Home » Future proof: How Scotch distilleries are crafting whisky for tomorrow’s world

Future proof: How Scotch distilleries are crafting whisky for tomorrow’s world

Ask Cameron Ewen or almost any other pro in Scotland’s whisky industry if there’s a “correct” way to drink your Scotch, and they’ll all tell you the same thing: Drink it however you enjoy it best — it’s your drink, after all.

Given that Ewen — kilt-clad, bushy-bearded and standing 6 feet, 4 inches tall — is the very vision of Scotland itself, it comes as a surprise that he’s particularly partial to a pink and fruity whisky-based cocktail. As manager of the Scotch Bar at The Balmoral, Edinburgh’s most prestigious and iconic hotel, you might expect him to be preciously preservationist in his approach to imbibing his country’s national drink, but you couldn’t be more wrong. 

“We’re a fantastic little sanctuary of whisky within the Balmoral Hotel here — it’s a very traditional room certainly, but our attitude isn’t,” he says in his lilting Scottish accent. “We take the view that whisky should be approachable in a wide array of styles.”

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The Balmoral’s Cameron Ewen.

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Upon tasting his carefully crafted cocktails adorned with slices of crisp apple and summer peach (priced at £15 or $20), there’s no question he knows what he’s talking about. Ewen mixes drinks with names like Banks of the River that bring together whisky and homemade sodas and syrups and strained teas in a way that could make even the most buttoned-up purist swoon. 

Along with Ireland, Scotland boasts one of the world’s longest and most well-documented distilling histories, which can be traced back to 1494. Combined with Scotch whisky’s reputation for quality — often shortened to just Scotch, the term refers to whisky that happens to be made in Scotland — the result is a product that’s nothing short of iconic. It’s a drink molded and shaped by the environment: by the water that runs from the hills, by the peat in the bogs, by the consistently mild climate that provides the perfect conditions for the spirit to mature. It runs through the veins of whole Highland towns and small islands, fueling the local economy and forming the cornerstone of every celebration. In total, the industry provides 5.5 billion pounds ($7.5 billion) in gross value to the UK economy every year, and the US is its most valuable market, worth more than 1 billion pounds ($1.4 billion).

Compared with whiskey made in the US, which is known for its vanilla notes, Scotch whisky is maltier and generally considered more complex, making it more of an acquired taste. When it comes to discerning its flavors, smelling or “nosing” Scotch is as important as drinking it. Its taste is shaped not only by the reused wooden casks it matures in (from sherry, bourbon or wine), but also by the local environment, for instance, the smoky flavors of Scotland’s peated whiskies, which are made from waters that accumulate in boggy areas.

“For me it’s a very evocative spirit,” says Ewen. “A single sip can take you to the west coast of Scotland, to the rugged hills and the wind battered beaches, or it can take you up to the rolling hills of the east coast and the barley fields.”

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Scotch is evocative of the areas where it’s made, such as Craigellachie in Speyside.

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It would be easy to assume that with such a reputation, the industry could largely rest on its laurels. But even as it’s now wrestling with how it can become more sustainable and adapt to changing tastes for cocktails, the rest of the world is snapping at Scotland’s heels. In recent years the Japanese and Taiwanese distilleries have been producing some excellent whiskies largely distilled in the Scottish tradition (whiskey with an “e” is made in Ireland and the US; when it’s made elsewhere it’s whisky with no “e”). Taking into account newer entrants to the market such as India and New Zealand, as well as efforts in the US to artificially expedite the maturation process with technology, Scotland can’t afford to sit still.

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Japan and other countries are producing high-quality whiskies in a similar tradition to Scotch.

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Fortunately, it isn’t. It’s not in its bones to do so — it has a global reputation to defend. Scotch is very much a luxury product, and even though you can buy a bottle of single malt for around 15 pounds ($20) at the cheapest end, a bottle of whisky aged for 18 years will set you back somewhere in the region of 250 pounds ($340), ranging all the way up to 1.4 million pounds ($1.9 million) for the most rare and special bottle.

“Scotch whisky is probably one of the strongest category brands in existence,” says Christopher Coates, editor of Edinburgh-based Whisky magazine. As Belgium is to chocolate, as Switzerland is to watches, as Germany is to cars, so Scotland is to whisky, he adds.

Future-proofing Scotch

But Scottish distillers don’t just live in the past. Given that whisky needs to mature for a decade or more,  they’re accustomed to looking ahead 18, 20, 32 years into the future. Right now many are thinking about the world not as it is in 2021, but about what it’ll be when the whisky they’re currently putting into casks for maturation comes of age. They know that when the spirit next sees the light of day, we’ll be feeling the effects of climate change more keenly and the conversation about sustainability will be at the forefront of everything. 

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Scotch distillers are looking to the future while upholding tradition.

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“People want sustainable products,” says Lindesay Low, deputy director of legal affairs at the Edinburgh-based Scotch Whisky Association, which was formed in 1942 and represents more than 80 members, from small distilleries to giant global spirits producers. “They want products that treat the environment fairly and treat the producers of the ingredients fairly.”

Just as it’s changing, the industry is also growing — “it’s boom time,” as Coates puts it. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, 16 new distilleries opened in the country over the past four years, bringing the total to 134. It expects 10 more to come into production in the next year. 

With new distilleries come new ideas. Today, people who think anything other than a neat, ice-free dram is sacrilegious are likely to find themselves out of step with a whisky making and drinking culture that’s as much about delighting in new taste discoveries as it is about heritage and upholding tradition. 

Graduates of the brewing and distilling course at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh are experimenting with flavor profiles on a molecular level. Ancient grains that were phased out by big distilleries for being low yield are making a comeback. And some micro-distilleries are toying with the idea of introducing vintages rather than aiming for the year-on-year continuity the big dogs are famous for. 

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There’s still room for experimentation using traditional distilling methods.

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Over time, there’s been something of a cyclical boom-and-bust nature to the Scotch whisky industry, says Coates. But in spite of everything that’s been thrown at it — including over the past two years, COVID and tariffs on US imports imposed by Donald Trump (lifted earlier this year by President Joe Biden) — Scotland still sets industry trends, all while maintaining its traditions. Both Coates and Low have noticed that other countries (aside from the US, which has its own unique distilling tradition) tend to build distilleries and shape their regulation in similar ways to Scotland.

“I do sense a lot of them are modeling themselves on Scotch single malt, or they want to make a similar product,” says Low. “And that’s all good. It’s up to our members to raise their game and make sure that people still choose Scotch — and hopefully they will.”

A makeover in Speyside

If you need evidence of just how dedicated this centuries-old industry is to modernizing without sacrificing its soul, you need look no further than Macallan, founded in 1824. Along with Glenfiddich and Glenlivet, the Speyside-based distillery is one of Scotland’s top three producers of single malt. 

Speyside’s rolling hills lack the sheer drama of the nearby Cairngorms mountains, but the region is no less beautiful for it. On the day CNET photographer Andrew Hoyle and I visit, we’re blessed with unusual weather for Scotland, even in the height of summer: cloudless skies with dawn-till-dusk sunshine. Down by the Spey River, children swim in the shadow of the Craigellachie Bridge, and as we draw into the distillery grounds, an oyster catcher takes flight. The scene is nothing short of bucolic, a feeling enhanced by our first glimpse of the estate’s highland cattle, Scotland’s iconic ginger “coos,” beyond the barley fields.

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Macallan’s distillery feels almost like a high-end spa.

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This 140 million pound new distillery opened in 2018 after two years of planning and four more of building. The low-slung glass, steel and timber building, designed by London architectural firm Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners (who also designed 3 World Trade Center in New York), feels more like a Bond lair or perhaps an exclusive spa than a place of industry and work. Though just shy of its 200th birthday, Macallan looks so great for its age that if you could bottle and sell its secret sauce it would cost more than its rare double cask (that’s at least 220 pounds).

The five unique undulations on the rippling grass-clad roof are designed to mimic the surrounding hills. From the inside, the blond honeycomb timber supports peak over the copper stills, the fluted pipes of which look like a vast steampunk organ. There’s no question that Macallan has made its distillery into a temple dedicated to whisky — one worthy of the pilgrimage its many ardent fans from around the world will make to worship here, at its central bar. It’s here you’ll taste the best and rarest that Macallan has to offer, and get the best view of its whisky wall, which houses 800 bottles of the company’s spirit and fronts a mini museum that speaks to its legacy. 

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Macallan’s new distillery is designed to blend into the surrounding countryside.

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While we’re seated at the bar, Macallan Estate General Manager Stuart Cassells describes how the biggest priority in designing a distillery for the 21st century — along with ensuring that the whisky made in both the old and new buildings tastes the same — is considering the impact on the immediate environment.

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“The Macallan Estate has been here since 1543, so we’re only looking after this for the next generation,” he says. It was important to ensure the distillery blended seamlessly with the surroundings and that Macallan nurtured the wider site by continuing to farm barley on it, which has been tradition for 500 years, he adds. Equally important to consider was the impact to the local community, such as how much barley and water the distillery would use.

Water that’s used throughout the distilling process is now intensively treated afterward to ensure it can either go back into the River Spey or can be reused for cooling the vapor created by the copper stills and turning it back into liquid. Likewise, waste product left over from the mash tun — the vessel where grain is mixed with hot water to break down the starch into sugars — is sent to a local biomass plant, and the energy is returned to the national grid. “We can’t just throw stuff away anymore,” says Kat Robertson, the visitor experience host who guides us between the copper stills on our distillery floor. 

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Macallan arranged the copper pot stills in a circular formation.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The heat coming up through the grates is a reminder of just how energy-intensive whisky distillation is as a process. These days, around 80% of the energy Macallan uses to produce the steam it needs comes from a biomass plant just across the road.

Macallan is far from the only Scottish distillery working toward more-sustainable practices — the Scotch Whisky Association’s sustainability strategy calls for the entire industry to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040 (Macallan’s own target is 2030). 

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Inside Macallan’s temple to whisky.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The industry has been working for many years to reduce its water consumption, says Hill. “Although there’s an impression that it’s a traditional industry, there’s always been that forward thinking. It’s not an industry that’s just sort of sitting there resting on its laurels.”

Distillers have a vested interest in fighting the environmental crisis, as Scotland’s consistently mild climate plays an important role in the maturation process, says Low. And like many other industries, Scotland’s whisky industry is affected by consumer preference. “People want sustainable products,” he says. “They want products that treat the environment fairly and treat the producers of the ingredients fairly.”

In Angus, a playground for experimentation

Around 80 miles south of Macallan, on the Angus coast, a new distillery is staking its entire reputation on sustainability, with a farm-to-bottle, single estate ethos that feeds into the circular economy. 

After years working as an accountant in the Turks and Caicos Islands, John Stirling is back on the family farm where he grew up and is busy turning his old cow shed into one of Scotland’s most talked-about distilleries, Arbikie. His aim? To go further than net zero emissions by putting back more than it’s taking out. “Why do that when you can do so much better?” says Stirling, as he whips his Range Rover down the country lanes with the confidence of someone who clearly knows every twist and turn like the back of his hand.

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The farm where John Stirling spent his childhood is now one of Scotland’s most exciting new distilleries.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As we stand on the balcony of the visitor’s center, which is being built around us as we speak, Stirling points to a headland in Lunan Bay, which he says houses an underground cave network once used for whisky smuggling. Records show that a whisky distillery existed on Arbikie Farm as far back as 1794, and now Stirling, with support from his two brothers, is bringing it back.

But first, there’s the gin. Like many new distilleries, Arbikie is getting the cash flow rolling by selling other spirits (he also produces vodka) that take just days to make and have gained significant global attention for being climate-positive. Stirling gives full credit to Arbikie Master Distiller Kirsty Black, whose doctorate involved making spirits from peas. Unlike cereals, peas don’t require synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to grow, and they actively improve soil quality. Growing them contributes to cleaner waterways, air and soil, while offsetting the damage caused by growing grain in the crop rotation.

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Arbikie is a single-estate grain-to-bottle distillery.

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We’re up to our ankles in mud as we wade through a field where Stirling is experimenting by growing peas and barley together as part of ongoing research with Abertay University and the Hutton Institute. He squeezes the little green orbs from their pods for me to chew on, while explaining how his hope is that the nitrogen captured by the peas will mean the barley doesn’t need any synthetic nitrogen fertilizer to grow.

“There’s lots of technicalities about it, because it’s the first time it’s ever been done,” he says. He still has lots of questions he doesn’t quite know the answer to, like, “Can we separate it? Can we use the peas in the vodka and the gin, and the barley in the whisky?” 

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Peas being grown in the barley fields at Arbikie in Angus.

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At a bare minimum, it’ll at least combine to make a great animal feed product, he adds. “We’ll push the boundaries to trial it and it could be a disaster, but it seems to be working at the moment,” he says with a laugh.

Not all new distilleries can afford to take such risks — especially those funded by outside investors determined to see returns sooner rather than later. It helps that Arbikie is funded entirely by Stirling and his brothers. And unlike many new distilleries releasing their first single malt at three or five years, which Stirling says is “too young,” he wants his first batch of single malt to be bottled at 18 years. That means their first batch won’t be available until 2035.

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Arbikie’s first single malt is sitting safe in casks while time works its magic on the whisky inside.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

In the meantime, he’s encouraging Black and her fellow distiller Christian Perez to be creative in their distilling practice. The distillery serves as something of a lab for them to experiment, which feels smart on Stirling’s part — as someone who keeps a close eye on the industry at all times, Ewen believes they are “two of the biggest distilling talents that we see just now.”

Future experiments will involve heritage grains his father once grew on Arbikie’s land and that Stirling has now reintroduced. In recent years, big distilleries have focused on a few specific varieties of barley from which they can maintain consistency and maximize yield (and profit), but he’s keen to explore what else he can achieve. 

“We’ve been looking back at older varieties that don’t have the same yield, but they’ve got completely different flavor profiles and are actually better for the soil,” he says.

Experimenting with grains is science with a dual purpose. It’s future-proofing the industry, while also opening the door to new flavors. Arbikie has brought rye whisky back to Scotland for the first time since the late 19th century. Rye whisky distillation died out with the wider decline of rye as a staple foodstuff in the UK. It’s also harder to distill than barley, says Stirling — although he believes it’s worth the extra effort.

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Arbikie has brought about the return of rye whisky to Scotland.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

When he serves me a dram it’s noticeably sweeter and spicier than most of the Scotch whisky I’ve tried. I can imagine drinking it as much as an alternative to rum as to whisky, with ginger beer or in a cocktail.

“The straw in the rye is actually really good for the soil — much better than barley,” says Stirling. “We never knew stuff like that when we started off and I just find it fascinating. And I get to drink it in the end — it’s like a dream.”

A vision for Edinburgh’s role in the story of whisky

Back in Edinburgh, overlooking the building site that’s currently the city’s first vertical micro-distillery, Ian Stirling (no relation to John) describes his 10-year journey chasing his own dream. Like many up-and-coming distillery owners, he shrugged off a corporate job for an industry where he could pursue his passions. 

His passion for drinking whisky started with his childhood friend Paddy Fletcher while they were living in London. Later it evolved into multiple distillery visits and experimenting with elements of whisky production. At the time, their home town of Edinburgh didn’t have its own distillery and with so many visitors to Scotland never leaving the capital, they felt there was an opportunity for more local whisky-based experiences.

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Edinburgh’s vertical Port of Leith distillery is currently being built on the Firth of Forth.

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Ian Stirling’s whisky project, the Port of Leith distillery, is now half built. But the journey hasn’t been easy — not least due to the challenge of finding a site that it could be built on.

“Scotch whisky is the hardest industry to get into,” says Stirling. “It’s a nightmare business model, because you need loads of cash to build a distillery and then you can’t sell anything for years and years and years.” There was the question of how “two idiots who’ve never run a whisky company in our lives” were going to raise the investment.

The distillery is now climbing at lightning speed in a prime spot for Edinburgh’s cruise ship traffic, by the Firth of Forth and behind a top tourist attraction, the Royal Yacht Britannia. As Edinburgh’s port, it’s an area with strong historic links to the whisky trade, although it came with the additional challenge of shoring up the harbor wall to bear the weight of the entire distillery plus the vats of spirit it’ll contain.

Like Arbikie and many other newcomers, Port of Leith has taken the gin route despite it never being part of the original plan. But the pressure mounted as whisky making continued to be a distant dream, and it’s had much success. Port of Leith’s Lind and Lime gin launched in 2018 to rave reviews and is now sold in major retail chains across the UK.

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Port of Leith is hoping that when its whisky comes of age, the success of its gin will be replicated.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

“Over time, I guess as we began to appreciate just how long it was going to take to make this thing happen” says Stirling. “We thought, ‘Well, let’s just do one. We’ll have very low expectations, you know, keep it very conservative.’ It’s really been the making of us, actually.”

Just like Arbikie, Port of Leith distillery’s hope is to become a hotbed of experimentation, all based on Stirling and Fletcher’s early adventures in whisky making. “We discovered a lot of things about making whisky where we saw real opportunities to do things differently, and to do something quite exciting with Scotch whisky,” says Stirling.

The pair believe they’ve found room for experimentation in the fermentation that precedes the part of the whisky making process that most fans consider the most important — the distillation of the spirit and the maturation of the whisky in oak casks.

The Port of Leith team has been working closely with Heriot-Watt University’s Brewing and Distilling Institute on developing new flavor profiles, ranging from raisin to pineapple leaf, with help from government funding. There’ll also be lab space inside the new distillery for students at the university to continue these experiments even once the facility is up and running.

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Experimentation at Heriot Watt University is leading to new flavor profiles.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

After three years of experimentation, Port of Leith has also identified two miniature whisky spirits to bring into its distillery that are made with new yeasts not used in whisky production before. “More than this building, that spirit to me is the most exciting thing we’ve done,” says Stirling.

Upholding the rules while expanding the palate

Producing whisky that upholds Scotland’s legacy within the industry remains the goal of all the country’s distillers, but new and old are otherwise on very different whisky making journeys that present very different challenges. For Macallan and other big distilleries, maintaining consistency year after year, regardless of differences in weather and yield, requires intense quality control. Meanwhile, Ian Stirling is using his background in the wine industry to tread a different path of producing whisky of different vintages.

From year to year, the Port of Leith distillery might change yeasts and fermentation techniques so drinkers will be able to spot differences between them. “We’re interested in diversity and our whisky evolving, and how it might change and grow over the years,” he says. 

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Scotch whisky must be made according to strict rules.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Some longtime whisky producers have been digging into their catalogs and bottling whiskies from specific years with vintage labels. But according to Ian Stirling, it’s the first time a Scottish distillery is taking this approach with its flagship product. For Scotch to remain the world’s premium whisky category, he believes the industry needs both tradition and the diversity that comes with innovation. “We all serve to help maintain that wonderful golden goose, which is Scotch whisky,” he says.

But there are limits to what distilleries can do to switch things up, if they want their labels to bear the name of Scotch whisky. Scotch whisky is protected by a geographical indication of origin, and Her Majesty’s Revenues and Customs department is responsible for verifying the century-old laws governing production. Plus, its members’ body, the Scotch Whisky Association, keeps an eye on labeling and protecting the international integrity of the spirit.

There are two parts to ensuring that a Scotch whisky can be labeled and sold as such in the marketplace, says Low. The first has to do with production. It must be made from cereals, distilled at an alcoholic strength of less than 94.9%, matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years in Scotland, can’t contain any additives, and must be bottled at no less than 40% alcohol by volume. 

“It’s a lot more than just whisky from Scotland,” he says. “It’s whisky made in that special way.”

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Scotch must be matured in oak casks.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The second part is more subjective. “Even if it does follow the strict letter of law, it still has to have the traditional aroma, flavor and color attributable to Scotch whisky,” says Low. “We’ve always got to be mindful that Scotch whisky is so popular today because of its reputation, because of its traditional characteristics, and we don’t want to lose those.”

There’s no flavor police who will come knocking on your door, says Coates, but people broadly know what Scotch whisky is supposed to look and taste like. He sees the regulations as a way of ensuring that all whisky made in Scotland continues contributing to and upholding the country’s legacy.

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Inside Arbikie’s distillery.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

There’s plenty of wiggle room to do new things, he adds, pointing to Arbikie’s rye whisky as a perfect example. “Personally, I think that anyone that complains about scotch whisky regulation being too restrictive doesn’t have an imagination.”

Even the newbies agree. When Ian Stirling first set out on his whisky making odyssey as a self-described “young, incredibly naive person,” he was frustrated by the regulations, feeling as though they were a barrier to new businesses entering the market. But he’s come to see that the regulations are responsible for ensuring that the strong reputation of Scotch whisky around the world remains unimpeachable.

“Actually, those rules are key, absolutely key to maintaining our position, and a real differentiator amongst many other countries,” he says. “There’s no room for cowboys in this industry. It’s got to be done properly.”

A gift from Scotland to the world

A shared respect for the rules, and admiration for whisky, is something that distilleries big and small have in common. Everyone I speak to on my Scotch whisky odyssey is at pains to point out what a friendly industry it is, and how willing everyone is to help each other out. There’s a clear mutual respect between people working for different-size enterprises and with different intentions.

Coming into the industry was intimidating at first, says Ian Stirling. While they arrived with new ideas, they also knew they had a lot to learn, and they found that people were more than willing to share advice and expertise. This came as some relief — just because they said they wanted to do things differently didn’t mean they were criticizing the status quo. “We’re here because we love what they’ve made,” he tells me. 

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Port of Leith will have room in its new distillery for a lab.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The point of the work that Heriot-Watt is doing with Port of Leith (and that Arbikie is conducting with Abertay and the Hutton Institute) isn’t designed to amount to a secret sauce that’ll set those distilleries apart from their competitors. The research they undertake is published openly, and other distilleries are also starting to experiment with rye and different yeasts.

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Whisky is made using traditional copper pot stills.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Even sustainability is a collaborative effort, says Hill. Distilleries in Scotland have been coordinating on logistics to ensure the trucks they use to transport materials from place to place don’t travel with empty tanks.

At Macallan, Cassells tells me how small new distilleries challenge the established players to see things through a fresh lens. “We need them all,” he says. He’s personally thrilled to see a formerly shutdown distillery near his childhood reopen and provide job opportunities and create a new sense of pride for people in the local area.

For many regions of Scotland, whisky is the lifeblood of the place, and Speyside is a concentrated example of this. Not only is the landscape dotted with distilleries, up on the coast there’s also Forsyths, a world-renowned maker of copper pot stills, and just down the road from Craigellachie is the Speyside Cooperage. This is where whisky casks go to be rebuilt and repaired by artisans who undertake seven-year-long apprenticeships to achieve fully fledged cooper status. 

Seeing them at work, there’s something almost balletic about the nimble spinning and hammering and firing of casks. It’s a reminder of the artistry, skill and determination to uphold standards that’s made this local industry into a revered global name.

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At Speyside Cooperage, repairing whisky casks is an art.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

“Every single drop we see globally has come from this tiny little country with only five and a half million people,” says Ewen. “You can walk to any corner in the world, and you’ll find in the back bar a bottle of Scotch whisky.”

At his own bar, with a whisky cabinet containing the very best of Scotland’s national drink, visitors from around the world gather to discover the perfect whisky drink to suit their own tastes and palate, or to hear the story Ewen is happy to relay to them about the spirit’s 500-year history. All the while he’s keeping an eye on how that tale evolves. Along with Arbikie and Port of Leith, there are many other newcomers, including Lindores Abbey in Fife, which is built on ancient whisky making land, and Nc’nean on the west coast, which is the first distillery in Scotland to be verified net zero.

“There’s a place for all of the distilleries in Scotland within the story of whisky,” he says, “from the absolute giants of the industry, right down to the craft distilleries producing the new and exciting and sometimes untested Scotch whisky.”