Scotland’s distilleries and breweries export their drinks around the world, but many also value the importance of welcoming guests into their visitor centres so they can learn more about their favourite tipples.
The numbers surrounding the Scotch whisky industry are simply staggering. Nearly £4bn-worth of Scotland’s national drink is sold around the world each year, with some 1.16 billion bottles leaving our shores to slake the thirst of drinkers overseas – that’s 34 bottles very second.
Once aficionados have sampled the “water of life”, naturally the next step is for them to come to Scotland to see how the magic amber liquid is created. Making a pilgrimage to visit the distillery where your favourite dram was made has become a rite of passage for fans.
Tourism is playing an increasingly important role in the life of the whisky industry. A record 1.6 million visitors toured around Scotland’s distilleries in 2015, up 20% during the previous five years. The largest proportion of those visitors came from Scotland, followed by the rest of the UK. In terms of overseas tourists, German visitors accounted for the biggest share, with American and French fans not far behind. Together, those visits spent nearly £50m on tours and souvenirs from the distilleries’ gift shops, spending an average of £25 a head. The combined spending of whisky tourists has almost doubled since 2010.
“Scotch Whisky distilleries offer high-quality and unique opportunities to visit the homes of some of Scotland’s most famous brands,” explains Julie Hesketh-Laird, acting chief executive at the Scotch Whisky Association, the industry’s trade body. “This brings important benefits to the wider rural economy, as distillery visitors will also then be staying at the local bed and breakfast, visiting a local pub or café, or buying souvenirs of their stay in Scotland.”
One man who knows the importance of tourism to the whisky industry is Stuart Cassells, general manager of the Famous Grouse Experience visitors’ centre at Glenturret distillery near Crieff in Perthshire. The distillery is Scotland’s oldest, tracing its roots back to 1775, and the visitors’ centre is the nation’s most-visited whisky-related tourist attraction, holding five stars under VisitScotland’s quality assurance scheme.
“Glenturret was the pioneer of whisky tourism and I feel we should try to keep Glenturret as the flagship for whisky tourism and attractions,” explains Cassells, who founded the Red Hot Chilli Pipers, one of Scotland’s most success bands, before joining Famous Grouse-owner Edrington after taking part in the Saltire Fellowship scheme. “We’re the site where the Famous Grouse has a consumer touch-point. We need to offer a high level of customer service as a flagship visitor attraction.
“In terms of how we make whisky, Glenturret is unique and there’s a great story there to tell. People who come here want to learn about the whisky we make.”
The production process at Glenturret is very labour-intensive. Processes that are automated at other, larger distilleries are still carried out by hand. As well as its five-star rating from VisitScotland, the distillery has also received certificates of excellence from travel website TripAdvisor for two years on the trot and was named as the “visitor experience of the year” in 2015 by the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions. It’s not just distilleries that value the role that visitors play. The number of breweries in Scotland has passed the 100-mark for the first time in a century, stimulated by the introduction of small brewers’ duty relief by the-then Chancellor, Gordon Brown, back in 2002.
Kirsty Dunsmore – who founded the Edinburgh Beer Factory with her father, John, and his wife, Lynne – always knew that hosting brewery tours would be an important part of setting up their business. The site they picked at Bankhead is easily accessible via bus or tram and commuters on the Edinburgh-to-Glasgow train cannot help but see its neon sign as they swish past on their way to or from work.
Tours of the modern stainless steel brewery not only allow fans to find out where the beer is made, but also allows Dunsmore and her team to tell them the story behind their Paolozzi lager. The drink is named after Leith-born artist Eduardo Paolozzi, acknowledge as the founding father of the Pop Art movement, and epitomises the Dunsmores’ desire to create a brand that was distinctively Scottish but also fresh and modern, veering away from the use of tartan and bagpipes.
“The tours have been so popular that we’re preparing to open a visitors’ centre this year,” explains Dunsmore, whose father is a former chief executive of Scottish & Newcastle and Tennent’s-owner C&C Group. “It’s a great industrial setting, which works well for the Scotland that we’re promoting – innovation and creativity.”
“We wanted the brewery to be a destination, somewhere that people could come and visit. Being next to the tram line and the Glasgow-Edinburgh train line helps to raise awareness, but the site also has great transport links.”
New breweries aren’t the only businesses that recognise the importance of tourism either. The Cairngorm brewery in Aviemore hosts two tours each day, rising to up to four during the high summer season, with the site acting as a popular stop-off point for many coach parties. Visitors are taken on a tour and afterwards they can sample beers in the shop.
“The building that’s now the shop and visitors’ centre used to be the warehouse and cask washing area,” explains Sam Faircliff, managing director at the brewery. “That was before we built the larger building next door.”
The popularity of the Cairngorm brewery with visitors demonstrates the importance of food and drink tourism, especially in rural areas. The company’s brand and its beers are strongly-rooted in the Highlands and have a distinct sense of place. Many of the firm’s beers are named after the wildlife in the Cairngorms, including Autumn Nuts, a full-bodied ruby red ale, with the brewery making a donation from its sales to the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s red squirrel project. Donations from sales of Caillie and Wild Cat also go to charity.
The company took over the running of the Winking Owl pub in Aviemore about two years ago and has pushed it from 43rd to first in the TripAdvisor rankings for the village. The bar acts as a shop window for the brewery’s beers in the local area and also picked up the “Taste Our Best” accreditation from VisitScotland in recognition of its work with seasonal, local ingredients.
Last year the firm teamed up with Cobbs, a bakery, café and hotel operator, to buy the Loch Ness Beer brand from administrators. “The Loch Ness brand is so well known globally that it will be a great opportunity for the export market as well as here at home,” says Faircliff.