Distillers on Scotland’s most famous whisky island have signalled their optimism over the future of the industry, while shrugging off any prospect of its continuing expansion risking problematic over-production.

The whisky industry on Islay is in buoyant mood amid a spate of major investment aimed at capitalising on soaring demand for its distinctive spirits around the world, while attempting to safeguard its long-term sustainability for future generations.

Diageo presided over a seminal moment in March when the Scotch whisky giant resurrected the renowned Port Ellen Distillery after more than four decades in mothballs, and a “huge milestone” was celebrated by Hunter Laing & Co, the independent Glasgow-based whisky blender and bottler, when its Ardnahoe Distillery recently unveiled its debut single malt.

The Glenmorangie Company, owner of the island’s Ardbeg single malt, is working on plans to radically refurbish the Ardbeg Hotel, which it acquired in 2022, with the aspiration of transforming the property into a “world-class whisky and hospitality experience”. And Bruichladdich, which was brought out of mothballs in 2001, is continuing to make progress in its quest to make its operations as sustainable as possible.

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The B Corp certified distillery, now owned by Remy Cointreau, recently introduced new packaging for its Classic Laddie bottle, which is 32% lighter, contains 60% recycled glass content, and has reduced its CO2 packaging emissions by 65%.

Investments such as these come as Islay, which currently has 10 working distilleries, has perhaps never been so popular as a tourist destination, as whisky lovers flock to the Hebridean island from around the world to see for themselves how the distinctive smoky, medicinal spirits they love are brought to life.

Caspar Macrae, president and chief executive of The Glenmorangie Company, said Islay has a “long history of whisky production” when asked to comment on the island’s enduring appeal. “Islay distilleries are often linked with complex smoky flavours,” he told The Herald Business HQ Monthly. “Some of them have been there for hundreds of years, creating award-winning whiskies that are widely regarded as some of the smokiest whiskies in the world.

“Whisky is an intrinsic part of Islay. From Ardbeg distillery, which has existed for more than 200 years, to some of the newer distilleries, whisky has been entwined with the island’s economy. As single malt Scotch has grown in popularity around the globe, whisky tourism has brought wider benefits to the Island beyond jobs in distilleries.”

The Herald: Port Ellen distillery has reopened after more than 40 yearsDiageo's Port Ellen Distillery

Andrew Laing, export director at Hunter Laing & Co, highlighted Islay’s “rich and authentic history” as he declared the island has “produced some of the most impressive and distinctive whiskies of all time”.

He welcomed the sustained investment by distillers on the island, including the recent relaunch of Port Ellen, which he contends will “put even more focus on Islay as such a distinctive and important region of whisky making” and draw even more tourists.

But managing the growth of the industry in a sustainable way is one of the biggest challenges. Port Ellen and Bruichladdich have previously endured long periods of closure after falling victim to the shifting fortunes of the whisky industry, with both deemed surplus to requirements at different stages.

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Distillers today are keenly aware of the need to safeguard their operations on the island for generations to come.

Asked how the industry can avoid the problems that have blighted distillers in the past, Robert McEachern, distillery brand education and academy manager at Bruichladdich, said: “The dark cloud that sat above Bruichladdich for seven years is still clear in the mind for our generation. I lived in the village as a child and remember the distillery as a big, silent factory casting a shadow over our home. We would sneak in at weekends and play football in the courtyard and hide and seek around the production areas. We had great fun, but we were only too aware of the pain its closure was causing families who had been reliant on it.

“Our founders, Mark Reynier, Simon Coughlin and former head distiller Jim McEwan made the commitment in 2001 that we would never go through that again and set about making sure of it. It is balance again isn’t it.

“A long-term way of thinking and a less-is-more approach is crucial. Growth must be responsible, and demand must outstrip supply. If the focus stays tight on quality of spirit and not quantity, I am confident that will be the case.”

Mr McEachern added: “It is all about balance. I think locals will always be supportive of projects that positively impact the island and our people. The community is small and agile but should be protected by those who are able.

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“The economy has a fragility as it is heavily reliant on whisky and tourism. This brings both positive and negative commentary from residents; as, while it brings a significant economic boost, it also places increased strain on the local infrastructure (roads, ferries etcetera).

“The infrastructure needs to improve in line with investment from the private sector or that balance is off.

“It is our job as responsible custodians of these distilleries to ensure that we support the local community – respecting the past and building foundations now that will future-proof the next generation.”

The Herald: Caspar Macrae, The Glenmorangie Company

Ali McDonald, distillery manager at Port Ellen, noted: “Diageo and other whisky producers have learned the lessons from the past. We have more sophisticated supply and demand forecasting today than the industry had in the early 80s, allowing us to better manage supply and demand fluctuations.

“There is still a strong market demand for premium Scotch whisky, including malts produced on Islay. That market remains strong both domestically and internationally.”

Mr McDonald’s comments were echoed by Mr Macrae, who expressed confidence in the industry’s ability to balance supply and demand, stating: “Whisky making is a long game, what we produce today we won’t sell for 10 to 15 years or more, making the industry uniquely placed to meet fluctuations in global demand over time. Furthermore, thanks to technical advances we are able to plan and model our stock levels to ensure that such challenges don’t occur again. “ He added: “Islay malt in particular has found a passionate audience due to its distinctive smoky flavour profile and we are confident that global demand will remain strong for decades to come.”

Meanwhile, the tourism season on Islay is getting into full swing, with the island again playing host to several major festivals. Notably, these include Feis Ile, The Islay Festival, which took place at the end of May. Bruichladdich held its own whisky and music festival as part of the event, Rock’ndaal, on May 26, which was expected to have attracted a 3,000-strong crowd to the distillery’s courtyard.

Mr McEachern said the recovery of tourism on Islay after the pandemic is gaining momentum.

“I think we still find ourselves in a period of recovery after the turmoil of 2020-2021, but over the last 12 months we have started to see a return to previous visitor numbers and the excitement that brings,” he said. “Distillery visitor centres continue to grow, with established and emerging distilleries offering excellent experiences for guests, which creates jobs both on and off season.

“The return to higher levels of tourists attracted by Scotch whisky also supports other industries on the island, such as hospitality and accommodation providers. This year we have seen a marked return for guests from Asian countries, including China, as well as from North America. It is great to see there is a comfort in travelling again and we are always thrilled to welcome visitors from across the globe.”

One thing that has challenged the whisky industry in recent years has been the pressure on the ferry service between Islay and the mainland. Two new vessels are being built to serve Islay and neighbouring Jura, but it will be towards the end of this year before the first is brought into service.

Mr McDonald said: “Islay is a truly magical place that is an exceptional location for Scotch whisky. We accept that part of the additional cost of operating on an island such as Islay is that it is more complex than operating on the mainland.

“It is unfortunate that the infrastructure to support the island, particularly the ferry service, has been so challenging over recent years. That has impacted everyone on Islay, not just the whiskyWhisky lovers flock to Islay from around the world industry. We look forward to the new ferries coming into service, but long-term infrastructure support for the islands will continue to be a priority for everyone involved in island communities.”