As I rounded the head of Loch Fyne there were marquees set up next to the oyster bar - a food fair in full swing, featuring not just the best of Argyll but producers from the rest of Scotland: whisky-soaked cheese, venison, artisan chocolate, cold pressed rape-seed oil and an ocean’s worth of seafood. There were gallons of prawns being necked, native oysters being swallowed by the score, thirsts being quenched with tangy local ales.
Scotland, I enthused, is learning how to celebrate its produce. What these stallholders were all saying was ‘this land is alive; these are our colours, our flavours and aromas; this splash of brine, this fleshy mound of pink flesh, the deep gameiness, all of this is us.’
Why then was this enthusiasm so lacking when I went from pub to pub, restaurant to restaurant during the next three weeks?
Don’t get me wrong. There are some magnificent restaurants in Scotland, some superb whisky pubs and bars. They know who they are. The fact is that they remain the exception, not the rule.
It’s less the menus, though after three weeks on the road you wonder just how much more haddock or steak pie you can eat, it’s the service. For example, a group of us had dinner in a Speyside hotel which had just received its fourth AA star. The food was either burnt or undercooked and in one case both, which does show a certain amount of creativity from the chef. The waiter only recommended the dishes which carried a supplement and talked down the others, he poured a bottle of wine into four glasses (leaving three empty) and said, mock apologetically: “I suppose you’ll be wanting another bottle.”
The shelves of the bar were laden with single malts but no-one behind the stick had a clue what they tasted like.
The next night we went to a tiny neighbouring hotel/local pub and had completely the opposite experience. The whiskies were pretty much the same, but the overall experience was superb, why? Because of the quality of service.
This was by no means a solitary bad experience. Guests across Scotland are paying high prices for a view (and tiny cushions on the bed) and menus which tick the right boxes to suit the overall concept of the hotel.
They sit cradling tiny, overpriced smears of whisky in the bottom of tumblers having taken a punt on what dram to choose because they didn’t receive any guidance.
Well, I’ve reached the same point as Peter Finch in Network when he starts encouraging people to join him and yell: “I’m as mad as hell and I ain’t gonna take it any more!”
What has this to do with whisky? It has everything to do with whisky.
Tourism attracts 16 million people to Scotland every year, generating £4 billion to the Scottish economy [figures from Visit Scotland]. That’s big money.
Many of those 16 million are whisky tourists, others will pop into a distillery, the vast majority, I’d hazard a guess, will want to try a whisky at some stage because it’s the thing to do. Yet what happens? They fall into the gulf which clearly exists between producers (be they farmers, fisherman, cheesemakers or distillers) and a hospitality industry which has forgotten that hospitality starts with service.
It’s not the fault of the kids behind the bars or waiting the tables, the blame lies with management, in the hotel and bar chains and their apparent indifference to training.
It affects whisky. Every bartender or waiter who says “I don’t know what it tastes like” or “I don’t like whisky” is doing potentially irreparable damage to two of Scotland’s most important industries.
It is a message which says we’re not proud of what we make after all.
Scotland appears to have rebooted itself politically. It needs to reboot itself in terms of service as well or we all lose out.