Distillery Focus

One for the tourists... (Tullibardine)

Tullibardine is a distillery crossed with a shopping centre. Can it keep whisky fans happy without alienating the general public? Our man had a look
By Mystery Visitor
I had distinctly high hopes of Tullibardine. It’s not every day that you get to see a re-opened distillery and a brand new visitor operation – and one that’s going to be very important at that.I’d better explain. Tullibardine may not be the best known of malts, but the distillery enjoys a fabulous location right on the main A9, around 20 miles below Perth. It’s an easy hour’s drive from Glasgow and less than a decent pitch and putt from the luxurious Gleneagles Hotel and its famous golf course. The Famous Grouse Experience; Dewar’s World of Whisky and Bells Blair Athol just have to be worried, for their coach-borne visitors if nothing else.For Tullibardine will offer a full day out and threatens to be the category killer amongst Perthshire distillery visitor centres. When it’s finished, supposedly by spring 2005, the complete site will have major shopping facilities, several restaurants and the Tullibardine shop, bistro and distillery.Free on-site parking and immediate road access make for an alluring and easy visit. Many tourists will drop in at Tullibardine, take the distillery tour, pick up a bottle of malt, drink a coffee and tick off ‘distillery’ on their ‘to-do’ list. So, if Tullibardine is going to be that important, an ambassador for Scotland, it had better be good.Tullibardine opened in November. But I contained my natural impatience, and decided to let things settle down a little before getting out the red pencil.First impressions are good. It’s clearly signposted (you’d be surprised how many visitor centres want to hide away) and there is excellent parking. The architecture of the main buildings, if not impressive, is considerably better than the collection of big sheds I had feared I would find. And Tullibardine distillery itself, at the rear of the site, is quite delightful.The distillery dates from the late 1940s when it was designed by the renowned William Delmé-Evans (see Whisky Magazine issue 28) on the site of an old brewery. It’s compact, easily understood by even a novice visitor and, generally, in good condition. There are just two pairs of stills and it’s evident that the distillery, though in production, isn’t breaking any records at the moment.The brewery connection is exploited in the Tullibardine logo and ‘1488’ name for the centre: apparently King James IV dropped in then for a few pints. I do struggle with some of the more tenuous connections dreamed up by the heritage marketing gurus. This is a right royal example, but at least they kept Bonnie Prince Charlie out of it.Your guided tour includes all of the distillery, a warehouse and a tutored nosing and tasting of Tullibardine’s standard malt, the 1993 Vintage, presumably the last production before the distillery was mothballed by the previous regime. Our guide, though new to the job, was friendly, competent and enthusiastic.Indeed, all the staff we met seemed anxious to please and the overall impression was welcoming without being obsequious and cloying. There is a large shop and a perfectly pleasant, if cavernous, restaurant where we enjoyed a good value lunch, after the new staff had worked out how to operate the till.But I’m still a little worried. Though Baxters (the food company) have taken a huge retail unit, most of the shops remain unlet. Unless this is sorted out before opening, there will be a curiously abandoned air about much of the site.Tullibardine is at least as much about shopping as it is about distilling and the right retail mix is vital to achieving the atmosphere of success that will keep the tills ringing.And I’m somewhat concerned about the distillery operation. ‘Visitor centre’ is putting it a bit strong to describe a shop and restaurant with a rather cursory tour.Whisky enthusiasts will find it all somewhat superficial. After looking hard, the quality of the fit-out is a bit questionable and I suspect that a frugal budget has been stretched just a little too far.But, it’s early days and we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt. The re-opening of any distillery is a welcome development and, if that means tagging on a shopping centre, then it’s not too great a price. After all, even royalty needs an off-licence now and again.Contact
Tullibardine Distillery,
Perthshire PH4 1QG
Tel: +44 (0)1764 682 252