THIS will be a dram good year for the whisky industry as visitor numbers at distillers hit new highs, a trade body predicts.

Karen Betts, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), claims the “increasing number of visitors” forecast will boost retail and accommodation operators across the country.

With many distilleries located outwith major cities, the SWA says rural areas will toast the biggest business benefits.

Betts said: “It’s fabulous to see Scottish distilleries attracting more and more visitors from the UK and all over the world. There has been a 25 per cent increase in visits to Scotch whisky distilleries since 2010 and we fully expect this trend to continue in the year ahead.”

Figures released earlier this month by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) showed a near 12 per cent rise in attendance at distilleries and whisky-related attractions in 2017.

The annual growth outstripped the 7.5 per cent achieved by museums and galleries and the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh rounded out the ASVA’s top 20 most-seen sites after welcoming almost 379,000 guests. Further analysis shows traffic rose by one third at Kingsbarns Distillery in Fife, Caol Ila Distillery on Islay and Glen Ord Distillery near the Black Isle.

The latter two are owned by spirits giant Diageo, which last month revealed a 15 per cent uplift in visitor numbers at its 12 distillery visitor sites during 2017, making for overall crowds of approaching 440,300 – the highest the company has experienced.

The SWA says 1.7 million visitors from around the world travelled to more than 40 such centres in 2016, arguing that the production sites are now “on a par with” large attractions such as Edinburgh Castle and the National Museum of Scotland.

It says the change is the result not only of a new wave of interest in the making of the drink, which soaked up £4.36 billion of overseas orders last year, but also due to investment in new visitor centres.

This includes recently opened facilities like the Isle of Raasay Distillery and the Clydeside Distillery in Glasgow.

The SWA says it will publish its full 2017 visitor numbers “in the coming months”, but that they are expected to reveal “even more improvement”.

Betts said: “As well as benefitting our industry, the increasing number of visitors is great news for the wider Scottish economy, particularly in rural areas, with visitors to Scotch whisky distilleries staying in local hotels, eating high quality meals in pubs and restaurants and shopping for local products.”

VisitScotland head Malcolm Roughead said: “Whisky is one of Scotland’s most valuable commodities, with people from all over the world coming to our shores to experience an authentic Scottish dram.

“A culinary icon, it remains as important as ever to the tourism industry with one in five visitors making a trip to a whisky distillery during their stay and even more visiting a bar, pub or restaurant to sample our renowned national drink.

“Whisky tourism is a vital part of local tourism for many areas in Scotland, such as Speyside or Islay who are renowned for their links to the national drink, and help draw thousands of visitors to the country, creating jobs and sustaining communities.

“It’s fantastic to see the industry recognising the rewards of whisky tourism by investing and improving the visitor experience.”