By Christopher Coates

Opinion: Whisky travel is changing

Distillers are bolstering brand homes’ luxury credentials
Back in late 2019, regular contributors to this title were asked to gaze into their crystal balls and predict what was around the corner (Whisky Magazine #164, ‘2020 Visions’). I certainly wouldn’t have predicted that Scotland would soon be home to the world’s first distillery with a restaurant holding a Michelin star, as is now the case at The Glenturret Lalique Restaurant in Crieff. Having been lucky enough to dine there, I can say that the team has really raised the bar regarding what one can expect from a ‘luxury’ whisky experience. Perhaps, in the future, one will be able to take a gastronomic tour of Scotland made up entirely of distillery restaurants. Who knows?

One thing I wrote of that did come to pass was a continued ‘boutique-ification’ of whisky retail and visitor experiences, which we’d already seen the beginnings of in dedicated travel-retail outlets, like the high-end store opened by The Macallan in Dubai, and also the Johnnie Walker store in Madrid. At that time, we knew that something called Johnnie Walker Princes Street (JWPS) was coming to Edinburgh, but nobody could guess exactly what that might look like.

I think it’s fair to say that even some of the greatest sceptics have been won over by the reality of what’s been achieved at JWPS. The site’s multimedia and multi-sensory experience, and its novel approach to whisky education, has been met with loud approval in most quarters. Even dyed-in-the-wool whisky traditionalists I’ve spoken to acknowledge that they can see the attraction for people new to whisky, though this admission is usually followed by something along the lines of: ‘But I’d still prefer a tour given by the manager, after knocking on their office door, and a quiet dram sat in a spare seat in the offices afterwards.’

I can appreciate the nostalgia. After all, just as many of us pine for the whisky styles of days gone by, I can understand why memories of tours from before the days of visitor centres or ‘brand home experiences’ would be a little rose-tinted. In the same vein, though, we must accept that the world has changed, whisky’s popularity has grown and it wouldn’t be fair to expect members of distillery production teams to essentially have two jobs. This was perhaps manageable back in the 1970s, when it was just one “strange man out there wanting to know if he could look around the distillery”, as the former Jura Distillery manager Willie Cochrane described such impromptu visits to me, back in issue #145.

Today, whisky tourism is big business. Most distillers have acknowledged that having fewer visitors, who receive a more personal experience and, in turn, spend more money per head, is overall a ‘better’ model for both the bottom line and the overall mission of whisky evangelism.

This stands in stark contrast to the ‘get as many people through the door as possible’ approach of decades past. The days of £5 tours with five drams included, ‘coach tours welcome’ signs, large groups, and a bit of shortbread at the end are pretty much done. I’ve heard a couple of industry people say that some brands are adopting a policy that no tour should cost less than a full bottle of entry-level product, which I suppose means anywhere between £18 and £55, depending on the brand.

Overall, I’m in favour of the increase in standards, but I have one worry lurking in the back of my mind. It was the £5 (or free) tickets of old that allowed me my very first distillery tour, aged about seven years old. I know my parents wouldn’t have paid for the whole family to visit that day in the mid-90s if it’d cost more. “Ah, but distilleries aren’t family attractions,” I hear you say. Aren’t they? Isn’t learning about history, farming, culture, communities, aroma, flavour and science just as valid a pastime as a visit to the local museum? I think it is. I often wonder if I’d have made the same decisions that led me to a career in whisky if I hadn’t had those happy memories of gazing up at the stills that day.

Whisky travel is changing and it’s mostly for the better. I just hope that, as the prices rise in line with the experiences on offer, the whisky writers, distillers, ambassadors or fans of the future aren’t being priced out, and therefore missing out, on what could’ve been an opportunity to make a life-changing memory.