Hunter Laing & Co is a tremendously good and ambitious independent bottler. Though, it was not long ago that it was part of Douglas Laing & Co, itself having many years in the industry, before the two brothers at the centre of the business – Stewart and Fred Laing – decided to try their own things in their own way. Hunter Laing & Co broke off amicably, bringing sons Scott and Andrew, and some great brands including the Old Malt Cask range. And not only that, but they announced plans to build the new Ardnahoe Distillery on Islay, which is progressing at full steam.
I first met one of the sons, Scott Laing, at the Midlands Whisky Festival a couple of years ago, and since then I’ve been hearing more news coming about Ardnahoe Distillery. So I dropped him a line to catch up about all things Hunter Laing & Co, to find out what’s going on with the new distillery, their whiskies and their rums too.
Malt: You received planning permission to build Ardnahoe Distillery on Islay last autumn. What’s the current state of play?
Scott: We have already started on the ground work of the site, preparing the land to make it ready for the construction that will soon be occurring. As a condition of receiving planning permission from the Council they asked us to do some remedial work to the road leading up to the site, which admittedly did need some work. So we’ve been enlarging passing places and rounding off some blind corners, that type of thing. In terms of the construction itself, we have assembled an excellent team, led by project manager Iain Hepburn (who lives on Islay) and they are working on all the tough engineering questions that we have no idea about. Everything is falling into place though, and hopefully attendees of Feis Ile 2017 will see work well underway.
What’s the response been like from Islanders about the development?
The response has been great. When we are on Islay and meet locals they are pleased that a new distillery is coming to the island, which is really nice to hear. They also wish us well on social media which we enjoy seeing. Of course there are one or two grumbles about whether Islay needs another distillery, but that is to be expected. In the main the response has been lovely, which we appreciate, as it wouldn’t be much fun if we were pushing against a local population that were opposed to the plans.
Islay’s white-washed distillery facades are famous around the world, and the landscape is unique in and of itself. Were there any sensitivities you had to keep in mind, or did you want to put your own stamp on the location?
No, we have to be very mindful of the location, and make the distillery as unobtrusive as possible. I am not sure if we will have white washed facades but our building is definitely on the subtle side. This again was a planning condition. We are building in an area of great natural beauty and have to take that into account, which is as it should be.
You plan to put out 200,000 litres of spirit for the first couple of years and the whisky is going to be in the traditional Islay peated style. Are you able to share any more thoughts on the production side of things such as PPM, the kind of spirit you’re looking for (dense/light/fruity)? Will you predominantly use bourbon casks, or will there be more unusual offerings?
You will have seen by now that we have appointed Jim McEwan to the role of Production Director. I think that pretty much says it all! Having worked with him for a few months now I can say that his passion for whisky making is definitely still there. He is brimming with enthusiasm and ideas. We will largely be leaving that side of things to him, as I don’t think there’s much we can teach him! However we’re planning on distilling a few different levels of peatiness – what we eventually end up doing with these different expressions remains to be seen.
When can we expect to see the first bottlings? Will there be something after three years, or will you wait until you’ve got enough to create a particular house style?
Again this depends on how the spirit matures. I’ve tasted some very good whiskies recently (not all of them Scotch) that have only just been over three years old, and they have been very worthy of being bottled. Jim will sample the whisky regularly and I’ve no doubt that he won’t give anything the go ahead unless he’s completely satisfied.
Aside from planning regulations, what have been the biggest challenges to date?
Everything is difficult when it comes to building a distillery, and we haven’t even put up the building yet! The planning process was quite arduous, it took 9 months from our submission to receiving the permission, which was about 6 months longer than expected. It wasn’t really us in Hunter Laing who were dealing with that though, it was Iain Hepburn, so he got the grey hairs. Apart from that, the process of finding a location for a distillery was difficult. When we got in touch with the estate owners who eventually sold us the land for Ardnahoe everything fell into place quite easily, but before that it was a long and tortuous task of hunting around for locations that had water, land, services, a road and all the other boring but necessary aspects. The “wow” factor wasn’t too much of a consideration initially, that’s a luxury, but thankfully we got it with this site and it is great to have.
Finally, if it’s possible to imagine the distillery in 20 or 30 years, what do you hope Ardnahoe’s legacy will be?
I’d like to think of the distillery as having contributed positively to Islay life, helped maintain it as a place where people want to and are able to live, and helped strengthen the reputation of Islay whisky.
Hunter Laing & Co
Even though the company is only fairly recently in its current form, in a previous life it had a long history. The family has been involved in the whisky industry for five decades years, and some of your good old-fashioned brands such as Old Malt Cask have been for some considerable time. What’s the scene like in 2017 for independent bottlers such as yourselves, and is it any more difficult with these new kids on the block?
I can only say that business has been and remains very good. There may be more competition but demand is also high so it probably balances out. The whisky business in large part rests upon relationships. Customers are able to buy whisky from many places, but they may buy from us because of friendships that have been built up over years, or sometimes even decades. The other side of that coin is that independent bottlers can only be as good as the stocks of whisky they own. We are fortunate in that we’ve had decades to build up decent stocks, so we can draw from that, and will continue to do so.
Since the company divided up into two families and two directions, what has that enabled Hunter Laing & Co to do that it otherwise wouldn’t have been able to do before?
That’s difficult to answer as I was never involved in the original business. In the almost four years since Hunter Laing was formed however we have invested a lot of money in our bottling facility to make it more professional, bought and renovated a large warehouse to give us more control over our own casks, and started work on building our own distillery. Not to mention the fact that we’ve redesigned quite a few of our brands and introduced a raft of new ones. I think we’ve only been able to embark on these things because my brother Andrew and I see eye-to-eye on a lot of things, and our father Stewart has admirably been willing to try new things, even fairly long into his career. Being able to do something without having the concept scrutinized by a committee first gives us the ability to move quickly. Our ambition as Hunter Laing is to be a full service whisky company, not necessarily a huge one, but just a company that does something well. In this respect other well-known family owned distilleries act as an inspiration for us.
Given the rising demand requirements on distilleries, and all these new bottlers on the scene: what’s that done to the market for whisky casks? Is it getting harder to find good whisky these days?
I’ve heard tales by the fireside of the early days of independent bottling, when obtaining casks of aged whiskies was like plucking apples off a tree. Those days are long gone. Now distilleries are much less willing to sell spirit, as they need to retain it for their own bottlings. So, it definitely is harder to get supplies of “big name” distilleries. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t get good whisky – we still get some great whiskies, just from lesser known distilleries. We also have our existing stocks as well happily.
Can you tell us about your warehouses, and let us into some of the secrets of bottling: who gets to decide what gets released, and just how much whisky have you got stashed away anyway?
At the moment our casks are stored all over Scotland, often at the distilleries they came from, but other warehouses sites as well. They’re at literally scores of different locations. The downside of this is that it can take weeks to get a cask delivered down from wherever it is, which slows down the rate at which we can sell it. That’s why we took the decision a few years ago to buy and renovate our own cask warehouse, which is coming online just about now. We won’t have all our casks there, but a good proportion of them, and they’ll be very convenient for bottling when we need them. We have a tasting panel in our company, myself, Andrew and our father as well as Tom Aitken, who was the former Master Blender for Dewars. Usually we all come to an agreement on what deserves to be bottled as a single cask, sent for blending, or just kept in the cask a while longer. As to our stocks – a closely guarded secret, but I don’t think we’re in danger of running out any time soon!
Your Sovereign range deals with single grain whiskies of a high age. It’s interesting how single grains have become very popular in the last couple of years. Why do you think that is? And what do you make of companies releasing very young single grain whiskies given that they need much longer than malt whisky to become flavoursome?
We have had an uptick in sales of our SOVEREIGN range in the last few years, which I partially attribute to packaging improvements. I think however that the public are becoming more aware of grain due to the David Beckham impact, and that knowledge is having a trickle up effect. We only bottle fairly aged grains as you say, usually a minimum of 25 years, and often much older. We have to bear in mind that our grains will usually be consumed without mixers, in the same manner as single malts. Obviously we couldn’t and wouldn’t want to bottle young grains. If you are creating a product that is aimed at the cocktail segment however, I don’t see any huge problem with bottling younger spirits. Different products for different markets.
What can we expect to see from your whisky ranges in the next couple of years? Any new lines you can share, or is it business as usual?
We are working on a new blended malt recipe and brand, which should be out later on this year. It shouldn’t be too difficult to guess which region we’re focusing on! Other than that, just working on the distillery plans and putting out a lot more hopefully excellent single cask bottlings.
Your Kill Devil rum series is particularly interesting. What made you decide to launch the range in the first place?
Over the years, through one way or another we had acquired a few casks of rum that we didn’t really have a home for. We did a little research and noticed that by and large single casks of rum weren’t treated in the same way as whisky, what with mandatory labelling requirements, so we thought there was an opportunity there for the spirits connoisseur who likes to know what he is drinking. Our packaging style for whisky is quite traditional, so we thought that if we bottled a range of rums we could have some fun with that, and create something a bit different. A few of our customers had also said they were interested in buying rum but other than that we just plunged in and experimented by bottling a few casks. Unlike with whisky, we didn’t really have any idea about what constituted a “sought after” rum name, so we just bottled the ones that we liked the taste of.
Who’s drinking the rums – is it existing whisky drinkers exploring other spirits, or is there a vibrant rum community that sits separately to the whisky community?
Interesting question. There is a distinct rum community, but it is much smaller than the whisky community. I think there might be a bit of crossover as well, and perhaps our involvement is bringing some whisky drinkers into the rum fold.
What other changes in the rum market have you noticed in the past couple of years?
Too early to say I think. The single cask rum business is probably a good 10-20 years behind whisky in terms of acceptance and awareness. I think a large part of that is down to the fact that “rum” is spread across a wide number of different countries, and so there is no overall body like the SWA determining guidelines and rules, and promoting and protecting the industry as a whole. This holds it back a bit probably. I am not sure if that situation will ever change, but that doesn’t make them any less delicious and in the meantime drinkers can just enjoy the spirits produced by different countries.