Imagine, if you will, a postcard with a distillery on it; you have probably imagined beautiful pagoda roofs, maybe the sight of a copper still or two, a lawn with a perfectly manicured garden in front of it and the surrounding area covered in bright green grass, trees and rolling hills.
You have just pictured Strathisla Distillery, which is better known today as the home of Chivas Regal and is without doubt one of the most beautiful distilleries in Scotland.
Before it was Strathisla however, it was Milton Distillery, and it was founded in 1786, making it one of the oldest distilleries in Scotland, with some saying that it is the oldest working distillery in the country.
It was founded by George Taylor and Alexander Milne, but changed hands a number of times over the next few decades. Due to the river beside the distillery being named Strathisla, the whisky produced there had locally been known as Strathisla Distillery for many years, when it was owned by William Longmore, who had bought it from MacDonald Ingram & Co. in 1830.
Unfortunately, the distillery was not to have a happy life in the 1870s when it was almost destroyed by two separate fires, one in 1876 and then an explosion in the malt mill in 1879. But it picked itself up and continued on, and even had its own bottling plant added when it was rebuilt.
Longmore continued to own the distillery until his death in 1880, when it passed to his son-in-law John Geddes-Brown. It was under Geddes-Brown’s steerage that the name of the distillery was changed back to the original of Milton. This may have been a bad move however, as the distillery entered a five decade period of silence shortly after.
During this time the majority of shares in the William Longmore & Co. Company were bought by one Jay Pomeroy. Pomeroy wasn’t the most honest of business men and his dodgy dealings eventually meant the company shut down completely.
This gave what was then Seagram’s the perfect opportunity to swoop in and claim this picturesque distillery for their own, renaming the distillery Strathisla again in 1951. They had previously been in talks with Pomeroy about acquiring the distillery, before his company went bankrupt, but his demands were too high and so they backed out. This time when they went to buy it, It was offered at the reasonable price of £71,000. They snapped it up and became part of Chivas Brothers not long after. It has been the spiritual home of Chivas Regal ever since, with brand tours, and messaging bringing their blending prowess to life.
Fast forward a few years and in 2018 the distillery experience went through a complete overhaul to modernise the way the brand of both Chivas Regal and of Strathisla interact with whisky tourists who travel from far and wide to visit what is undoubtedly one of the few distilleries that all whisky nuts should ensure they visit in their lifetime.
The team at Strathisla have a lot of experience behind them and as well as making your own blend, you can glean a lot of knowledge from your tour guides.
Ewan Hudson, head of brand homes experience for Chivas explained that, “The core objective of the refurbishment was to create an engaging, immersive experience that focused on the art and craft of blending and celebrated Strathisla’s history and heritage as the oldest working distillery in the Highlands. The new blending room brings to life the challenges involved in creating a super-premium blended whisky, in a fun, intimate and interactive way.”
The distillery really does give you a great opportunity to get to know whisky on a basic level, if that’s what you are after, and then to understand exactly what the brand and production nuances have been evolving both past and present. The tours are personable and welcoming and have less of a corporate feel than in bigger distilleries. There are even ’secret’ tasting areas in one of the warehouses for both Royal Salute and Chivas Regal where you get to sample some of their incredibly rare whiskies straight from the cask.
“We listened closely to the feedback from visitors which enabled us to curate and create experiences that placed the visitor at the heart. We were careful to ensure that we had something for everyone; the whisky buff, the whisky collector and the whisky drinker but also the historian, the shopper and those that like a good story and a cocktail," said Hudson.
There is also an incredibly special room that is home to The Blend Experience, where you can learn from the best and create your own blend. For whisky enthusiasts, whisky collectors and those just getting in to whisky, creating your own blend – a process that inherently teaches you about balance and, as the instructors repeat multiple times, how a little bit of smoky whisky goes a long way, is something you rarely get to do, and you even get to take home a 200ml bottle of your creation.
Hudson adds, “Going forward, we will find innovative approaches to communicate our belief that blended is better, in life and in Scotch. Our take-home Chivas Blending Kits have been a hit with visitors and whisky aficionados. We also run The Blend Experience; a series of guided tasting sessions and blending labs hosted at bars around the country where we take the stereotypical, often intimidating nature of Scotch away from the experience and make it accessible.”