On an autumn weekday afternoon, when much of Scotland’s tourism industry is taking a breather between the summer and Hogmanay rushes, the visitor operations at Glenkinchie distillery in East Lothian are in full-cry.
Tourists from India, the US, Germany and New Zealand wander through its whisky museum and sign up for the £5, half-hour tour of the distillery-and the two-glass tasting that follows. This is whisky tourism, and it’s big business,
But while Scotland’s distilleries lured nearly a million tourists through their doors last year, is the experience they offer worthwhile? The tourist trail is littered with tales of rushed tours offering cursory glimpses, and led by untrained, part-time guides.
Telling a great story
Andrew Derbidge, cellarmaster and director of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in Australia, has put a lot of whisky-tourism miles under his belt, ranging from solo trips around Scotland to having recently hosted a five-star Society tour of some of the biggest distilleries.
“When I go to a distillery, I want to know everything. If they just offer a bog-standard walk-you-around-the-grounds experience, I will be a little bit disappointed,” he said. “However, I have to say that, for the most part, distilleries do a fantastic job in giving people a little bit of an insight into what they do. Clearly, 99 per cent of people who walk through a distillery’s gates are simply curious to learn a little about what goes on and most distilleries cater to that level very well.
“On the other hand, the distilleries are very aware that there are some people who have travelled specifically to see them and who want to get behind the scenes, and many also cater for that crowd.”
He said that some distillery guides were real personalities who put on a fantastic show. “Even if you’re not into whisky one iota, you walk out with a big smile because they are very entertaining. They tell a great story, they rattle off a couple of jokes and it is an all-round entertaining experience.”
He said the Society tour he led, which visited 12 distilleries over 10 days, had been “the ultimate whisky tour”, offering an experience regular tourists would not get. “We had nine members sign up for the tour, of whom only one was a real enthusiast. The others were just interested, and we had three spouses along who were not whisky people at all, and they all enjoyed themselves tremendously.”
Jim Murray, leading whisky commentator, and Unfiltered columnist, believes distillery visitor centres do a good job of promoting the whisky world to tourists.
“I’ve been in this job long enough to recall a time when there was no tourist trade. I remember my first trip to Islay and 99 percent of the people on the ferry were birdwatchers – they weren’t interested in visiting whisky distilleries at all.
“I can also remember visiting Springbank in the early 1980s and there was no way I could get in. The gates were firmly closed, so I called a guy over to ask if he could give me a look round. He basically told me to ‘f off’ and walked away.
“Things have moved on since then and it is for the better – if a tourist goes to a visitor centre and gets interested in whisky as a result, that can only be a good thing.
“There’s no doubt that one or two of these places lack authenticity and are a bit clichéd, but, in general, I’m very much in favour of them.”
Professor John Lennon from the Moffat Centre for Travel and Tourism Business Development at Glasgow Caledonian University has made a particular study of whisky tourism. He said distillery visits were a “huge part of the holiday experience” for visitors to Scotland.
“The distilleries provide a range of visitor experiences, from somewhere contemporary such as the Famous Grouse Experience in Crieff, to a place such as Dewar’s World of Whisky in Aberfeldy which concentrates on the science and art of making whisky and blending it, to somewhere much more traditional such as the Islay distilleries – Laphroaig or Lagavulin – which are places of homage for malt whisky aficionados.
“Visiting whisky distilleries is an endemic and traditional element of our tourism experience and I think it is something we do well,” he said. “I think there is now a real variety among distillery experiences.
“Making whisky is a process that is essentially quite real and tangible, and it is very important to give people a distinctive experience.
“Whisky distilleries can create that because they are quite sensual – for instance, you notice the smell as soon as you walk in. There is also the contact with Scottish people: any contact with people in a busy modern world is a good thing and in this context you are actually talking to somebody who knows about making whisky and that is a special experience for many people.”
Professor Lennon said that while most distilleries charged for visits, that was just to cover the operational costs of the visitor centre. “It is not a big money spinner, but it is an important public relations exercise. Also, distillers tend to be the best retailers and merchandisers in the visitor attraction world – their expenditure per head is very high, with one in three or four people buying a bottle.
“What they have got better at now is stretching the retail experience to incorporate more than just bottles of whisky – you are seeing better retailing and more thought being given to the nature of the visitor experience now.”
Anna Leask, Reader in Tourism at the School of Marketing, Tourism and Languages at Edinburgh Napier University, says whisky tourism is, on the whole, a valuable addition to the tourism industry. “It is an important way to build a brand, so it is not just about visitor numbers,” she said. “Quite a lot of the distilleries have consistently invested in their tourism facilities – it’s not as if they just open up a wee room and offer a quick tasting and a couple of wall panels. They have really invested heavily and they have continued to reinvest so they have a quality tourism product.”
A different approach at Kingsbarns
The backers of the proposed new Kingsbarns distillery in Fife have made whisky tourism a key part of their business plan. Director Doug Clement said that during the “no-return” period before their first whisky can be offered for sale, they would be looking to visitors to generate income.
“In my experience, far too many distilleries run their visitors through in some kind of conveyor belt fashion, and many of the guides have been unable to answer some of my most basic questions.”
He said Kingsbarns would avoid this by giving all its guides the opportunity to spend time working alongside the distiller through all stages of the whisky making process.
“We plan to have a small floor maltings to show our visitors, we will be hand-bottling on site, and we will be using both stainless steel and wooden washbacks, so visitors will be able to compare single cask releases from the different washbacks and decide for themselves if there is a difference.
“Nearly all distillery visitor centres are about delivering a brand experience, playing heavily on the history and heritage of their operations to drive an emotional connection with the visitor. Because Kingsbarns will be new, I believe we have an opportunity to cut through this approach, with the focus being on production processes and the final flavours of the different whiskies produced.”
Playing on the romance
Pete Irvine, author of the guidebook Scotland the Best, is well placed to comment on the merits of whisky tourism and distillery visitor centres. He has personally visited most of the country’s distilleries in order to select recommended places to visit for his book – and he says his experiences have generally been positive.
“A lot of distilleries have stunning buildings and are set in beautiful surroundings so they are usually one of the most interesting places in the local area.
“I find the Islay distilleries are the best to visit as it such a romantic place – Ardbeg is certainly one of the best. But I also rate the experiences visitors get at Strathisla, The Glenlivet, Edradour and Glenfiddich.
“Some tours are obviously better than others, but I’ve tried to forget the bad ones I’ve had in order to focus on the good ones for my book. I would say that there has been a trend to turn distilleries into interactive adverts for brands such as the Famous Grouse Experience and Dewar’s World of Whisky – there, the brand density is a bit tiresome, but the tours are super-professional.
“But, on the whole, tourists seem to like what is on offer and it is good for Scotland.”