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The spirits brands leading the way in distillery tourism

Distillery tours have come a long way since the days of Queen Victoria – and today, the general public cannot get enough. SB explores how brands are enticing visitors through their doors.

Clear winner: the Thomas Heatherwick-designed glasshouses at Bombay Sapphire

When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert first stayed at Balmoral, in September 1848, their neighbour, John Begg, invited them round to his Lochnagar distillery next door. They duly appeared with various children, and Begg’s initiative earned him a Royal Warrant in due course. What beggars belief, considering the hoops of protocol one would have to jump through nowadays, is that the invitation had only been delivered to Balmoral the night before.

Despite the Queen’s pioneering move, the idea of whisky tourism took a long time to catch on. Malt distilleries did not advertise their presence and their names were little known – most were as anonymous as the big grain distilleries still are. Instead of cafés, shops and car parks, they had fences and ‘keep out’ signs.

Fifty years ago that began to change when William Grant & Sons flung open the doors to Glenfiddich, inviting the public in to enjoy free tours and a dram. Creating the industry’s first ever visitor centre in 1969 was a bold move and certainly raised rivals’ eyebrows. Many doubted that tourists would be interested in seeing an industrial process while travelling across the Highlands, but the late James Sugden OBE, former managing director of the famous tweed and cashmere firm Johnstons of Elgin, had a theory. “It’s like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” he used to say. “People on holiday want to see other people at work.”

Aside from that, there is the sensual appeal of a malt distillery, from the beery fumes of the washbacks to the gleaming copper stills radiating warmth and the sweet scent of distillation. Also, unlike wineries that are only busy after the harvest, you can enjoy the bustle of a distillery all year round. Today whisky tourism has evolved into a thriving industry of its own, attracting a record 1.7 million visitors in 2017, according to the latest figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA). That represents a 65% hike on 2013, and since then “distilleries have invested over £500 million in world­-class tourism experiences for visitors,” claims Graeme Littlejohn, the SWA’s deputy director for strategy and communication.

Katie Waugh, Diageo’s visitor centre marketing manager, says: “As the country’s lead export, Scotch whisky is one of the biggest magnets for tourism, and we’re continuing to grow visitor numbers from around the world. In the year between June 2017 and June 2018 we had more than 460,000 visitors to our 12 distillery visitor centres in Scotland, with the summer months proving the most popular. This is the highest number of distillery visitors we have had in a year to date.”

The Johnnie Walker brand home in Edinburgh


All 12 are due to be upgraded as part of Diageo’s £150m investment that was announced last April, of which the highlight is a new sumptuous, multi­-storey brand home for Johnnie Walker in the heart of Edinburgh. “The centre will bring to life the story of the world’s most popular Scotch whisky and create a unique welcome for millions of Scotch fans around the world,” says Waugh. Through interactive displays and rooms where you can ‘touch, taste and smell every stage’ of the production process, visitors will learn about Cardhu, Caol Ila, Clynelish and Glenkinchie as the brand’s key component malts. “This investment will ensure that the people we attract to Scotland from around the world go home as life­long ambassadors for Scotch and for Scotland, ” said Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo’s global category director for Scotch and Reserve Brands, at the time of the announcement.

You could hardly find a more passionate ambassador for the country and its native spirit than Diezhandino. As she told The Spirits Business’s sister title the drinks business recently: “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. How many spirits have that depth of legacy, geography and diversity of people? I honestly think there’s something magical about Scotland.” She has also spoken of her belief that “with the desire for experiences and emotion gaining more significance in the luxury industry, I expect to see ‘being’ or ‘feeling’ becoming equally as important as ‘having’”.

The Johnnie Walker building in Edinburgh hopes to match the appeal of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which attracted 350,000 visitors in 2017. By comparison, Diageo’s most popular Scotch distillery that year was Blair Athol in Perthshire, which welcomed 87,000 visitors. One would imagine such numbers tail off the deeper you go into the Highlands and Islands, but the new Isle of Harris distillery in the Outer Hebrides may well eclipse Blair Athol. Its visitor centre opened in September 2015 and sailed past its target of 45,000 visitors the following year. As of December it was on course to reach 90,000 in 2018.

Simon Erlanger, managing director of Isle of Harris, is proud of how his whisky is helping to put the island on the map. “It’s acting as a catalyst by literally sending Harris out in a bottle into the world,” he says. And crucially for this self-styled ‘social distillery’, growth has allowed it to expand the number of locals it employs to 32. Meanwhile, Diageo has “105 employees directly employed in whisky tourism at our distillery visitor centres”, says Waugh. Presumably the new investment, particularly in Edinburgh, will boost that number.

In 1987, Scotch whisky firms jointly invested £2m to open the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre in a former school beside Edinburgh Castle to act as an embassy for all those far­-flung distilleries and offer punters a barrel ride through whisky history. It has since been rechristened the Scotch Whisky Experience, and last year attracted 377,000 visitors. It will soon face competition from not just the Johnnie Walker attraction, but also the city’s new Holyrood Park distillery, which is scheduled to open this year.

William Grant & Sons has invested £13m in building the Hendrick’s Gin Palace

Glasgow is ahead of the curve on urban whisky distilleries, and now has two operational ones. The first is the Glasgow Distillery Company, based in an industrial shed on the east of the city. Its managing director, Liam Hughes, admits he hasn’t gone down the visitor centre route. “You can’t dress up where we are – it is what it is,” he says. “But bizarrely when people come here they absolutely love it because it’s not a shiny, new distillery.” In late 2017, the Clydeside Distillery, in the old Pump House, opened to the public, and by December 2018 around 30,000 visitors had poured in to see the stills housed in a glass box and learn about Glasgow’s whisky heritage. This was always going to be part of Clydeside’s mission, and as Ewan McCarthy of the design agency involved in the visitor centre explains: “We had no shortage of fascinating stories to tell and memorabilia to showcase. The challenge was how to select and present those stories to a diverse audience in an engaging and entertaining way.” Meanwhile, Douglas Laing is seeking planning permission for its Clutha distillery, which will include a restaurant and visitor centre on the opposite bank of the Clyde.

Gin and vodka brands tended to hide their production behind closed doors until the advent of craft spirits. Edinburgh Gin’s tours at its diminutive city centre distillery were invariably booked up and with surging demand, its owner – Ian Macleod Distillers – decided to invest in a new distillery in Edinburgh’s Old Town, trebling production of the brand. It plans to attract “well over 100,000 visitors a year”, says the brand’s marketing director, Neil Mowat. “Now more than ever, consumers are looking for experiences and Edinburgh Gin, like many businesses in the spirits sector, is responding to this demand. Consumers want to understand the provenance of products and brands, and experience them first hand.”

Yet as far back as 2002 Bombay Sapphire Gin had its Blue Rooms at Vinopolis in London Bridge, which was hosting 100,000 visitors a year by the time it closed in 2012, claims senior brand ambassador Sam Carter. That and the gin boom gave parent group Bacardi the confidence to open its Laverstoke Mill brand home and distillery in Hampshire in 2014.

As well as seeing the process and sniffing the botanicals, Carter says people are keen to learn “how to actually use the gin at home, to mix up creative cocktails for their friends and families at house parties and gatherings”. He says the ‘Ultimate Experience’ tour, which he leads himself, is booked solid for nine months, despite costing £150 (US$190) a head.

Whether it was Bombay or Hendrick’s that ignited the craft gin boom, the latter now boasts a stunning new brand home beside the somewhat less stunning Girvan grain distillery in Ayrshire. According to global brand director Pamela Selby: “The Hendrick’s Gin Palace, in its design and experience, is intended to inspire curiosity, open minds and serve as a platform for invention.”

Meanwhile, in Speyside, the new space-­age Macallan distillery hired museum design specialist Atelier Brückner to create what is billed as the “most awesome” distillery visitor experience in Scotland. Among the exhibits, the ‘Peerless Spirit’ – a single drop of liquid levitating in mid­air – would surely have tickled Queen Vic.

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