Travel

Happy hunting grounds - Mystery Visitor goes to Speyside

Shrouded in an enigmatic air, Whisky Magazine's undercover visitor centre guru checks out four of Speyside's finest
I need more,” cried Whisky Magazine’s Editor. Apparently, such is the clamour for the Mystery Visitor’s words of wisdom that the column has been promoted from the listings page to an occasional feature of its own. Well, to celebrate, it seemed only logical to go right to the heartland – to Speyside itself, where distilleries lie like autumn leaves, and see what this happy hunting ground has to offer the visitor.Right away, The Macallan beckoned. This mighty malt has built a new £500,000 visitor centre, so a pilgrimage was organised. And organisation is essential – you are asked to book in advance for tours and, without a reservation, there’s a good chance you’ll be turned away. The centre is already exceeding expectations and will no doubt be very busy over the summer months.However, I have to say I was disappointed – in fact, such is the power of The Macallan’s reputation that I was sure I’d got it wrong and I returned a few weeks later, only to be similarly let down. The whole effect, given The Macallan’s near-legendary status, is anticlimactic. But let’s begin at the beginning, where the arrival is full of promise – Golden Promise barley in fact, fields of which surround you as you drive up to the Visitor Centre, demonstrating The Macallan’s undoubted commitment to this premium variety.The brochure promises ‘the very latest in interactive technology’. This is a curious claim for a video player and basic touch-screen installation. Equally, ‘visitor centre’ seems a trifle grandiose for a shop with film show and some cases (albeit, attractive ones) with a collection of staggeringly valuable Macallan vintages. However, the whole room is beautifully finished in hand-crafted oak and a welcoming dram is pressed into your hand as you arrive, so we’ll ignore the proprietor’s excitable marketing hyperbole.The video itself is a ponderous experience. It appears to have been cut from a haphazard collection of footage, relying heavily on tourist board images of Spain, and is narrated in stentorian tones by an amateur Orson Welles impressionist on an off-day. In part, it’s undeniably beautiful, but let down by the grainy screen quality, the use of directional speakers onto hard, sound-reflective surfaces (leading to sound spillage throughout the centre) and the curiously disconnected and somnolent tone of the whole production. Anyway, on with the tour. You are accompanied around the distillery, or parts of it anyway, in groups of 10 and a friendly guide explains the process. Wear comfortable shoes is my top tip. The tour is a lengthy one and there’s nowhere to sit! There are no presentation aids and so everything relies on your guide’s personality and style. Older visitors will find the exhaustive delivery quite, well, exhausting, so perhaps the management could find a few benches in next year’s budget and support the narrative with some visual aids. The very latest interactive technology is probably excessive – words and pictures would suffice.Back in the shop (sorry, visitor centre) the guide gets you to check your wallet. I won’t give the game away, but a handy tip is to take a wide selection of different Scottish banknotes – if only to snap up the millennium Macallan at £2,000 a bottle, or take the individual tutored tasting at £15 a head. If you like The Macallan, you’ll obviously want to take this tour, but don’t build your hopes up: The Macallan Experience is pleasant enough, but hardly an industry leader. This really should be a shrine to malt whisky, a place for devotees to savour, learn and enjoy the secrets of one of the pioneers of malt – instead, for me, it fell curiously flat.Nowhere is far from anywhere in Speyside, so we went just over the hill from The Macallan to Cardhu. This UDV-owned distillery is one which didn’t make it into their Classic Malts selection. Instead, the majority of production is reserved for inclusion in the Johnnie Walker range of blends and the bulk of Cardhu Single Malt is destined for the Spanish market.There is a small reception area, with shop featuring Johnnie Walker blends and the Flora & Fauna and Rare Malts ranges (though, curiously, no Classic Malts offerings), where you sign on for the tour. By contrast with its eminent neighbour this is admirably concise and clear; well illustrated with an attractive model malting and good illustrations of the distilling process throughout the route. The tour culminates in a traditional warehouse and returns to the shop for a dram.The distillery itself is spruce, neat and clean with a welcoming feel and friendly staff – an ideal and approachable
introduction to malt whisky, in fact.For a complete contrast of style, the Glen Grant Distillery and Garden at Rothes is highly recommended. The distillery itself dates from 1840 and was one of the first licensed plants in the Highlands. And plants are one of its many attractions, in the woodland garden behind the distillery originally laid out in 1886. Though it may appear natural, the landscape is in fact artfully contrived and represents a fine example of a late Victorian woodland garden, which has recently been restored. Be sure to allow extra time to stroll here if you plan to visit Glen Grant.The distillery itself has a schizophrenic approach to the visitor – on the one hand there is a tour through a recreation of Major Grant’s study, full of kitsch Victoriana combined with a pleasant if lightweight video and on the other, a strikingly modern brand presentation and pleasant shop. This will be of particular interest to Italian visitors, where Glen Grant has long enjoyed an enviable and enthusiastic following.Glen Grant has, of course, recently changed hands and is now owned by the French Pernod-Ricard group. Their first visible management decision has been to repaint the still-house floor a particularly fetching shade of their corporate green. Our guide couldn’t explain how this would improve the whisky but no doubt staff harmony will ensue and productivity soar from this enlightened ‘green’ approach; a sort of Gallic feng shui, no doubt.Finally, we stopped at Glenfarclas. This relatively unsung distillery will feature shortly in a Whisky Magazine Distillery Focus so comments are necessarily truncated, but it must win a prize for the most elegant visitor centre.The main reception area is entirely clad in beautiful wood panelling reclaimed in the 1970s from the SS Empress Australia, who had gone to the breaker’s yard some time before. The naval connection continues with World War II memorabilia donated by a former Chairman and there is a display of old stills, both legal and illicit, to give a palpable sense of history. Would that all distilleries took so conscientious and imaginative an approach to recycling!Our tour guide was the affable Bob Morrison. With more than 30 years in the industry and experience of some nine
distilleries, he’s a fund of stories, industry lore and firm opinions. More than this, he’s a great ambassador for his company and for the traditional ways.The folks at Glenfarclas remain resolutely independent. They also happen to be pioneers in the visitor centre business, being one of the first to open their distillery to tours. As a result, the Glenfarclas experience is polished without ever being slick and you come away from it with a keen sense of the value of the family approach in an industry increasingly dominated by global giants.So that completes the first extended Mystery Visit. The Visitor will return to Speyside at a future date, but other regions will not be spared. Centre Managers, you have been warned!