During my latest Scottish distillery visit, I was once again reminded that there is still a very long way to go before visitors can get the most out of their distillery tours. Some distilleries get it and provide a wonderful experience while others, unfortunately don’t.
I’m not going into some name-dropping, public shaming tirade here (and anyway, if you follow The Whisky Lady on social media, you’ll probably figure out which distillery made me write this) that’s really not the point of this story. It’s actually more of a hopeful plea to distilleries to take even the most basic-tour visitor experiences more seriously.
187 Years of History Condensed into 35 Seconds
So yes, I visited this world-famous distillery, owned by a huge spirits group, taking the most basic tour they were running at the speed of light every 15 minutes. What struck me first was the lack of history shared on the tour. Often, when visiting a young, startup distillery (which may rely heavily on tourism revenue I hear you say…) they put so much effort into going back in time and even sometimes finding some slightly far-fetched historical facts to link their very recent distillery to, you’d think an “Established 1830” distillery would have A LOT to say when it comes to their own history. Well you would probably be as disappointed as I was when this tour guide spent a whopping 35 seconds discussing 187 years of history.
And what I just said about the history part also applied to craft, territory and other important topics that would deserve more than a one-minute wham-bam explanation. I’ve already visited many distilleries over the years and my passion for whisky isn’t going to be in jeopardy because of one disappointing tour guide but what about the newbies? Maybe it was their first time discovering a distillery or a whisky and they were there curious and ready to soak up the knowledge.
As we toured, I listened to the tour guide responding to some very basic questions like, “What makes this whisky smokier than that one?” and responding with, “Hmm, not sure (now leave me alone.) Or agreeing with a question from a visitor with, “Yeah, you’re so right (don’t bother me and let me finish my speech)” when a Londoner interrupted the stock explanations to state to the world that, “Single Malts were better than blends, oh, and, only Scotch.” Are we still seriously there? I mean, not blaming this guy for having this opinion, but don’t you think as a guide, who’s supposed to know his whisky inside and out, that he would stand up to this question and actually seize the opportunity to educate a group of visitors? Oh heck no, instead, it was more like, “Tick/tock, the clock is running, you should have taken the £90, 1.5 hour tour if you wanted a bespoke experience.”
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A Missed Opportunity to Create a Lifelong Fan
I just think this is a pity at a time when a brands educational efforts are more important than ever. I think this is a pity for one of the most visited distilleries in Scotland. I think this is a pity for us whisky lovers, who could be missing the opportunity to welcome many new and excited members into our whisky community.
If you know me, you know my passion for whisky tourism, especially Scotch tourism. I dedicated my whole master’s degree research during my university years to help answer this very question: How can Scotch whisky distilleries improve the visitor experience?
Figures of tourists visiting Scotch distilleries have been on the rise for a few years now hitting record-breaking numbers, so let’s capitalize on these visitors and turn them into fellow whisky heads.
For distilleries, there’s one simple question you should be asking yourself: at the end of the day, are those tourists likely to grow an interest for whisky? If the answer is closer to IDK or “who cares”, then you should probably rethink your tourism strategy or create one if you don’t already have one.
5 Things to Help the Distillery Tour Experience
So as I promised, this article won’t simply be about telling you about a bad tour experience, I’m also going to share some quick thoughts for those distilleries that would like to enhance their visitor experience.
Storytelling is Key
I think I’ve said that a billion times in all my stories but what makes whisky an exciting and magic drink to me, apart from the product itself, is all the aspects behind it: the history, the people, the craftsmanship, the legends, the anecdotes, the territory. So yes, explaining the production process is more than important (and the basis of a distillery tour) but liven up your tour with some spot-on anecdotes and an emphasis on those other aspects is a million times more enjoyable than simply talking science and temperatures and cuts.
Fun is More Than Welcome
You’d think I shouldn’t need to say that but yes, sometimes; a lighter tone is much appreciated, especially when discussing a drink of enjoyment…. Come on its just whisky after all!
Hire the Right Candidates
Recruiting someone with a real passion, should be mandatory (and we all know there’s a bunch of them waiting in line!) How can you transmit a passion if you don’t like the product yourself? I do realize that’s a pretty basic observation but again, we are talking whisky here, see No. 2 above.
Look into Sensorial Experiences
I mean, more than simply passing around this piece of peat or a bowl of malted barley, neither of which smell like anything anymore. Don’t get me wrong, getting to touch, smell and taste the raw materials is essential, but we can do much more than that. The Scotch Whisky Experience & The Speyside Cooperage (with its smellovision technology) are doing well in this field. I get that you may not want your distillery to become some sort of whisky Disneyland, but find a suitable balance or the right experience that would make your distillery stand out from the crowd. Oh and don’t find a great idea and then only offer it on the expensive tour, no, that’s not what we’re talking about here.
Interact with Visitors
Please, enough of those “I know the pitch by heart and I’m not going to change a single word” speeches given by dehumanized robots. What makes a visit thrilling is the interaction with other visitors and the guide; questions shouted at random, laughter and well-informed sincere answers. A bit of personality in a tour will make a much-needed difference.
I reckon these tips could feel a bit patronizing, who am I to tell you that anyway? Just another annoying story teller who’s visited a gazillion distilleries and now starts to get bored very easily.
Yes, I believe Whisky Tourism can be better, smarter, stronger. Now get out there and tell a story, your story with heart and passion, talk with your visitors and most of all, have fun, we are talking whisky after all!