The distillery tour had progressed very smoothly. Our group had watched the video, studied the information panels and listened intently to our charming guide.“Now,” she said, “are there any questions?”
“Yes,” came the answer from an innocuous looking little man. “When do they put the grapes in?” Distillery visitor centres are pretty sophisticated operations. Millions of pounds are spent on ensuring we get a very clear message. It’s only water, malt, yeast and some barrels – and the best designers in the world are hired to tell whisky’s story. Our ancestors used to distil their own in the glens. How difficult can it be to understand?But despite all the investment in product education some people clearly aren’t getting the message – or they are getting a very strange message all of their own out there on Planet Weird. So what else do the friendly folk on the front line of whisky tourism have to put up with? You’ll be amazed. Take this from Glenmorangie, for example.At the end of a detailed and full 45 minute tour, one guide was surprised to receive the question from an American lady: “So where is the whisky actually made?” And that seems quite normal compared to a recent visitor to Tain who participated in the full tour while wearing a mask from the teen horror movie Scream. Every time the guide looked towards him he would pump the blood down his face, much to the surprise of the other visitors. But it’s not just Glenmorangie that gets the oddballs. Over at Dewar’s World of Whisky, manager Jane Grimley has met her share of eccentrics. She has entertained an Italian gentleman dressed in a full length woman’s kilt, tartan shawl and a tam-o-shanter, draped round his shoulders, and been entertained by a 90 year old Texan in a white suit (which he made himself) and a hat at least three feet wide who drawled his way round the distillery tour.How do they keep a straight face?But Jane’s all time favourite is the man with the glass eye. As she tells it: “Two rugby types, who fancied their chances with all the girls and swaggered from arrival at reception to the end of the distillery tour, turned up at the desk with their purchases. One of them handed over his cash, then took out his glass eye, polished it and put it by the till with a ‘can you keep an eye on that then, darling?’ Expecting me to pass out with shock, I looked him straight in the remaining eye, and put the glass one in his carrier bag with the bottle and a huge, welcoming smile.” Meanwhile on Islay, at Glenmorangie’s sister Ardbeg, they entertain all sorts. In particular, they remember a sweet little old lady. She seemed attentive, apparently enjoyed her tour very much and at the end of it thanked the guide profusely.She then went to the tasting table and asked for a large brandy. The cheek of it. Everyone knows you only get a single measure. And there have been some incredible questions.In the malt store, for example: “So... how long does the malt sit here? Is it 10 or 12 years?” And: “So... how old is your 10 year old?” I admired the guide at that moment. While I was sniggering, not so quietly, she answered quite calmly and moved us on to our free dram. Germans are keen visitors. Dennis Hendry at Aberlour recalls taking a group round the distillery.They have a very nice VIP tour that ends with a tutored tasting of five different Aberlours and new made spirit. Just the thing, in fact, for the enthusiast. It allows you to explore the subtle variations of age and wood and discuss this with other keen students of malt. It promotes discernment, careful drinking and really shows off the range and refinement that great single malt can aspire to. Not if you mix the whole lot together, though. That’s what happened to Dennis.He accompanied an earnest group of German hikers on the tour, but they didn’t want to drink the whisky because they had a long trek ahead of them.One of the group asked if they could take the whisky with them, to which he assented.The lady in question then smartly tipped out her flask of hot tea and proceeded to mix all the samples together, including the new spirit, thus creating an interesting new expression of Aberlour. Perhaps she’d been reading those Scotch Whisky Association guidelines on blended malts. At Glen Grant Jennifer Robertson of Chivas remembers a guide being asked why the stills were not made of wood.The visitor seemed unfazed when it was pointed out that a lovely blaze would have resulted, especially in the days when the stills were direct fired.Some visitors seem to be getting a bit carried away with their tasting notes. My favourite is the description of... actually, it’s a bit unfair to mention the whisky. After all, would you want your lovingly prepared dram likened to a penguin in a velvet wetsuit?But it’s not all one way traffic. Faced with this nonsense, the guides – who do a sterling job under trying circumstances – sometimes have blonde moments all of their own.What do you think the Swedish visitor to Ardbeg made of it when asked by his host where he hailed from?“Gothenburg,” he replied.Without missing a beat our hero said: “Wow, that’s where Batman lives.” I think I’m ready for that brandy.