The red carpet treatment

Whisky tourism continues apace and discerning enthusiasts continue to demand something specialfrom their visit. Dominic Roskrow reports
By Dominic Roskrow
It was clear that the mixed group of German and Australians were a cut or two above your average foreign tourist when we reached the part of the tour when we could taste the wash.The Australians concluded that the sour distiller’s beer was quite palatable and would grow on you after a while. The Germans weren’t so sure, concluding it was ‘flabby’.Me? I just thought what an interesting insight in to the two respective cultures we were witnessing. But for a few moments a heated debate – I recoil at the word ‘argument’ – ensued across the cultures as to whether Belgian lambic beer was better or worse than the un-sterilised Scottish wash.This, then, is the state of the ‘VIP’ or advanced tour in 2007. This particular episode took place at Aberlour, but could have taken place at any number of other distilleries as the enthusiast seeks out greater and more challenging whisky experiences.On Aberlour’s tour, which also included what can only be described as an earnest but commendable rant against the term ‘blended malt whisky’ by the guide, they let you continue your debate in the cosy bar area at the end of the tour, where time doesn’t seem to be an obstacle.And they also let you purchase your own bottle of Aberlour from either a classic sherry cask or a less obvious bourbon one, and to write your own label. Most of our group took up the option.Such tours, believes Jim Long of Aberlour’s owner Chivas Brothers, are very much the way forward.“There is no doubt that whisky distilleries are attracting more and more interest,” he says. “But at the same time there are some people, many from Northern Europe, who have done the standard tour and are seeking something a bit special. They’re prepared to pay a bit more to have a special experience.” There’s nothing new in much of this, of course. Bladnoch has offered whisky school sessions lasting over a long weekend for some time now, Jim McEwan’s week long course at Bruichladdich is a runaway success. But even at a more base level distilleries are opening their hearts up.Benromach is Speyside’s smallest working distillery and has a warm, homely feel to it.Its size means that the standard tour is pleasant but straightforward. And yet even here owner Gordon & MacPhail has risen to the challenge presented by the visitor wanting a special experience.Advanced tastings are offered and there is a chance not just to fill your own bottle from the cask, but to take the whisky’s original gravity reading, work out the alcoholic strength (ABV) personalise the label, and record the results in a book.Over a period of time the gradually declining strength of the maturing cask can be monitored. It’s an easy addition to make to a tour, but an effective one.“There is no doubt that there has been a bigger number of people interested in a complete experience,” says the company’s marketing controller Ian Chapman. “It’s good that there is level of interest and where possible we are happy to show people what we do.This level of interest can only be good for the industry.” One distillery that has taken the VIP tour to its logical extreme is Glengoyne.It’s a small distillery a few miles north of Glasgow, but it has maximised every spare room to provide a range of visiting experiences which moves from a standard tour priced £4.50 through special tastings, cask tastings and up to a £100 special tour that includes masterclasses, special tastings, the chance to try two grain whiskies and to take part in a blending class resulting in a unique blended whisky to take away.“Offering such a choice has proved immensely popular,” said a spokesman for the distillery. “But while there is a trend to meeting the wants and needs of the connoisseur it’s important to remember too that there are many also coming for the first time and we shouldn’t lose sight of that.” Such tours put the whisky business in a unique position.After all, how many bread factories do you know that are happy to let you taste their latest recipes?Or car designers let you sit in their centres and learn how their fuel-injected engine systems have been developed?Undoubtedly such tours will continue to evolve in the future. In the meantime, though – distillery wash or lambic beer?You decide.