As an independent bottler, Andrew Laing is “bringing something else to the party”—unique bottlings of rare whiskies and other spirits
Take an Islay journey with Andrew Laing.
The glass of Scotch he pours has a vegetal, almost mezcal-like scent, with whiffs of salty, mineral sea and fishy kelp and a distinctly ashy after taste. It’s a blended malt representing the vivid flavours of five of the finest distilleries what is perhaps the most coveted of Scotland’s whisky-producing regions. And it’s exactly the kind of exquisite, unique bottling in which his family’s company specializes.
Laing, part of a third-generation whisky dynasty, is the export director of Hunter Laing, one of Scotland’s finest independent bottlers. Because buyers in B.C. and beyond might not be as familiar with so-called IBs as they are with distillery, single malt and blended whisky brands, Laing describes the company by what it does.
“We will import quality barrels directly from Kentucky or Spain, for instance, and send them to the Scottish distilleries that we work with, asking them to fill new spirit into them. We then mature them at our own warehouses, and then decide what to do with them.” The party-favour-style extras Hunter Laing brings to consumers: barrel finishing, careful blending or simply cask-strength bottling extraordinary small batches of spirit. “The distilleries themselves produce the official bottling,” says Laing. “We are bringing something else to the party.”
While other IBs specialize in sourcing oddball or outlier casks from excess or unneeded whisky warehouse inventory, Hunter Laing controls the aging and bottling of products that range from carefully blended malts representing the various Scotch-producing regions to single-cask bottlings of rare whisky and rum. “We always say to customers, ‘If you like something, buy another bottle of it, because it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to find it ever again if there are only 215 or 250 bottles in the world.’ ”
More recently, his family opened its own distillery, landing a choice site on the east coast of Islay, known for the salty, medicinal quality of its smoky peat. Only the ninth distillery on the island, Ardnahoe started producing spirit in the autumn of 2018 and opened officially last April.
“For my family, from a pride point of view, it was a big deal to be able to say that we’re finally distillers,” he says. “For our businesses, it was crucial to us to have that control over our own destiny, to have the style and amount of peated whisky that we need for our products.”
They’re plugged in to the tight-knit Scotch community on Islay, where a local taxi company will take you to nearby Bunnahabhain and Caol Ila, with lunch at Ardnahoe’s restaurant, all in one day. Where Victorian-era and older Scotch distilleries were built as factories that can be challenging to visit, Ardnahoe—with its modern gift shop, visitor-friendly tour and Insta-friendly curtain wall window views of the Sound of Islay and the island of Jura—is “a place we always had in our minds as a site for tourists to visit,” says Laing.
With the benefit of his family’s long-term view of the Scotch industry, Laing sees some current trends among Scotch consumers. “People are very open to trying new, different things, whereas 30 or 20 years ago, people had their Scotch brand they were loyal to,” he says. “And I think that’s really where we’re quite fortunate: we are an independent bottler, with good stocks from across the regions of Scotland, different geographies and different distilleries and ages as well.” Even a fan of a famous single malt might find a rare single-cask bottling from Hunter Laing’s Old Cask Order, then be emboldened to dabble in an unknown or defunct distillery bottling in the same series.
He also notes that modern consumers have an increased appetite for the funky, smoky, medicinal variations on peated Scotch and are more open than ever to no-age-statement (NAS) whiskies, which don’t have a number on the label denoting the youngest spirit in the bottle. Hunter Laing’s new Scarabus bottling is a good example: it’s a vibrant young peated Islay single malt that punches way above its approximately $80 price tag. Watch for it in the B.C. market as soon as June.
—by Charlene Rooke