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Story Makes the Whiskey Go Around

4 minutes

Recently I had an opportunity to holiday in Scotland and visit some of my favorite whiskey distilleries with some of my favorite people. We visited the Speyside region (located appropriately along the Spey river), whose distilleries tend to produce a smoother, less peaty/smoky scotch than you might experience from the Islay region per say. (For those non-whisky drinkers or wanting to know the differences in whisky, go here.) Not only was I excited about tasting a little “water of life” from the motherland, I couldn’t wait to experience the brands themselves.

Our first stop? Glen Grant – a smaller yet still memorable Scotch. This distillery is known for its beautiful gardens, smooth finish, and being Italy’s most beloved Scotch. As we walked into the tasting area, which often serves as the beginning and ending of a tour, we met Ana (our tour guide). Her tour was both serious and charming as she tried to make the process easy to understand. After providing us with the appropriate history, we started with the barley. We touched it, tasted it, learned about how it was malted, and then went to see the next steps of mashing and fermentation. In short, Scotch is basically making beer first, then pulling out the alcohol from the process (distillation) and putting it in barrel casks to sleep to perfection. This is, of course, where a lot of the distinctive flavors come out. (In hindsight, after numerous tours, it was fascinating to note the differences in presentation of what is arguably the same process.) We ended with Ana taking us through a tasting, and everyone in my party enjoyed the entire experience, highlighted by the care and attention from our well-dressed and informative guide.

Next we went to Glenfiddich and had lunch and a tasting in a wonderfully designed distillery and tasting area. Glenfiddich, owned by William Grant & Sons, is the largest (in terms of volume) distillery in Scotland. As we chose what to sample, we heard the thoughtful story behind each choice.

baldisThen it was on to my favorite Scotch, The Balvenie (also William Grant & Sons), where we met David, our tour guide. David was laid back, charming, observant, gracious, and truly interested in everyone in the group. He answered every question and was more than patient while several of us took endless photos. He then took us to the cooperage, the place where the barrels are inspected and rebuilt by apprenticed craftsmen. We tasted some very old scotch out of one of the storage facilities, and then we had the opportunity to draw our own take-home bottle. From there we had an absolute wonderful tasting with in-depth but appropriate descriptions of each pour. What an awesome experience to have with something we already liked! David was truly a brand ambassador.

The next day we visited Aberlour and met Jonathan. Jonathan knew the process well and told the story with a witty banter and some great tasting advice. He provided an additional perspective of how to pick your favorite whisky with an endless comedic flair. He made it fun, breaking up the monotony that could happen when you have been on multiple tours. He stepped us through how to fully experience the Scotch.

Our last tour was at Macallan, one of the largest Scotch distilleries — and considered, by many, to be one of the best. We arrived early and received a free tasting and were encouraged to walk the beautiful grounds and enjoy a little whisky before the tour began. During the tour our guide, Jodie, asked what we knew about the whisky process and subsequently tried to personalize it. But the tour itself felt like visiting a museum—we were told about the process versus being able to walk through the process. The more we experienced, the more commercial and less special the tour felt. Was that because it was our last tour after five others? Possibly, but I think the difference was during the other tours we experienced what made each distillery different than the rest, while at Macallan the craftsmanship and details were glossed over. And without that, the rest of the experience felt flat. For us, walking the gorgeous grounds and tasting a great Scotch prior to the tour was definitely more memorable than the actual tour.

At each of the distilleries, the tastings and tours highlighted the care, the craftsmanship, the mystery, and the story behind the Scotch – all of which was even more appealing to me than the taste itself. The design was equally strong from a packaging and environmental perspective – all of which simply enhanced the brand experience. The guides were all very knowledgeable and friendly, but the ones who stood out were the ones that knew how to tell their story and knew how to differentiate. There is no doubt the whole experience made me a fan for life for some of the brands. In fact, I will think about the experience every time I go to purchase a bottle – even if a competitor is cheaper. Now when I sip my favorite Scotch, I can picture the distillery where it’s produced, the people who make it, and the process it goes through… all of which I swear makes it taste even better.

Along with great memories and experiences, there were some insightful takeaways for creatives:

1) Know your story. Make sure everyone on your team can tell it authentically.

2) Don’t replace an experience with something artificial.

3) Whether you are the smallest in your type of business or the largest, every point of contact is important.