Distillery Focus

A frosty reception

Classic malt distillery Dalwhinnie is revamping its visitor experience. Dominic Roskrow spoke to the man charged with ringing the changes
By Dominic Roskrow
The first day in a new job is always a bit of an ordeal. For Ewan Mackintosh it was more than that. Indeed, you would have called it a baptism of fire if the phrase wasn’t so totally inappropriate.

For Mackintosh arrived to start work at Dalwhinnie just after the worst snow deposits the distillery had seen in years. Not only did he and his new work colleagues find that they had to dig themselves in, but once through the doors they found a distillery frozen solid.

“All the pipe work to the mash tuns, to the worm tub and throughout the distillery were frozen solid,” he says. “Some of them are as wide as a thigh and they were completely frozen through.

“I’d left Oban and moved here and the house had no water for the first week and at first there was no heating. But I had been given a bottle of Oban as a leaving present and before that I’d spent some time on Islay and had brought back a bag of peat. So we made a peat fire in the grate and heated some soup, which we were able to give to the removal men. And we washed it down with the Oban.

“We finally got the boiler working at the distillery and dismantled the pipework and put each part in the boiler room to defrost it. It took a week to get it all up and running. We have gritting facilities and a snow plough and we were going out twice a day just to keep everything clear. It was quite incredible. Huge safety issues because of the ice, and icicles like sabres.

“It was pretty severe for a while. I got snowed in at Blair Atholl Distillery at one point because I couldn’t get back from Pitlochry. The A9 was just about closed. Amazingly, though, people kept coming to visit. We’d hardly be able to see because of the strength of the blizzards and yet there would be groups of visitors banging on the door wanting to come in and have a dram.”

Mackintosh, 37, is Dalwhinnie’s new brand heritage manager and his appointment marks a commitment by distillery owner Diageo to develop and extend its offering to distillery visitors. About 20,000 visitors pass through the door each year, but in the past the job of looking after them has been split with Blair Atholl down the road.

Mackintosh has previously worked at Oban on the west coast and at Lagavulin and Caol Ila on Islay. He’s excited by the challenge of the new distillery.

“It is very different to Oban because although the distillery there was tucked away in a side street it is close to the centre of the town and there are always lots of people walking around and therefore lots of passing trade,” he says. “Dalwhinnie is more visible but you have to get people to detour off the main road to visit here. But people ought to come here because it’s a special distillery. I’m still finding out about it but will look at ways of ensuring that people have a wonderful visiting experience when they come.”

Mackintosh will consider a range of options though one of the biggest advantages of having the backing of a big international company might also turn out to be the biggest obstacle. Having the might of Diageo behind the distillery is an advantage because there are the budgets for ensuring the highest standards and state of the art facilities. Diageo distilleries tend to be immaculate and well cared for. But the downside is that while standards tend to be very high indeed, that leaves less room for quirkiness and individuality. For all the right reasons they can look samey – with the same signage and information boards.

Mackintosh will spend the coming weeks assessing his new domain, looking at what staffing he will have available in to the summer season, and then set about building a visitor offering which will help Dalwhinnie distinguish itself. He talks about offering Dalwhinnie of different ages to plot its progress to the standard 15 year old bottling; of letting visitors taste the new make; and of showing them the distiller’s beer and the various by-products of malt spirit production.

Most of all though, he wants to give visitors a feel of the family nature of the distillery. It may be owned by an international giant, he says, but there is a real sense of belonging among distillery staff.

“You find a lot of distilleries have a strong connection to a number of families and you have different generations working there,” he says. “But more than any other distillery I’ve been in there are strong family connections. Whenever you go to a distillery there are black and white photos with the workers looking a bit surly and with beards and moustaches and some bloke sitting at the front with a suit and tie on.

“Here you’ll be looking at them with one of the guides and they’ll say ‘that’s my father, that’s my uncle…’ there is a lovely family feel to the distillery. It makes Dalwhinnie quite special.”

It all bodes well for the future. Ewan Mackintosh might have arrived to the frostiest of receptions – but you suspect the distillery’s warming to him.