When you love whisky, it’s not enough to just sit back and drink it. Oh no, when you really fall in love with a dram there is a need to go out and immerse yourself in it, nay make the pilgrimage to see where it is made, to feel the rugged terrain around the distillery and to free your mind in the peaceful serenity of the surrounding area.
"People visit distilleries for many different reasons, often when they don’t even drink whisky (yet!). Regardless of guest’s motivation, a distillery experience should make it easy for everyone to learn about whisky and find their own way to drink it. Hopefully without realising that they are ‘learning’. It should have something for everyone, be unpretentious and fun," said Jonathan Wilson, brand home visitor operations manager, Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery.
In short, the liquid in your glass and the bottle it was previously contained within are just two parts of a much bigger ‘Total Whisky Experience’ for you to enjoy, which is probably why whisky experiences are becoming so popular.
“I think the key word is experience. Distilleries are able to engage all the visitor’s senses – who doesn’t love the amazing smells and sounds around a distillery and the opportunity to taste some of the great drams our industry has to offer. You can’t do that at home on your mobile device! Distilleries are great places to make an emotional connection with a brand. Whether it’s a sophisticated multi-media projection or a stillman showing visitors around. Each brand can tell its own story in its own way and leave visitors feeling they have created new memories about that whisky by the time they leave. Hopefully, they will tell the whisky’s story in their own way to their friends and family," says Karen Stewart, director of marketing Wemyss Malts, Darnley's Gin and Kingsbarns Distillery.
With Scotch’s rise in popularity over recent years, a lot of distilleries have chosen to take advantage of the opportunity and open visitor centres, in fact the Scotch Whisky Association, the SWA, reports that more than half of Scotland’s 123 Scotch whisky distilleries now welcome members of the public. The same SWA data shows that 1.9 million people visited distilleries in 2017, up from 1.6 million in 2016, and up 45 per cent since 2010.
It has almost become commonplace for any new distilleries to automatically open visitor centres when they start operating as a way to fill in the gap before their first whisky drops.
In Ireland, the Teeling Distillery was essentially built around an immersive visitor experience attraction to make the tours and production work seamlessly together.
But it’s about more than just the money, although the average spend per head when visiting a distillery is £32 – which by my calculations make a total visitor spend of around £60,800,000 – whisky distillers and blenders are genuinely passionate about what they do, and to be able to share that with those who drink this fine product is a rare treat that not every producer gets, can you imagine the same demand for tours of Gillette razor research & development labs or skincare production facilities? Both are created by people at some stage in their production, who will have passion for creating the best product they can and helping people with their cosmetic goals, but I bet they don’t get to share that passion outside the lab’s walls.
Wilson adds, "I’m most proud of the personal connections that our guides make with guests. We don’t ‘over script’ the experience so that each person their own voice and can tailor each tour to the group in front of them. Our museum is pretty unique in the industry. I’m very proud that our visitors immerse themselves in our very special story as well as the cold hard production processes seen at other distilleries."
Creating a whisky experience draws people in; from those who’ve loved the brand for decades, to those who are just discovering it. The more people can learn about your brand, and touch the tools used to create it the more likely they are to return to it, to feel some connection with it. The best way to achieve that is to bring them in and show them everything you can about your brand, and the best whisky experiences do exactly that.
Next time you’re in an Apple Store notice how the laptop screens are all set to 80 degrees and how you are asked every few minutes if you need help or just want to chill out and enjoy time with the machines. Neither of these ‘retail touchpoints’ are an accident, they are the work of retail strategists who put together a philosophy and a belief that if consumers are ‘forced’ to touch the laptops in order to open them to the optimum viewing angle, they would immediately feel the quality of the design, the materials and start to form that deep emotional connection you form with a brand and a product you love and use every single day.
Karen Stewart explains the Kingsbarns experience as having, “something for everyone whether it’s Scottish history, a beautifully shot film, the story of our restoration and access to our first cask stored inside the architectural centre piece, our doocot (dovecot). Knowledge of whisky aromas can be tested in our cow horn “aromatron” which is housed inside the old barn. Visitors can see the whole distillation process in one room – from our malt mill, mashtun, washbacks, stills and cask storage. It makes it very easy to understand the process when everything is under one roof.”
Now think about that great distillery visit and tour you had all too long ago. May be it was Laphroaig, or Aberfeldy, or Ardbeg, or Glengoyne or somewhere more recluse like Fettercairn.
The great ones invite people through the doors and offer the chance to get to know the brand a bit better. The promise of a free dram at the end is also a great crowd pleaser.
The best distillery experiences I have spent time on go above and beyond the standard process tour and tasting format, they create a connection.
One such experience was the full day Water to Whisky Experience at Laphroaig described as including 'a distillery tour, picnic lunch, a visit to the Laphroaig water source and peat banks'. You get to 'taste from a selection of three casks, before using a valinch to fill a 250ml bottle of your favourite to take home'.
Another was a trip I took to Aberfeldy a couple of years ago. The distillery is one of the best designed visitor experiences in Scotland in my opinion, lots of thought has gone in to bring to life not only the Aberfeldy brand, but this is the Dewar’s brand home too so juggling the stories of both a single malt and a blended Scotch whisky brands is not easy, but works very well, especially the hidden bottle your own experience in one of the warehouses.
Great experiences invite sharing, and that in turn brings more people in, which can only be good for the Scotch whisky industry.