Whisky Roundtable #24

It’s fallen to me to host this month’s Roundtable, the subject being distillery tours. We’re trying out a new format at the moment, the member’s will post their own responses in the comments section below, thereby making it a little easier to interact with individual comments as well as with the whole group.

Here’s the question I’ve posed to the group this month:

What makes for a positive distillery tour experience? How much of a role does the visitor center play in the experience? The access to the facility? The distillery manager or tour guide? 

Having just returned from my first trip to Scotland to visit distilleries…it’s safe to say visiting distilleries is on my mind. I’m guessing we’ve all done a bit of distillery visiting, be it to Scotch behemoths or small American craft distillers, what has made these visits a positive experience for you? 

Have at it, people!

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25 thoughts on “Whisky Roundtable #24

  1. This is a great question Peter and there are many things that come to mind when I think of what makes the distillery and the tour special. Too many things perhaps so, I’ll mention two of them.

    The first thing that comes to mind is a tour of a warehouse. There are few things I love more than walking around with a tour guide and his/her valinch with the hopes that they will pop open that cask of 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, etc… “stuff” and give you that rare taste that you may never experience again.

    The other thing is “pour your own” or “distillery only” bottlings. Nothing makes me cherish the tour after the experience like whisky I poured in the welcome center or that special bottle that you can only get at the distillery.

    Love it!!

    Joshua, Jewmalt

  2. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a handful of distilleries…I’ve not been lucky enough to visit all the distilleries I’d like to visit (so many still rooms and spirit safes, so little time). A recent trip to Scotland provided my first glimpse of big-time Scotch producers whereas my previous experience was limited to smaller scale American craft distillers. I think for any serious whisk(e)y fan, touring a distillery is an experience not to be missed. Diagrams in books or presentations by brand ambassadors in hotel conference rooms only give a general, sometimes nebulous idea of whisk(e)y production. To really get a sense of how the water of life is made, one needs to be on site, seeing the workflow, the size of the tuns, the shape of the stills and the mood of the warehouses. While I’m sure not all tours grant access to every part of a facility, a good tour will clarify and illuminate the process for the visitor, to me that should be a primary goal (along with selling some booze, of course).

    However, a dry, technical lap around some equipment doesn’t do much to romanticize a distillery, or enamor one to a brand, so what really makes a great tour to me is the unique hospitality and history shown to the visitor. Certainly a good guide is helpful, someone with a real connection to the place versus someone just reciting a script. It’s a treat to be able to tour with a distillery manager, their combination of production over-seer and brand ambassador makes them perfect guides to showcase a distillery. Couple that personality with a willingness to show off some unique features (odd still shapes, obsolete but historically interesting aspects like floor maltings, etc.) and you have a tour that really brings to life the history and whole process of whisky-making at that particular distillery.

    After all is said and done, a drop of whisky or two in an engaging, interactive visitor center never hurts either. Having exclusive-to-the-distillery items for sale, especially the opportunity to bottle your own from single cask, gives the visitor something special to take with them. That, coupled with an informative and entertaining tour of the facilities, goes a long way to turning visitors into fans for a long, long time.

    Peter, The Casks

    1. I agree with you, Peter, about the distillery-exclusives. Let’s be honest, getting to a lot of Scotch whisky distilleries isn’t exactly like popping out to the shops: they are journeys that demand prior planning and dedication and I believe distillers should reward tourists for their efforts with something unique and intriguing. It will only make them more commited fans!

      You express the need to ‘be there’ really well, and it cannot be emphasised enough that there are more important pieces of equipment behind whisky than a bottle and a cork.

  3. Hi Peter

    The key word for me here is “experience”. I like to experience the place. I like to experience the atmosphere of the place. I’ve been visiting around 80 distilleries and some of them several times, so I have experienced every kind of tour experience you can imagine, from Fawlty Towers part II and tours that can made grown men cry in happiness. 95% or more I always felt I had a good experience. You do get better tours if you sign up for speciel tours (a lot of distilleries offer those now) or join special events that is usually set up in connection with various festivals.
    The tour guide is essential to the experience, and generally the quality of tour guides are very good. At special events you often have the manager or the likes showing you around, but also various staff can contribute with their lifetime experiences. Stillmen, mashmen, warehousemen, retired senior citizens who has been working in the industry, and the young girl showing you around could be the daughter of a distillery worker/manager and has grown up on a distillery !! A lot of people working in the industry started as tour guides, so usually the guides you get are very passionate about what they are doing. I did experience a few horror tours but they are absolute a minority. My favourite part is when the tour takes you into the warehouse and let you taste some whisky from a cask. This is a lot more fun than being treated to a couple of drams of bottles you allready have or had open replicas at home. The atmosphere in a warehouse is fantastic. The scent of angels shares in the air, the quietness, the dim light, did I mention the scent ? It’s marvellous
    A visitor centre is nice, I like the fact if special products are available to purchase, like bottle-your-own cask strength versions

    Steffen Bräuner, Danish Whisky Blog

  4. Well that’s a very interesting question. I’ve been to a few distilleries in the last year, and recently returned from a trip to Jura. in a nutshell what’s important to me is:

    1.Tour guide – he should be communicative, with a sense of humor and of course very knowledgeable. Pref. the distillery manager or a veteran distiller, since those can tell you very nice stories of the old days, where the drank new make and got a bottle every week as part of their contract 😉 Many distillery managers a re great story tellers and their knowledge is invaluable so it’s just like a golden treasure that waits to be discovered by us whisky anoraks.

    2.Tasting the whisky in several transitions : It’s great to be able to taste the whisky when it’s in the wash backs, and then to taste the new make before tasting the actual liquor. as Josh mentioned, a warehouse tasting is the best, and being able to draw whisky straight from the cask with the valinch, is a whisky lover’s wet dream. This is stuff that makes a tour unforgettable.

    3.Tasting session with “special” edition whiskies. It’s really boring to come to a distillery , do the entire tour, then taste the OB you can buy in every store. Adding some “distillery only” or cask samples, or yet to be released cask strength whisky only people visiting can drink adds to the experience.

    4.Fill your own cask. I love this one, and i know whisky lovers can not refuse such a deal : fill your own bottle, with a single cask noone can buy outside the distillery, sign your own ticket, write in the book, and if you can even cork your whisky with wax, it’s just perfect. those drams are usually very good, and i cherish the bottles i filled, especially when the dist. manger signs them.

    5.Doing some distillery work : rolling a cask, painting the cask with the distillery logo and date, building a cask with the cooper, etc are great options, and I know i love it.

    if 1-5 are there, or most of them, the distillery visit is an event to remember.

    Slainte!

    Gal, Whisky Israel

  5. Every distillery, from the Goliaths to the Davids, has something to offer the visitor. That was my hope when I was in the process of planning the Scotch Odyssey in 2010 and six weeks of cycling as well as forty-two tours confirmed it.

    Many people turned to me and said, ‘but they’re all the same, aren’t they, these distillery tours?’ In practice, this is true. You are unlikely to see vastly different equipment between Glenfiddich and Kilchoman but it is my belief that you have to go to both – to all – to understand just what goes into your favourite whisky. And I don’t just mean malted barley, water and yeast.

    Whisky is a fantastic excuse to explore Scotland, just as exploring Scotland guarantees new encounters with whisky. Learning about one grants new insights into the other. I love approaching the distillery buildings and appreciating how they have fitted and continue to fit into their landscape. Some distilleries have sat in the same place for two centuries and while standing in the car park or amongst the warehouses, it is difficult not to marvel at how a world-beating brand or globally-available dram with modern sensibilities should trace its origins and its soul back to this particular spot in the stirring Scottish countryside.

    Although distilleries do not employ the same numbers of people as they once did, a good guide will be able to strip away the modern-day mechanised efficiency, de riguer for many sites now, to expose the human histories at its very heart. If the distillery location puts a place to a name, the people who still make their living in and around whisky add the faces. Showing that you are interested in these stories will often prompt your guide to tell more and chances are you will discover a connection to the distillery’s past very much close to home.

    On top of everything else, having the chance to associate many more smells, sights, sounds and sensations with your favourite whisky is the greatest positive about visiting a distillery. Even if you happen to be part of a large group, hang back and sniff, listen and look closely at the equipment and processes around you. The next time you pour a dram at home, echoes or suggestions of your hour spent in the maelstrom of whisky creation will jump out and take you back again. For the £5 or so you will fork out for a standard tour, it isn’t very much to unlock the true personalities behind your whisky collection.

    James, Scotch Odyssey

    1. James – this is amazing. Would you be willing to share your itinerary? I’ve always wanted to do the cycle Scotland thing – though time, cost, and general out of shapeness have prevented me. It’s on the bucket list for the next couple of years though (and after my cycle this morning, I think that’s the one i need to work on most 🙂 ). But please share the route and timing – I would love to see it.

      1. I agree with Dan, that must have been a incredible trip, James! As an ex-racer and occasionally touring cyclist, I can think of no better way to travel around Scotland visiting distilleries. Of course, I don’t really mind riding in the rain, so…

      2. @stronglikecask and Peter: I can assure you that it was ‘amazing’ and ‘incredible’. Easily the best thing I have done with my time and money so far.

        I’d urge you to get out there and do it as Peter could not be more right in saying that biking and Scotland were made for each other, and by way of the route, here is the link to my hand-drawn map on the blog: http://scotchodysseyblog.com/the-route/ As far as putting together your own itinerary, it took me about three months of head-scratching, map-checking and serious self-inquiry as to what I could achieve.

        Even then, there were hiccups and not all stages were possible. Taking your time is most important and allowing yourself to go at a comfortable pace whilst still ticking off the distilleries. My advice? Aim for no more than 60 mile days and no more than two tours per day to satisfy your inner cyclist and whisky geek. I covered just under 1,400 miles in 41 days to embrace those 42 tours so not excessive. Some areas were rather frazzling, though!

        I wish you the best.

  6. For me, the three important factors are freedom of movement, history and the interest of the grounds of the distillery. I have been to distilleries where visitors are basically channelled down a glass-enclosed course, with a few poorly thought out exhibits and explanatory diagrams, toward a final tasting. I realise the logistical problems that some distilleries face but that sort of tour seems to just scream at the visitor, at every corner: “We are controlling you.” A skilled guide–and it helps to have someone with some present or past experience of working on the actual whisky making because they tend to be less officious–should be able to keep people interested and out of mischief without needing glass panels to remove people from the sights and smells of real distilling. A good visitor centre will offer two things: decent shopping opportunties and a good museum. Finally, some distilleries, like the Yoichi Distillery in Hokkaido, for instance, are blessed with beautiful grounds in which visitors can move fairly freely. That can take the experience to another level.

    Chris, Nonjatta

  7. What makes for a positive distillery tour experience? A distillery tour that brings the party (makes it fun and informative for whisky novice and geek alike), allows you to do things that you can’t do not at the distillery (drink special brews, taste along the way), and one that also offers an area where you can learn on your own.

    Bringing the party – I know there are lots of rules around providing alcohol to people on a tour, but that doesn’t mean that tours can’t bring the party. First – there should be alcohol (even at the Jack Daniels tour in dry Lynchburg, you’re allowed to smell the new make dripping over the coals). Second, it should be fun – the tour guide should be light hearted and attentive, and KNOW about whisky (great tours I’ve been on where the tour guide has been able to talk about mashbill and production volume while also explaining what “Whiskey” is to others.

    I can do what?! – On a St. George tour, we were able to taste all sorts of wonderful experiments along the way – things that were to be released, were never going to be released, etc. It helps you get a sense of the whiskey’s progression and different experiments that wonderful distillers can create. Access to all aspects of the facility (malting if they have it, cooperage, etc.) really enhances your appreciation and understanding of what goes on.

    On being introverted – Sometimes if you don’t have the first two, the tour can still be salvaged because I’m such a geek. I want to see old pictures, invoices from barley purchases, what the distillery once was, what the distillers and founders did prior, etc. I want a museum of that one distillery where I’m at, but not just a couple of things under glass. This sometimes passes as the visitor center (or others, the bar), but I want the full history, something which I haven’t found yet.

    Dan, Whisky Party

  8. Authenticity! The tour should be of a distillery, in the life of a distillery, with the people who work in the distillery. Not a pretty facade, with a practised tour operator going through the motions. The visitor’s centre doesn’t play apart in it for me – if there is a nice distillery centre, then great, but if not it’s no sweat. Again though, if there is one, it must be authentic and not feel like I’m attending an expensive expo with over-the-tops stands.

    Ideally, it makes a massive difference to have the tour conducted by the master distiller or distillery manager (usually the same person), but I know this is not always feasible. I would like it though that there is still a chance to meet said person, if only for a quick introduction and welcome, before another capable distillery worker takes you on the tour.

    The warehouse is another really important item that I think can make or break a tour. To be able to roam around in a warehouse is one of the most amazing experiences, but many distilleries frown upon this and may let you in, only to restrict you to a small area.

    The more devoted whisky “enthusiasts” (as I consider myself) probably prefer a more intimate and honest tour with less glory and more guts. This may not be required by the general visiting tourist, but its a great opportunity to show them what it’s really about… and convert them!

    Lastly, photos. I want to be allowed to take photos to show my friends and share the experience.

    Marc, Whisky Brother

      1. I’m known to take the occasional photo… but only on a good distillery tour! lol (“Takes one to know one” would have been my other response!) 🙂

  9. I’ve found a lot of distillery tours to be a bit ‘samey’ so I suppose some of the best experiences I’ve had have been down to the guide making a particular distillery unique and setting it apart from others. I really want to get a feel for a while I’m there and the people that are most capable of doing this well are those who have spent many years there and have a plethora of stories and anecdotes to tell to really make the place come alive. There’s nothing quite like wandering around a warehouse with a distillery manager or senior tour guide who can generate an atmosphere of whisky romance by telling tales of bygone eras. The guide, to me, is without doubt the one thing which can make or break a distillery experience. If they draw me in, can answer any questions I may have, and take me round the place being informative and entertaining at the same time then there’s no question I’ll go home with a smile on my face.

    Beyond the guide, I’m also a big fan of tasting the liquid throughout the process, starting with feeling and nosing the barley and grist, sipping wort and new spirit and then the finished product. It does more to explain the roots of a whisky’s aromas and flavours to me than words can, and backed up by an experienced and knowledgeable guide, this adds a different dimension to a distillery experience. Sampling straight from the cask in a warehouse is always a winner with me, as is filling your own cask. Something very special to any whisky enthusiast indeed. Finally, being able to buy a bottle sold only at a distillery is always a great way to finish a tour.

    Tiger, Edinburgh Whisky Blog

    1. I second your thoughts on the quality of guide, Tiger. The best I have encountered (barring distillery managers who obviously have the most intimate knowledge of their plants, and patrol the place with a proprietorial air) either worked in the distillery or had spent many years there, or could convey their passion and interest.

      The distillery worker tells it like it is, and knows the process backwards as well as forwards. Too many distilleries have mechanised elements, but hearing guys talk about adjusting the mill, mashing and fermantation times as well as cut points because of a tricky batch of malt reaffirms how much skill is at the heart of making great whisky, and that distilleries are not just factories but work with raw, natural materials.

      The seasoned tour guide can put themselves across to the new visitor very well and will have many an anecdote concerning tours they have conducted in the past. They can suggest how the tourist engages with the life of whisky-making simply by being there.

      Sometimes your seasonal young ‘un will be impeccable, just brimming over with enthusiasm for having the opportunity to work with a spirit they love. Glengoyne’s tour guides, especially in the summer, as fresh faced but full of enthusiasm.

      Tastes and smells speak louder than words, I agree, and Laphroaig as well as Springbank are quite happy for you to dip your fingers in things and gnaw on bits and pieces. Flavours emerge, evolve and inform throughout the process and it is incredibly beneficial to be allowed access to them.

  10. The things I notice the most about a tour:
    Access – I want to be able to see as much of the process as possible.
    Connection – Nothing gives a stronger connection as being able to touch and hold key components. Let me hold some of the grain, feel the weight of a chunk of peat in my hand as I hold it up to my nose to smell.
    Lighting – I want to be able to see what your showing me, and be able to photograph my interests.
    Engagement – the guide must, must, must be engaging and knowledgeable.
    Visitor Center – must be welcoming, have adequate seating and plentiful gift-shop, otherwise 80% of the connection to that distillery is lost when the person walks out of the door.

  11. Well, I didn’t visit much Distilleries yet. I visited one in the Netherlands (Millstone) and was great fun and clarified the distilling schedules in the books. The explanation was done in a comic way and offcourse we did get a sample just from a cask which was great fun. I think I can’t compare this one with the larger distillers in Scotland. But if I am able to visit Scotland one time in the future I hope they will explain everything in the same fun way (and not repeating a studied story as seen in many musea) and off course are willing to give you a straight from a cask sample. Also a shop with special only at the distillery whisky’s etc. or a nice lunchroom (heard about the Ardbeg one) would be nice and of course a special tour for us enthousiast in smaller groups. I wish I could go to Scotland right away but that isn’t possible at the moment and needs some study for me to (need wheelchair accessability).

  12. I think it really depends on what really interests you about visiting a distillery.  Is it being able to see the equipment up close and personal or being able to see the water source or even some of the historical relics? I have been to some distilleries where i felt like I was being shepherded around like a tourist and looking at everything from the other side of the glass.  Although I did get to see a lot I really can’t say that I necessarily enjoyed myself there.  It was too sterile – staring at a row of stills with some basic information being regurgitated by the tour guide didn’t do much for me.

    Distillery visits that were truly enjoyable for me were ones that we were accompanied by someone that actually works in the distillery as more than a tour guide.  Being able to give their insight on the equipment and how they work with it truly made the visits interesting and enjoyable.  Being able to walk around and check things out at my own pace was also very refreshing. 

    Lastly, I cannot forget to mention the importance of a well stocked tasting room! To be honest I probably spent more time in the tasting rooms than I did on actually touring the distillery…

  13. Great comments. If a person was to visit Scotland for the first time, what would be the top ten distilleries to visit to get the maximum experience of what scotch is really about(history, process, passion etc,). Is there any secrets in being able to getting a good tour guide? Thanks

    1. Hi Randytiger (I’ve never had to write that before),

      If I were to recommend ten distilleries meeting all the criteria you mention, it would have to be:
      Highland Park: highly-trained and knowledgable guides, a stunning location and grain to glass before your eyes.
      Springbank: more informal but this helps to convey their independent ownership. Again, see the malting floors and they do encourage you (or they did with me) to taste wort, wash, low wines etc. as you go. They also do a week-long whisky school, so check that out.
      Glenfiddich: the biggest, but also one of the best. A free tour, and the guides really know their stuff. Also, parts of the distillery built by William Grant himself still stand, and the company is very keen to emphasise their historical ties.
      Aberlour: the Founder’s Tour is simply extraordinary, with opportunities to nose foreshots, middle cut and feints, in addition to a single cask ex-Bourbon and ex-Sherry, paired with chocolate (the modern thing). Faultless personnel, too.
      Laphroaig: so friendly, so beautiful. Your bottle of 10yo or Quarter Cask will truly live after having visited here.

      Those are my top five, but I would also highly recommend Kilchoman, Glen Garioch, Tullibardine, Glengoyne and Auchentoshan (the only consistently triple-distilled Scotch whisky).

      Happy travels.

  14. We toured Scotland last fall and managed to visit 21 distilleries. Of those we toured 4. The difference for us was usually the reception person in the visitor centre. They could vary from completely disinterested and reluctant and stingy with the tastings to absolutely brimming with personality and doing everything possible to make you feel welcome. Our first experience at Lagavulin was quite off putting due to a quite cool reception in the visitor centre. We asked to taste the special bottling they were offering and were given a plastic thimble full. After a couple of days on Islay we returned to Lagavulin and were greeted by the most gracious and helpful young girl we had encountered so far. We were ushered into a lounge and asked which expressions we would like to taste. This time it was in Glencairns and served with a huge smile and lots of friendly chit chat. That simple difference turned a bad experience into a cherished memory.

    Among the very best experiences for us were Glengoyne*, Glenfarclas**, Glenfiddich*, Clynelish*, Glenmorangie** Old Pulteney*, Highland Park** Laphroaig**, Ardbeg*, Bowmore* and Lagavulin**. Talisker so, so. The tour at Highland Park was excellent and only cost five quid each which they deducted from the bottle of 18 yr. old and several miniatures of 30 yr. old that we purchased.

    * these ones were excellent
    **.these ones were outstanding

  15. Thanks for your reply. I live in Louisiana, U. S. and plan on visiting Scotland next summer and your comments will go a long ways in getting the most out of the trip. People like you makes scotch as a hobby(passion) such an enjoyable experience. Thanks again. Randytiger.

  16. This is a personally intriguing question, as I just returned from a trip to Scotland that included several distillery tours. I will say up front that while mutiple tours does provide a lot of repetition, it also allows for a depth of information to develop as each tour will stress a different element in a different way or add an interesting note that perhaps another tour or tour guide will pass over. I also definitely recommend clustering tours on your itinerary as it also allows you to compare and contrast elements while information is fresh in your mind.

    Anyway, my first, I will agree with many of the other comments that the tour guide is critical. It is not an issue of experience or a history with the distillery, per se, that matters. What works, for me as a visitor, is enthusiasm. When a guide’s energy comes out naturally it conveys a shared appreciation for the product (and a good dram). This connects with the me and brings the experience to life. Wehn you can tell they are not following a script and letting their own knowledge an interest lead them through a tour, I pay more attention, expecting to get something fresh. And, that enthusiasm benefits when it is about all whisky, not just the specific ones from that distillery.

    Islay is a great place to get tours for this reason. On Islay, there seemed to be connection between the seven distilleries on the island. While they are competitors I got the sense that they realized that success for any of them was a success for all on the island (even to the point of having another distillery’s whisky in their tasting room). Granted, some let their larger corporate entity redirect that enthusiasm a tad to keep it within their brand, but it was still there.

    Second, intimacy is critical. It may be the reason while specialty privacy tours are becoming available as you get a more tailored, detailed, or personal tour compared to the standard offerings. I know that I adored my tour of Kilchoman – as a small distillery with a knowledgable guide I felt the operation was shared more at each step than nearly any other tour I took. Yet, while I cannot recommend a visit to Kilchoman high enough, it is easy, and almost cheating, to speak of such a small distillery to promote an intimate experience.

    Moving to larger and more globally recognizable brands, my Lagavulin tour had an excellent guide (to be honest one of my favorites from the tours), but the overall experience could not escape conveying corporate and structured limitations that left it more distant – not a bad experience, just not my favorite. This contrasts with the similarly large distillery up the road at Laphroaig, which managed to give off a more relaxed feeling of “we are large but remember our roots”. There was even a moment when the tour moved on but I managed to remain behind and have a conversation with one of the employees at work. The environment was corporate and yet managed to be intimate and personal.

    And, third, yes the visitor center really matters. Maybe it should not, but Kilchoman’s is warm and inviting (and the cafe is an excellent touch and deliscious), Laphroaig’s is brightly lit and has a variety of products (love the jacket I purchased), and while the museum portion is darker has many interesting items. Bowmore’s shop area is smaller than I expected, but the tasting room is beautiful with it’s view. Lagavulin’s entry was restrained and the shop small, but had a pleasantly relaxing tasting room. Talisker offers tasting before and after, with an enchanting (if small) museum element at the start.
    Oban’s shop was small, dry, and corporate. Just standing in it put me off adding a tour to my schedule for the day I had there. Right or wrong, each of these conveyed a personality and influences my memory and impression of those distilleries as much as the tours.

    So, to answer the questions succinctly:

    A positive distillery tour experience is made or broken with a tour guide that knows and care about the product and process.

    The visitor center plays a critical role in the experience

    An intimate or personal feel greatly enhances the experience, so access to the facility and again a manager or tour guide that engages with the tour is huge.

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