “world-class whisky and hospitality experience”.

Due to re-open as Ardbeg Hotel in May 2025, the multi-million-pound enhancement has been described as a “witty and distinctly Ardbeggian restyling of every floor”, with “quirky and luxurious bedrooms and suites, each telling unique stories of Islay and its legends… complete with numerous playful details and hidden surprises”.


The Herald: Ardbeg has engaged interior storymakers Russell Sage Studio to design its visitors centre and transformed Islay HotelArdbeg has engaged interior storymakers Russell Sage Studio to design its visitors centre and transformed Islay Hotel (Image: Ardbeg)

Further hints at a shift from the traditional whisky image is talk of featuring “all manner of phenolic phenomena”, conjuring up something more akin to Edinburgh’s Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience than an island hotel.

The distillery is also one of a number in the sector that are elevating their profile through ‘good deeds’ and charity tie-ins, making them attractive to modern socially conscious consumers.

It recently set up a £1 million fund aimed at supporting community and environmental projects on the island.

Intended to be distributed in £200,000 waves over five years, its first year saw 28 local projects benefit, including Islay Karate Club, Bowmore Lunch Club and the Islay Book Festival.

It is also supporting an ongoing project to build a new community hub in Port Ellen.

While on the Isle of Mull, Tobermory Distillery has unveiled a charity partnership with the Mull and Iona Community Trust to support the long-term restoration of the Ardura Forest, an ancient oakwood and part of the Atlantic rainforest.

The Herald: Tobermory Distillery has partnered with tv presenter Gordon Buchanan and a local group to revive Adura forestTobermory Distillery has partnered with tv presenter Gordon Buchanan and a local group to revive Adura forest (Image: Tobermory Distillery)

The move includes a celebrity partnership with wildlife cameraman and television presenter, Gordon Buchanan, and has led to the release of a limited-edition whisky, Ledaig Triple Wood, created by him along with the community trust and the distillery.

Moray Finch, General Manager at Mull and Iona Community Trust says the partnership should have a lasting impact on the island.

“With support from Tobermory Distillery we’ll be collecting seeds and growing native trees and scrubs to plant in Ardura alongside removing non-native, Rhododendron and Sitka spruce trees from the site.

“These management actions will create new homes, shelter and food sources for the forest animals, birds and insects.” 

Environmental partnerships were pioneered by Glenmorangie Distillery when it partnered with Heriot-Watt University to create Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), to restore a sustainable native oyster reef in the Dornoch Firth.

More recently it has further shed much of the traditional imagery that often surrounds Scotch with a new visitor centre and revived boutique hotel, Glenmorangie House in Tain, featuring technicolour rooms created by designed by hip London-based interior designer and storymaker, Russell Sage.

The Herald: Glenmorangie has revealed its transformed Distillery visitor centreGlenmorangie has revealed its transformed Distillery visitor centre (Image: Glenmorangie)

The distillery centre is said to include joyful references to its whisky, flavour-inspired décor, and “whimsical nods to its brand icon, the giraffe” – all a far cry from twee tartan and heather.

Gary Fortune-Smith of Leith-based threebrand, a brand strategy and design agency which specialises in working with food and drink brands, says there has been a definite shift in how Scotch brands are presenting themselves.

A brand is like a living entity, it has a personality it has a character which evolve over the years because of market demand, conditions and consumers, and how much more educated and more engaged they are now than in the past,” he says.

“We have been in that era of ‘tartantasic’. That still sells in certain centres but we have moved away from that overt old-fashioned style to a much more modern, contemporary manifestations of it.

If you look at some of the market leaders, you can still see some of the designs link back to that.

“But to rely on hills and babbling brooks and tartan now means it has to be done in a much cleverer and subtle way.”

The Herald: Sebastian Bunford-Jones of The Glasgow Distillery which uses city stories as a theme for its spiritsSebastian Bunford-Jones of The Glasgow Distillery which uses city stories as a theme for its spirits (Image: The Glasgow Distillery)

Consumers are seeking authenticity and brands with stories that resonate with their modern lifestyles, he adds.

“Each brand has its own history, its own provenance and heritage, and they need to bring that story alive in some form that allows it to be more relatable to its market and customer.

“But the most important thing is authenticity.

“Customers these days are less susceptible to marketing ‘BS’. They don’t want to spend hard-earned cash on something that has been invented.

“The brand story has to be steeped in truth - without truth and transparency you can get caught out by customers.

“They have that tool called the internet and can do their own research.”