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Undercover Beginners

Karen and Matt at The Glenlivet, one of my picks for a good distillery tour.

If proof were needed that whisky is a convivial drink elevated by the enlightened and considered folk with whom one savours and discusses it, I present to you Karen and Matt of Whisky For Everyone. Since beginning their democratic investigation into whiskies of the world in 2008, they have become my go-to blog for incredibly in-depth reviews, the latest news and always informed comment. With the same zeal today to discover more about the spirit, Karen and Matt are a credit to the industry and those who endeavour to write about it.

Following on from a guest blog I wrote for them earlier in the week, here is the Whisky For Everyone lowdown on distillery touring in Scotland. I was eager to source their perspective on this matter because I must often concede that while the Scotch Odyssey sought to present a picture of Scotland-wide whisky tourism in the recent past, my encounters can be no more helpful than the restaurant critic who only witnesses one service. Tours vary throughout the day according to a myriad of factors, let alone across the country, at different times of the year with different compositions of tour parties.

I find Karen and Matt’s experiences fascinating as testimonies to the diversity of approaches deployed by distilleries throughout Scotland for welcoming visitors. I hope you will, too.

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Through writing our blog, we are in the lucky position of getting the occasional invite to a distillery.  This may be for a number of reasons – they
want to raise awareness of their brand, to launch a new whisky, to open a new visitor centre or any combination of the three. This is great for us and is one of the perks of something that we do not get paid for and write in our spare time. Invariably these visits are a lot of fun and you get to meet some of the people that work there, while getting the ‘access all areas’ treatment.

However, these VIP tours are not what most people will experience when they turn up at adistillery.  This is why we enjoy joining
a general tour – it is by doing this that you truly experience what makes a distillery tick, what it is like when the spotlight is turned away and everyone is not on their best behaviour, trying to get you to write about their whisky brand.  On these occasions we very rarely ‘reveal our hand’ and try to find out as much information as we can by being ‘whisky beginners’.

From our experience, there seems to be two types of distillery tour available to the whisky tourist in Scotland – the ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour and the ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour.  We have been on a number of both types during our occasional holidays to Scotland. The format of the tours are basically the same – arrive, pay, be shown around, have the whisky making process explained, finish off with a dram or two in the visitor centre/shop.  But, this is where the similarities normally end.

The ‘sanitised, see what they want you to see’ tour is normally found at the larger distilleries or those that are the home to well known brands.
These places can cope with large numbers of fans and visitors that their brand generates. This tour will begin with a brand video showing barley swaying in the breeze, water babbling in a stream, an old chap from the distillery pushing a barrel, or scenes of a similar nature.

Coaches at Cardhu, home of Johnnie Walker. Not a bad tour by any means, but a distillery and approach catered towards the larger parties.

You will then be whisked around the distillery, or part of the distillery (normally not in operation), while the whisky making process basics are explained by the tour guide.  Questions of a more advanced level seem to be discouraged and you are also usually asked not to take any photos or video for ‘safety reasons’.  You will then get a dram of whisky, possibly two if lucky, to send you on your way (usually the basic expression/s from their core range), while they deal with the next coach-load of tourists.

The ‘warts and all, see how it really is’ tour is usually found at the smaller or cult distilleries, or those of smaller and less well-known brands.  There will be no corporate video here, just an informative ‘down to earth’ tour that takes you through the sights and sounds of a working distillery and the whisky making process. It will also not be clean and pristine with lots of shiny new metal on show. The tour guides always seem to be more engaging and open to any questioning, be it at a beginner or connoisseur level.  You may even have the chance to speak with a member of distillery staff who always seem happy to have a chat or answer any questions.

You will invariably get to try more than just the most basic whisky from their core range. You will also be allowed to take photos, including putting your camera lens in to mash tuns, fermentation tanks etc.  This leads you to think – either these places care much less about ‘safety’ than the distilleries in the first group, or there are no real ‘safety reasons’ to worry about.  Maybe those that use that as a reason for no photography, just don’t want you to take any …

Naturally, there are exceptions to both types of tour and ultimately, many visitors will leave both types happy.  However, we always look at them with our slightly critical eyes and guess that it depends what you want from the experience – do you just want to tick off a ‘distillery tour’ on your Scotland must-do list or do you want to really learn something about a place, brand or the whisky production process?

One of my favourite distillery tours, too. You see absolutely everything at Glen Moray.

Our favourite distillery tour to date was found at Glen Moray in Elgin.  Here, we rushed to try and make one of the advertised tour times and were late. Despite this, our soon-to-be tour guide (Emma) stopped what she was doing and offered to show us around anyway. After a tour, which involved seeing almost every nook and cranny of the distillery, we felt like we had an affinity with the place.

We were allowed to walk around freely, ask Emma anything we wanted and get in depth replies, speak to the distillery workers about what they were doing and take as many photos as we wanted.  After that sort of experience, the whisky was always going to taste good. We were given a tutored tasting of three whiskies from the core range, plus a couple of special editions (one of which we ended up buying).

A few months ago, we were invited back to Glen Moray as their guests for a product launch and dinner.  As part of this, we were invited on a VIP tour of the distillery.  This tour proved to be exactly the same and as in depth as the regular tour that we had experienced previously.  That tells
you plenty about how Glen Moray value their visitors and some other distilleries can learn a lesson from that. After all, it could be someone’s first ever distillery tour …

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A massive thank you again to Karen and Matt, and I would urge you to follow their discoveries within the whisky world at Whisky For Everyone.

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