What should a distillery experience offer? More and more visitors are travelling to Scotland to visit the iconic distilleries that they’ve drunk and appreciated over several years. Scotland is more than just whisky and literally, as a destination, it has it all from food to Irn Bru and stunning scenery besides countless other attractions. Yes, the weather can be haphazard and then there’s sharing a border with England. Generally, though, Scotland is beautiful in more ways than one.
Recently Diageo announced investment in its touring facilities across Scotland to the impressive sum of £150 million. The usual fanfare followed with no real debate around how stale and corporate their distillery tours had become. A Diageo distillery tour is scripted and based on a formula so rigid that it often comes across as an unsettling and rather cold experience. I’ve been on tours at unnamed Diageo distilleries where rules along with health and safety have been enforced to a crazy degree – so much so you don’t return. The result is not a welcoming environment to visitors who have travelled far and wide. Such an example took place at Caol Ila – a very disappointing tour – where the German element of our group asked if they could take a small handful of the barley back as a souvenir to their whisky club. There’s a polite way to say no, or even turn a blind eye. Needless to say, the group had a much better experience down the road at Bruichladdich later that day. Yes, a positive comment about Islay’s most disappointing distillery.
Other tours like those at Glenfiddich, Glenlivet and Glenmorangie are based upon flushing visitors through a tight schedule. Run like a clockwork factory to maximise numbers. There is little time to engage or ask questions, everything must move swiftly to avoid a traffic jam. The end experience comes across as shallow and a little disappointing. Like all slick tours, you’re deposited into the distillery shop at the end to hopefully purchase an overpriced souvenir.
Then you have the no photography rule that is often greeted with a sigh of disappointment. Yes, if you’ve been on a tour with Noortje who provided the photographs and sample for this review – then you’ll know a 45-minute tour suddenly becomes a 2-hour epic whilst each shot is lined up with pinpoint accuracy. There’s a real variation across distilleries regarding this and its implementation. Dalmore for instance last time I visited, asked that you leave phones and cameras in your vehicles. Yet I know others have taken the tour and been allowed to take photographs. It’s always a negative feature if you’re not allowed to capture some internal elements of a distillery. Sadly more distilleries seem intent on enforcing this rule with Balbair being the latest to change its ways, which probably means Old Pulteney as well. I’m not aware of any explosions or fires since the one that blighted Talisker in 1960. Fact, it wasn’t caused by a phone or camera but rather a faulty valve. Distilleries should do more to welcome and please paying guests who do make the effort to visit.
Our friends at Macallan love to enforce the no photography rule within certain areas of their distillery. The old one. It’ll be extremely interesting to walk around the new facility and over the hills and far away. It’s a massive complex that can house up to 18 stills. As I type these private invites have been sent out to the lucky few and big spenders. The internals are off limits for the media, but already there is talk of 800 bottles on display within the TubbyTronic Superdome, where you can also eat classics such as Tubby Custard and Tubby Toast.
What do you want from a distillery tour?
Ultimately it’s the liquid result that matters. The big names seem to think props are a large part of the agenda. You can stand at the old-ish Macallan and watch the liquid flow through the pipes. Totally pointless, as is the overwhelming sense of technology. Give me a traditional distillery that lacks room and where you can smell and almost taste the whisky itself. Distilleries such as Old Pulteney that don’t need to be set under a hill or have elaborate sculptures to distract guests. Branding in whisky is heavily reliant on history so it seems a miscalculation when you do visit that it’s as stark and slick as a modern office block and often just as dull.
At many distilleries today you’ll be lucky to see a member of the production staff and that’s disappointing. In my own humble view, I don’t want a slick tour, or one with lavish ideals and pushing the brand down your throat. I prefer the traditional hands-on tour, with an experienced member of staff who can dish out interesting stories and make the environment come alive through words. The best tours are those with a stillman or a distillery manager with a relaxed vibe. We’ve been fortunate at Malt to experience several tremendous tours like those at Knockdhu and Ballindalloch. Both totally different and yet underline the passion and work that goes into producing every last drop. It’s these types of tours that keep us engaged and hitting the road for more of the same.
A bonus feature at the end of a tour is the option to bottle your own. Again, the hands on experience is best rather than pulling a bottle off a shelf as you’ll see at Diageo or Chivas with their distillery exclusives. After all you’re paying for the experience. You want to interact with the whisky and pour from a cask. There are great examples of this at distilleries such as Auchentoshan, Balblair, Glenfiddich, Strathisla, Tomatin and always Deanston. Of course, I’m forgetting Old Pulteney which is a good tour and a welcome selection of whiskies. This release was distilled on 8th September 1997 and bottled in 2017 or 2018 depending on when you visited the distillery, a massive 20 years old from bourbon cask #1078 at a strength of 52.3%.
Old Pulteney 1997 Distillery Exclusive- review
Colour: a dull copper
On the nose: the smell of marriage or symmetry. Not blood, sweat and tears but unison. A lovely delicate floral vanilla, coconut cream, fondant icing and a sticky resin quality. A fruit smoothie of aromas with pear, apples, lemon and pineapple.
In the mouth: all those fruit flavours combine with a Caribbean influence with a touch of rum, coconut, lime and mango. There’s white chocolate, wine gums and towards the finish a touch of smoke and that sea salt aspect we associated with Pulteney.
An excellent Pulteney and a real symmetry between the cask and spirit. The end result is certainly one of the better whiskies I’ve had from this distillery in recent times. Sadly, I was enjoying the sample too much to play around with water. Ultimately though, it’s that good. My thanks again to Noortje for the sample and these stunning photographs – you can read what she thought of this dram over at WhiskyLifeStyle.