Production, branding, tourism: The changing faces of Scotland's whisky distilleries
After almost two centuries of making cloth, writes Tom Bruce-Gardyne for WhiskyInvestDirect, Johnston's of Elgin threw open its doors to the public in the mid-1980s.
The late James Sugden OBE, who was Johnston’s MD for many years, likened it to ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’. He felt the appeal was simple: “People on holiday like seeing other people at work.”
Whether it’s schadenfreude or just curiosity, the same is true of whisky tourism which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.
William Grant & Sons shocked the industry in 1969 by inviting Jo Public to poke its nose round Glenfiddich. Tours were free and a complimentary dram of Glenfiddich Pure Malt was thrown in. It was almost invariably people’s first taste of a single malt – a category Grant’s helped pioneer six years earlier.
When Scotch was almost entirely blended, distilleries were anonymous factories. To wish to visit one was considered weird. It would be like pitching up at a tattie farm just because you were into Walker’s crisps.
This explains why most distilleries that were rebuilt in the 1960s resemble light industrial sheds done on the cheap. Whereas today, now that whisky tourism has morphed into an industry attracting 1.9 million visitors in 2017, you have Macallan spending £140m on its sumptuous new pleasure dome – sorry, distillery.
Of course its owners, the Edrington Group, didn’t justify it on tourism alone. Macallan hopes to attract 50,000 visitors a year by 2023, and at £15 a pop it would take almost 187 years to repay the investment, excluding the staff costs. The real motive is to have a brand home worthy of the brand. Macallan has managed to position itself on such an exalted ledge; it needs every part of its brand equity to reflect that.
The traditional way of installing a visitor centre, pioneered by Glenfiddich and copied by countless others, was to convert the disused floor maltings. Originally everyone malted their own barley by steeping the grain in water, spreading it on a floor for a week, and then drying it over a kiln. However, by 1970 all but a handful of distilleries had switched to buying malted barley from a professional maltster.
By 2011 there were visitor centres in half of Scotland’s malt distilleries, one or two of which were dedicated to blends. Bacardi opened the Dewar’s World of Whisky at its Aberfeldy distillery in 2000, followed by The Famous Grouse Experience two years later at Glenturret. This dolls house distillery whose stills add barely a drop to a bottle of Grouse was decreed the brand’s spiritual home until Glenturret was sold to the French just before Christmas.
Diageo’s predecessor – UDV, only embraced tourism when it launched the Classic Malts in 1987. Today Diageo has 12 distilleries officially open that pull in almost 500,000 punters a year. They are each getting revamped in a £150 million investment that includes the new Johnnie Walker whisky experience coming to Edinburgh next year which hopes to match the firm’s Guinness Storehouse in Dublin which gets 350,000 visitors.
The key word is ‘experience’ as Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo’s Scotch whisky director, makes clear. Among other things it’s about “putting Scotland at the forefront of the global boom in experiential travel,” she says.
“To invite people to Islay, Skye and the Highlands to see the diversity of distilleries and experience the legacy in a real way is amazing,” she told me last year. “How many spirits have that depth of legacy, geography and diversity of people? I honestly think there’s something magical about Scotland.” If she ever tires of whisky, Cristina should run VisitScotland – she’d be brilliant at it.
Of course the budgets that Diageo and Edrington have available are beyond the wildest dreams of the new generation of stand-alone distillers like the Borders Distillery, Isle of Harris and Kingsbarns, to name but three. And yet whisky tourism is equally important to them, with a visitor’s centre a key part of most new distilleries. It is a place of pilgrimage for existing fans and a place to convert new ones, hopefully for life. And as you wait for your spirit to mature into a saleable single malt, those punters splashing out on tours and in the shop and café can certainly help with the cash-flow.
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom has been a weekly columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and most recently Scotch Whisky Treasures.
You can read more comment and analysis on the Scotch whisky industry by clicking on Whisky News.