By Bethany Whymark

Opinion: Why the appreciation of whisky should involve all our senses

Those responsible for sharing the stories, flavours and experience of whisky with the public are tapping into its multisensory potential
I don’t recall the first time I heard the word “experiential”, but can imagine that my reaction probably involved an eye-roll and a scoff. In the world of business journalism, you become accustomed – desensitised, even – to marketers’ linguistic attempts to make things sound more exciting than they are; “experiential” just felt like the latest buzzword in a long line of buzzwords designed to provoke a (likely unjustified) level of enthusiasm.

But then the world went through a period where experiencing things – in the flesh, at least – was discouraged, if not prohibited. Coming out the other side of this unprecedented (another great buzzword for you) situation, the word “experiential” started not to seem so hollow. It signified a long-denied pleasure: the ability to connect and explore, to embrace the tactile and the sensory. The pendulum of consumer preference was swinging in favour of experiences over material goods before the pandemic, and one can see this swing continuing with renewed gusto in its wake.

The fact that whisky comes in a bottle places a degree of separation (albeit a necessary one) between us and the liquid. Locking it in inert, seemingly impenetrable glass detracts from its fundamentally sensory nature: it is created through a process of smell, sight, touch and taste, and is designed to be enjoyed in the same multisensory way – we can even appreciate an auditory element to it, if you consider the pleasing pop of a cork or trickle of spirit into a glass.

And that is just the finished product. Distillery experiences worth their salt are now encouraging us to appreciate whisky in its most holistic sense, from the grains (indoor barley field at The Glenlivet, anyone?) to unmatured spirits (such as Port of Leith and Holyrood’s new-make ranges, outlined in the “New Make, New Rules” feature in issue 188).

Leviathan Diageo has thrown down the gauntlet in whisky experience investment. In 2018, the group announced it would be investing £150 million to create the flagship Johnnie Walker Princes Street experience in Edinburgh (named visitor attraction of the year in the 2023 Icons of Whisky Scotland) and to renovate its 12 existing Scotch distillery visitor centres (projects have so far been completed at Talisker, Caol Ila, Glen Ord, Clynelish, Cardhu, and Glenkinchie).

Although it has substantially bigger coffers to draw from than many, Diageo’s statement of intent here was unequivocal: to bring a new glamour, depth, and capacity for personalisation to its visitor experiences.

In 2020, US-based Brown-Forman completed an extensive renovation at The GlenDronach distillery visitor centre, planned alongside a £30 million investment to increase production at the Aberdeenshire site. This came two years after it opened the Old Forester Distilling Co. in Louisville, Kentucky – a US$45 million project to create a new distillery and visitor experience for the bourbon brand on the city’s historic Whiskey Row.

Elsewhere in Bourbon Country, Buffalo Trace embarked on a significant renovation at its visitor centre as part of a US$1.2 billion investment at its Frankfort, Kentucky home. Reopened in July 2020, the new-and-improved centre is around three times the size of the former space. It is a clear vote of confidence from Buffalo Trace in the buoyancy of bourbon tourism (the distillery welcomed almost 295,000 visitors in 2019, up by a third on the previous year).

Distillers that open themselves up to visitors, and enable us to search for common ground between their values and our own, will surely have a head-start in the brand-loyalty stakes. This may seem a strategy more naturally aligned with younger, independent brands as they look to claim their niche, but as the examples above show, size does not have to be a barrier to authentic connection.

In my opinion (and I’m speaking for myself, not this publication), to lose the sensory aspects of a whisky is to decrease the overall pleasure one can glean from it. Whisky can be a kaleidoscopic sensory experience – and the more people there are showing us how to tap into this potential energy, the better.