Well this is very smart.
You drive into the visitors car park with neatly tended verges with trees and face an impressive new still room, built in 2009. A wall of flat stone with tall windows making it look bright and airy. It is a place that has made some careful architectural decisions and so the visitors centre is clean, modern, well designed. The curved reception desk is staffed by people in corporate shirts and so it looks like an outpost of an international company, welcoming visitors and showing their best face. Why not? This is exactly what it is. Pernod Ricard is a multinational drinks conglomerate and Glenlivet is the world’s second biggest selling single malt. Why wouldn’t you want to convey the image of a modern, professional organisation?
It is obvious a lot of care and thought has gone into the layout of the building and the processing of tours. Downstairs there is an exhibition area and on a mezzanine level there is a café, so it is easy to spend time either waiting for your tour or lingering afterwards.
The first thing that has to be said about visiting Glenlivet is that the basic tour is FREE. This is now unusual and might even be unique; Glenfiddich used to be free but in 2014 they started charging £10 and I don’t know of any other hold outs. I guess that Glenlivet is going after the people who want to visit one distillery on their holiday (as the sort of thing you do when you are in the Highlands), and as such it would be a solid choice. But an internationally successful drinks company would not be where it is today without recognising market segments, so there are also tours for the the enthusiast at £35 and £60. Me, I want to keep my hand out of my pocket – so the free option it is.
Before we started though there were the health and safety announcements, chief of which was a ban on photography. This is now fairly common but I still find it disappointing. I will not be able to show the stills looked or the magnificent of the Oregon pine washbacks on this blog. I do not really understand the rule. Modern cameras have high ISO ratings and you don’t need to use flash, so I fail to see what the risk would be. Even if someone did use their camera’s inbuilt flash it is no longer a magnesium bulb and for sure no one uses explosive powder anymore. I would love to see any solid experimental evidence that my camera could pose any sort of explosive risk, but I know this will never happen. I console myself with the thought that it wasn’t that many years ago when distillery workers used to smoke on the job! Still there is nothing you can do about it – people make their own rules, that’s all there is to it but some are more relaxed than others.
Of the tour itself I have little to say. It was perfectly fine, covered all the bases, did a good job but I did not feel fully involved. In fact I spent some time wondering how hard it must be to be a guide on the treadmill, saying the same thing several times a day. There again the same thing applies to me as a serial visitor of distilleries who hears the same story of how whisky is made. My excuse is that there is always some spark of enthusiasm that comes from the staff, or a nugget of new information. After all there is always something new to learn or some impression to take away.
From this visit my main impression was how clean, bright and open the new still room was. There are big windows so you can look out over the mountains, past the shiny copper stills (which always look lovely) and drink in the beauty. The guide said the shape of stills being different in every distillery and that Glenlivet had patented their shape so that no one else could use something similar. Eh? I had never even considered it was possible to patent a still because it is an old, established technology. A Google patent search got no results for a still registered by Chivas (though they did have other patents for containers and bottles) so perhaps they registered the design and the word patent was used loosely. However what was said was an example of then way brands always want to create a distinction – something that makes them special. There is great variety and changes both big and small in the shape of stills but the unspoken message here was: our shape is so special we have to protect it. I my internal response was ‘hmmm’.
The open, airy room makes it even more obvious how few people are need to actually operate a distillery – One man and computer screens was all we saw. It is now common that more more people are employed for tourism than for production. This is especially true in this case because here is just a distillery. That might sound a bit odd but what it means is other aspect of making and selling whisky are done elsewhere: malting (as is the case for almost all distilleries), filling the casks, bottling, even storage is dispersed. It is a great contrast with somewhere like Bruichladdich, but there again there is a great contrast in the volume of production.
On that subject the guide said that they planned to nearly double their capacity, which I must admit shook me a little. At the moment their output is 10.5 million litres a year and so it has Glenfiddich,which produces 14 million litres, firmly in its sights. They really want that top spot to become the worlds most popular single malt. Perhaps in a few years they will take home the brass ring.
Now I might be a bit flippant about this as I don’t really care about who sell the most cases but the underlying trend is interesting. The big brands expanding (Macallan in in the process of increasing capacity as well), at a time when the expansion of international demand has stalled. Could it be that the premium, single malt end has held up and is seen as a better bet for long term profit? Or is it an example of the pattern of 21st Century capitalism where the big get bigger and gobble up most of the custom, whilst a long tail fights for what is left over? In which case it is those in the middle who are most at risk. The small specialist will find their niche but an almost big boy might get squeezed, as happens in other industries. Instinctively, I would have thought the single malt market was a bit different as it sells itself on distinction and differentiation, and every distillery has a chance to work some magic in that area, if they really want to. But who knows. It is perhaps something I should keep an eye on and return to later. Certainly the business history of cycles of expanding and contracting demand and fashions for certain tastes, is a fascinating subject that deserves attention.