There have never been more people positively inclined to pop into a Scotch whisky distillery. Interestingly and encouragingly, these people are perfectly normal and in many instances find themselves on distillery doorsteps throughout Scotland courtesy of straightforward mercurial curiosity as opposed to the single-minded manic obsession of the likes of Alfred Barnard and yours truly. Today, stillrooms and bonded warehouses constitute a viable attraction for holiday-makers in Scotland with just as much sight-seeing merit as medieval castles or the mountain scenery.
Balblair distillery, Ross-shire, is the latest Scotch whisky site exploring the possibility of taking in not just malt and yeast but tourists, too. During my week in Edderton recently, manager John MacDonald talked me through his hopes for the former maltings and the developed concepts suggest that Balblair is set to please whisky anoraks and newbies alike. The shop and cask display are standard commercial and aesthetic features, and the single cask bottle-your-own facility is certain to be popular.
However, if there was one facet of the visitor experience most of the centres I dropped in on last year were enthusiastically experimenting with it was multi-media. Be it the really rather good brand films of Glenfiddich and Highland Park which whetted the visitor’s appetite ahead of the tour, or the virtual grouse ‘flight simulator’ at Glenturret which comprised the irreverent conclusion of it, marketing had prescribed lots of moving pictures to hypnotise the paying public. The plan is for Balblair’s AV garnish to be a little more subtle: a glass-panelled oblong between the central pillars will accommodate tastings and corporate meetings while chronologically-relevant images which contextualise the Balblair vintages are projected onto the walls.
With space at a premium, the completed visitor centre is sure to be a snug and intimate venue in which to browse and buy. Of course, the tourist will discover a theme emerging as they are guided through the petite, contained distillery. It is fairly ironic that although Balblair was not constructed in an era which had the needs of prospective visitors in mind, it is a perfect site in which to demonstrate the manufacture of whisky and simultaneously impress the intrinsic personality of single malts.
A 2011 report by 4-consulting showed that 1.3 million people wandered into Scotland’s whisky distilleries last year and for all that 49 of those visits were conducted by a sweaty teen on a bike that is still a significant number. Diageo has reported nearly 20% more traffic coming through the doors of their twelve visitor centres in the last two years and has renovated the Discovering Distilleries website in addition to beefing up the inventory of tour specifications. A steady 6,000 souls a year sample the delightful hospitality at Glen Garioch which prompted a £40,000 refurbishment of their visitor centre earlier this year. Distillers increasingly recognise the exponential returns possible by allying their liquid with bespoke, high-end visitor facitilites in which the experience of purchasing whiskies can be rendered more educational, entertaining and personal, and they are making the necessary investments. Little wonder, is it, when the SWA drops a figure that dwarfs the initial outlay: in 2010 Scotch whisky visitor centres pulled in £30.4 million.
Inver House have picked an extremely healthy moment for the industry in which to roll out the red carpet at Balblair. Across Scotland there are plenty of tourists to go round themselves and the 52 other visitor centres, and such is the nature of single malt whisky that they boast the unique history and distinctive flavours to lure them in on their own merit, too.