Apart from working as a journalist, I have spent many years working as a tourist guide. Many foreign groups I accompany around Scotland have at least one distillery on their holiday itinerary, others are just one long pilgrimage to one distillery to the next.
And I can say the vast majority of distillery tours are enhanced by the guides – who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic about their distillery and its whisky and, to boot, often very witty.
I have noted how nearly all of them, after the initial fire and safety blurb, immediately ask how many of their visitors have been to a distillery before. Every year, more and more hands shoot up. What’s more, those hands have sampled drams not in one previous distillery, but sometimes 17 or more. It seems some whisky devotees can never see enough distilleries.
Many observers would assume that, over time, their fervour would wane. After all, nearly every malt distillery has the same sequence of malt intake chute and bins, grist mill, mash tun, boiler, washbacks, copper stills, spirit vat and casking store. Yet these aficionados never tire of seeing them – and presumably of sampling a dram or two at tour’s end. And they come here unprompted by any marketing or publicity from VisitScotland: their devotion to Scotland and whisky is as total as it is self induced.
In response, many distilleries have developed their visitor centres and tours to a fine art, with tour after tour purring through like trains on the London tube. At other distilleries it’s still a work in progress, but I notice how they improve year by year.
Indeed, some distillery tours have almost become too smooth, slick and choreographed – one almost wishes a deluge of froth would gush from a washback or a fire alarm go off at an awkward moment to interrupt the guide’s patter. But I’ve yet to see that happen.
Well, perhaps just once. At the end of a tour in Canada, in a warehouse where racked casks stretched out of sight, I asked the guide – a very serious student on a summer job – if they had their own cooperage. She looked blank and replied: “That is an expression with which I am not familiar.” Wow, she must have studying for a PhD in obfuscation.