When was the last time you poured yourself a healthy dram of Braeval? Or had a good swig of Miltonduff? How about a Glenburgie? Or an Allt-a-Bhainne? An Auchroisk? Dufftown perhaps? Have you even heard of these distilleries, let alone seen a bottle of their whisky at your local liquor retailer?
What about Ardbeg? Oban? Bruichladdich? These names are more familiar, yes? And, chances are, you’ve had a dram of their product more than once or twice on your malt journey.
The irony here is that the first group listed above are some of the biggest distilleries in Scotland. And the second group are amongst the smallest. There’s a cliched conclusion here that you might have heard before: Size doesn’t matter, it’s what you do with it that counts!
In terms of distillery capacity (which doesn’t necessarily equate to how much they actually produce), figures available for the 119 active malt distilleries in Scotland tell us that their annual capacity in litres of pure alcohol varies from 13,700,000L (Glenfiddich) down to 20,000L (Abhainn Dearg). So, returning to some of the distilleries listed above and ranking them in terms of their size, Dufftown is actually the twelfth largest distillery in Scotland! Auchroisk is 15th, Miltonduff is 17th, and Glenburgie is 34th. Being the 34th largest distillery in Scotland doesn’t sound all that impressive, until you realise there’s another 85 distilleries behind you that are smaller! Or the fact that, even when ranked in 34th place, you’re still capable of making twice as much whisky each year than more well-known distilleries such as Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Auchentoshan or Bowmore!
Oban might be one of the so-called “Classic Malts”, and widely available at most retailers, yet its total capacity is a mere 870,000L, and it ranks 91st by size. Ardbeg is 83rd! Size clearly doesn’t matter!
The point here is that each distillery has its own place and purpose in the industry, and not all of them seek (or even need) the limelight that single malt status can bestow. For the truth is that – and some whisky fans need to be repeatedly reminded of this – the vast majority of malt whisky is produced for blending. Dufftown distillery, for all its size, might, history, and beauty is still relatively unknown (despite it being incorporated into the Singleton range) because the majority of its output goes directly into blends, particularly Bells. Glenburgie may be on 24/7 production and churning out a whopping 4.2M litres each year, but you wouldn’t recognise it as a distillery if you drove past it, and – like its sibling, Miltonduff – its output goes almost entirely into Ballantines and Chivas Regal.
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Perhaps the best illustration here would be to provide some context: Glenfiddich is the largest selling single malt brand in the world, holding roughly a 13% share of the single malt market. Its annual sales are over one million cases! Yet, in contrast, Johnnie Walker is the largest selling blended Scotch in the world, holding roughly a 22% share of the blended whisky market; its annual sales are an incredible 17,400,000 cases! Did you get that? The biggest selling brand of blended Scotch sells 17 times the amount of whisky as the biggest selling single malt brand.
In fact, blended sales in some individual countries can dwarf malt’s global efforts. In single malt terms, Glenfiddich’s achievements are massive. Yet there are two Scotch blends produced and exported chiefly for the French market that sell 2.5M and 3M cases annually respectively. So, two blends you’ve possibly not even heard of (William Peel and Label 5), both sell more bottles in France alone each year than Glenfiddich sells across the entire planet!
So, in terms of sales, market share, and revenue, you can suddenly appreciate where “well-known” single malts like Talisker, Highland Park, and Bowmore sit. It also shines some light on the extent of the supply, demand, and “NAS” issues that have struck some of the brands. For example, Laphroaig continues to punch well above its weight: In terms of its world market share, it is impressively ranked in seventh place. Its annual production capacity of 3.3 million litres makes this all the more impressive when you consider that 30% of its production goes off to the blenders, leaving just 2.3 million litres for it to stake its single malt fame. It cannot maintain this growth and market share if every drop is to sit in a cask for 10 years – leading to the proliferation of NAS expressions now being seen. (But that’s another story…read this if you’d like an opinion on NAS whisky).
It is also this dilemma that has led to the increase in profile and availability of independent bottlings. Happily, many of the independent bottlers are increasingly shining a light on the lesser known distilleries. Of course, everyone jumps at the independent bottlings of high-profile distilleries: Talisker, Lagavulin, Glenfarclas, Macallan, and so on. But, to me, this can be wasted opportunity. For, simply put, those distilleries are already doing a great job putting out great whisky, and they’re widely available. That’s why they’re high-profile brands!
No, in contrast, surprising joy and tasty rewards can be found by seeking out the unknown heroes; those lesser known, “workhorse” distilleries that churn out spirit for the blends. They can produce incredible whisky when filled into good casks. The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, in particular, continues to bottle and release incredibly delicious and complex casks from the likes of Benrinnes, Ardmore, Linkwood, Aultmore, Miltonduff, Balmenach, Mannochmore, Craigellachie, Glen Elgin, and Ledaig (Tobermory)…all distilleries that have a relatively lower profile in the single malt kingdom, and which you may not find at your local liquor outlet. They are the unknown heroes. Seek them out and enjoy.