One knows for certain that changes are afoot when a visit to a Diageo-owned distillery is accompanied by the clear message to take as many indoor photos as desired.
Gone is the company’s previous ban on the use of cameras, as an era of more sensory-led (not to mention more social media-conscious) distillery tours begins. The new regime commences with the Lowland distillery Glenkinchie, located 17 miles south-east of Edinburgh, which kicks off the new look and feel for Diageo’s new visitor experiences after a multi-million pound makeover by BRC Imagination Arts – an agency with a resume that includes the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, another Diageo-owned drinks visitor attraction.
The refurbishment of Glenkinchie is the first part of a GBP£185 million investment in Diageo’s Scotch whisky visitor centres, which focuses on the four ‘corners’ of Scotland and encompasses Glenkinchie, Cardhu, Clynelish and Caol Ila Distilleries. These ‘corners’ are all to be linked to the centrepiece Johnnie Walker Princes Street brand home in Edinburgh.
Scenes from the reimagined Glenkinchie Distillery visitor experience
At these venues, Diageo is setting out to capture casual whisky enthusiasts, and the standard public offering is named the Flavour Journey Tour, which puts emphasis on spirit character. There is even an Instagram-friendly backdrop behind the vast Glenkinchie stills.
According to senior site manager Ramsay Borthwick, “It’s about the four corners of Scotland geographically and the four big building blocks of Johnnie Walker, one of which is Glenkinchie. We are emphasising the tie with Johnnie Walker. The big difference now is the connection of individual sites to flavour, and that flavour to blends.
“Someone new to whisky, or who enjoys blends or cocktails, might find a hallowed single malt ‘home’ a bit off-putting. We are breaking down perceived barriers of exclusivity. More people in the world connect with Johnnie Walker than any other whisky brand, and we were already getting around 65,000 visitors per year before Covid.”
Accordingly, Glenkinchie is now branded as the Lowland home of Johnnie Walker, and the distillery tour charts the parallel histories of Glenkinchie and the famous blend to which it contributes, explaining how Glenkinchie single malt first appeared in the Johnnie Walker stock records as far back as 1894.
The Johnnie Walker link is apparent from the outset of a visit to Glenkinchie, as a statue of the founder himself, complete with his faithful hound, stands in front of the entrance to offer a welcome. The fact that the statue is decorated with details of local flora and fauna ties in with the perceived floral character of the single malt produced here and its East Lothian location’s description as ‘the garden of Scotland’.
Indeed, a garden is the first thing to greet visitors as they walk from car park to distillery entrance, as the former bowling green has been imaginatively landscaped and populated with fruit trees and local species of plants, intended to provide year-round variety. What’s more, a trio of beehives will provide honey for use in cocktails created in the distillery.
Visits begin in a red-brick former warehouse facing the garden area, which has been opened up with large windows on two levels and initially features the reception and shop.
The old, small-scale farmhouse still, beloved of visitors to Glenkinchie when the distillery featured a museum of malt whisky production, now occupies a prominent position in the area where tours commence, alongside fresh flowers and a gold-painted Johnnie Walker ‘striding man’.
The sensory aspect of the tour begins in the Story Room, which boasts interactive display elements and bell jars containing scents, designed to break the ice between participants and get them talking about the key aromas that define Glenkinchie’s style; namely floral, cut grass and nutty or cereal.
A distillery building
Those who have visited previously and were pleased to see the old farmhouse still had not been discarded will be even more pleased to discover that the magnificently detailed model distillery remains. It was built for the 1925 British Empire Exhibition and still occupies a prominent position, now accompanied by an equally splendid model of the old Johnnie Walker Strand Street warehouse in Kilmarnock.
Visitors next move on to a ‘how we create flavour’ station, located in the former maltings, where the processes of production are explained. Rather than just handing round the usual samples of husk, grits and flour, Glenkinchie offers imaginative touches such as having stalks of living barley on display, along with a model mill and a model kiln.
The tour then progresses through the various areas of production, featuring the modern semi-lauter mash tun, six wooden washbacks, and – star of the show – Glenkinchie’s formidable pair of stills. The wash still is, in fact, the second largest in Scotland, with only the one installed at Bunnahabhain on Islay having greater capacity.
The spirit safe
“We have medium-length fermentations, so we get quite a lot of flavour. There’s very little copper conversation because we have big stills with broad shoulders and necks, and sloping lyne arms,” Borthwick explains. “We get a breadth of flavour profile; a bit of everything, you might say. It’s a gentle spirit with no big spikes of flavour. Glenkinchie single malt is a reflection of its environment – a gentle, floral, green whisky that doesn’t challenge the drinker.”
From the stillhouse, visitors are led to a newly created maturation area where they may nose directly from a range of casks, including American oak ex bourbon, European oak, rejuvenated oak, a Caol Ila cask – to give a sense of peat – and finally a Cameronridge cask – to showcase the grain whisky element of Johnnie Walker Gold Label Reserve.
Gold Label, along with two single malt expressions from Glenkinchie, forms the basis of the sampling session that takes place in the well-appointed tasting room, where a whisky cocktail is also offered. Visitors may then spend time in the adjacent bar and lounge area, which overlooks the garden at the front of the distillery. There, whisky, cocktails, coffee, snacks, and tasty locally sourced food platters can be purchased and enjoyed.
Downstairs, the retail space showcases a wide range of branded clothes and gift items, plus a tempting range of Glenkinchie single malts and Johnnie Walker expressions. The principal Glenkinchie bottlings on regular sale are the 12 Years Old, launched in 2007, and a Distillers Edition finished in amontillado sherry casks, but the distillery also stocks a number of expressions either with very limited availability or complete exclusivity to the distillery.
These include Glenkinchie Tattoo, released in 2019 and only on sale at the distillery and The Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo shop in Edinburgh; a distillery-exclusive 16 Years Old; a 24-year-old expression, released in 2016 as part of Diageo’s Special Releases; and the option to fill your own bottle of distillery-exclusive spirit.
The Glenkinchie still room, with the huge wash still in the foreground
As well as the Flavour Journey Tour, a dedicated Behind the Scenes Tour and tasting option aimed at the ‘true whisky aficionado’ is being rolled out, along with a Warehouse and Cask Tour, which includes sampling four drams straight from the cask, and a Flowers and Cocktails Class.
Infamously, Glenkinchie is situated well off public transport routes, but the introduction of a shuttle bus which runs between Edinburgh city centre and the distillery may be booked online at the same time as a tour.
Given that the standard Flavour Journey Tour lasts for one and a half hours and costs £13 per adult, it may be questionable as to whether this is ideally pitched at the more ‘casual’ and less committed visitors Diageo clearly wishes to attract. Nonetheless, the work done by BRC Imaginative Arts has been truly transformational and makes for a fascinating addition to the ever-growing range of whisky visitor experiences.