It is mainly in promotional writing about Scotland or Scotch whisky where you can read this sentence. Supposedly Scotland has the highest concentration of distilleries in the world. The main perpretrators are the Scotch Whisky Association, newspapers like the Scotsman and various tourism websites. Even the website of the Europan Climate Change Adaption Conference to be held in 2017 in Glasgow claims this. But I have to disappoint you.
Yes, Scotland has many distilleries, most of them making whisky, but it is far from having the highest concentration in the sense of distilleries per land area. Scotland’s land area is 77,900 square kilometres. Currently there are around 120 operating whisky distilleries, with rising tendency. Let’s be generous and assume a total of 200 distilleries which would also include tiny start-ups and gin-only distilleries. This is equivalent to 2.6 distilleries per 1000 square kilometres.
But you don’t need to look far for an example that debunks this claim. Switzerland has 250 commercial distilleries [link in German] on a land area of 41,300 square kilometres or 6.1 distilleries per 1000 square kilometres.
Things don’t look very different in southern Germany. It is difficult to find a total number, but for example the association of fruit distillers in the Baden region has 54 members on a land area of 15,000 square kilometers. That’s 3.6 per 1000 square kilometres, and only a part of the the distilleries are members of the association so the real concentration will be even greater.
And these figures don’t even take into account the number of small scale and part-time distillers: 8400 Swiss farmers have their own stills. And just as an example for Germany, the association of small distillers in the North Württemberg region has 2000 members. According to the German minstry of agriculture, the number of non-bonded small distilleries in Germany is 29,000, usually these are part-time businesses attached to farms. They have an annual production limit of only 300 litres of alcohol.
France is said to have 2000 commercial distilleries on a land area of 544,000 square kilometres, or 3.6 per 1000 square kilometres. There is a lot of distilling going on in France: Armagnac, cognac, calvados, eau de vie and marc to name just some prominent examples. To this you have to add 800 ambulant stills that can be booked by anyone growing fruit for distillation. This is common practice in the Calvados and Armagnac regions. In the Cognac region alone, 1300 growers own a still on a land area that is only 7,500 square kilometres. This may well be a true contender for the greatest distillery concentration.
If you look overseas, there is Haiti (27,700 square kilometres) with 500 distilleries for clairin, the local white rum/cachaça variant.
All these examples demonstrate that the number of distilleries in Scotland is nothing really spectacular. The only thing you can safely say is that Scotland has the greatest concentration of whisky distilleries in the the world. But given the history of whisky, would anyone be surpised by this?
The one thing that indeed is impressive about the Scottish whisky distilleries is their output. In comparison to other countries most distilleries are can be described as industrial, even though some of the malt whisky distilleries look rather picturesque. Distilleries with an annual output of 1 million litres of alcohol are considered small in Scotland but they dwarf almost any other distilleries elsewhere apart from those making grain spirit on an industrial scale.
Scotland has a reason to be proud of its national drink, but there is no need to let it appear even more glorious than it already is.