Talking With The Scotch Blender-Bottlers And Future Islay Distillers
By Kurt Maitland
Early this year, Hunter Laing, the independent bottler of brands such as Old Malt Cask, Old and Rare and Douglas of Drumlanrig, announced that it would break ground on a new distillery on Islay. This interest had been hinted at in an extensive earlier interview I had with Stewart Laing, the founder of the bottler (don’t worry, you haven’t missed it; it was just such a wealth of information that I need to break it up into segments, and you’ll be seeing it soon).
After the announcement was made public, I was lucky enough to get some time to talk to Scott Laing, Hunter Laing’s Business Development Director, to discuss the planned distillery and Hunter Laing.
KM: When I last spoke to your father, he did mention that Hunter Laing was in the market for a distillery. Was the original plan to try to buy an existing distillery or was it always to build one of your own?
SL: The original plan was to buy an existing distillery. Since [the formation] of Hunter Laing, my brother Andrew and I have wanted to do something with a distillery. We were looking around at various options. We looked at existing plans and distilleries that were already in existence; the only one that was up for sale was Bladnoch. We did get involved for the bidding process for that distillery and we were one of the final bidders, but we were outbid at the last moment. That deal fell through, and when Bladnoch went back on the market, we bid again. By the time of the second round of biddings, which was a year after the original bid, we had already started on the Islay process.
So at that stage, while Bladnoch is a great distillery, we were seriously looking at Islay. We had also looked at various other buildings that had been distilleries in the past or historical buildings which would be suitable to convert into a distillery. None of these worked for our needs so in the end we found this site [(Ardnahoe)] that was perfect. We fell in love with it and we progressed from there.
KM: How did Hunter Laing decide on breaking ground on Islay?
SL: We looked at Speyside originally, but it’s always been our awareness as a bottling company that there is a huge demand for Islay whisky. So from that aspect, we know how many people ask us for Islay whisky on a daily or weekly basis and it made sense to follow that. Speyside is fairly crowded and it’s probably difficult to differentiate yourself, but when you are on Islay you almost have a captive market of fans of the whisky. We did look at other areas but when we thought about it, Islay was the place to be.
KM: What type of whiskies do you see foresee your new distillery creating?
SL: Since we’ll be on Islay, we are going to be making a typical Islay style whisky. Our first offering as distillers, God willing, in four or five years will be peated, beyond that it is difficult to say. We do want to make something that doesn’t disappoint the Islay fans. It will have a significant amount of peat in it.
As the years’ progress, we are looking forward to experimenting. This is unexplored territory for us, as we’ve always been bottlers and not doing much to the whisky we have. We’ll have the potential to do different types of finishes or whatever. We are looking forward to having a bit of fun with it but at the end of the day it will be commercially driven. Peat is the way to go.
KM: As I recall, Hunter Laing was in the process of consolidating its whisky holdings into one warehouse in Glasgow. How is that project going?
SL: It took us longer than we planned for to get this warehouse project going. Thankfully, we’ve done the painful bit. We thought we’d be able to stick the casks in (laughing).
Actually we knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but there was a great deal more to do. We had to get architects involved and we are in the process—we have the planning permits—of doing the renovation work on the building. Hopefully within the next 3 to 4 months that will be done and we will be able to start putting our stocks in, which will make life a lot easier.
KM: With these two goals within reach, what do you see as Hunter Laing’s next moves?
SL: That’s enough to keep us going for the time being. People have asked us if we will be continuing as independent bottlers. Absolutely. We will be running the business side by side. They will be complimentary in a way. Our plan is to have a visitor center on Islay and one or two of our (Hunter Laing) products might find their way there.
KM: So, here’s my final question for you: when will we see more Hunter Laing products hitting Stateside?
SL: The U.S. is a difficult market for us. We have some good customers but they are only in specific states. In whisky terms, the U.S. is fragmented as a country, and it can be quite difficult to get into. We would love to expand further into the U.S. The different bottlings (750 ml in the States compared to 700 ml in the UK) can be a hassle for a small company. The bigger companies can work around it, but for smaller companies it can be troublesome. Hopefully when the distillery is up and running, I expect the US will be a good customer for our peated Islay whisky.