Monday, June 24, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

BlabberDistillery Visits

Glenlivit, Tourism, Romance

Some distilleries have embraced the idea of being a visitor attraction, others not so much. Cafés are surprisingly rare, as are well stocked gift shops; some places even lack a reception area with space for people to mill and look at displays. There are reasons for this: many distilleries just don’t have the space and anyway see themselves, first and foremost, as a light industrial unit where people go about their work. It takes investment to attract tourists but whisky tourism is becoming a quite a big thing and the savvy ones have seen the importance of presenting their best face to the public and showing what makes them distinctive. A survey for SMWA has recently reported that 1.5 million visits to distilleries in 2014, up 15% from 2010. It is a growing, and increasingly important thing, that must be financial helpful both to the distilleries and the Scottish economy. However before we get too carried away and to put it in some sort of context the combined figure of all distillery visits is about the same as the number of people who visit Edinburgh Castle

As in most things Glenfiddich took the lead and they opened their doors in 1969 and they are the most visited single malt distillery ( although more people go to the Famous Grouse Experience). So it is a significant tourist attraction and is a serious and well organised business. As might be expected Glenlivet are not far behind (though I don’t have their visitor numbers). When you go to either of them you know they have invested to make people welcome. Each have things they do better than the other, e.g. Glenfiddich has a better cafe/restaurant, Glenlivet a better display area. But there is one innovation that gives Glenlivet some bonus points is walking trails. The whole of the Glenlivet Estate (i.e. The Crown Property within which the distillery sits) is criss-crossed with walking routes. The area is fabulous for walking or mountain  biking so why wouldn’t the distillery link itself with its landscape and the beauty of its surroundings?  It exploits an advantage over Glenfiddich, which is more cramped in its location in Dufftown, whereas Glenlivet is isolated in its scenery.

They have romanticised things a bit by describing their trails as smuggler’s routes and reminding us of the pre 1825 days  when the hills were alive with illicit stills and men hiding from the Revenue. In our our hearts  we all like these stories and pull for the little guy, the rebel, defying an oppressive, uncaring government, but the interesting thing about Glenlivet is that it reversed that story. Instead of the plucky individual being the outlaw, it was the licensed distiller who had to stand his ground. You would think that being licensed would put everything on a solid legal footing and make the operation secure but in 1825 this was not the case. It disrupted the established order.  There were many illegal distillers who made their livelihood outside the law and didn’t want this to be threatened. In an area where lawmen were scarce it was a bold of George Smith to defy them.

“Smith was a man of fine physical proportions and great courage and tenacity of purpose, or he could never have withstood the persecutions and dangers he had long to face. “The outlook,” he said, “was an ugly one. I was warned, before I began, by my neighbours that they meant to burn the new distillery to the ground, and me in the heart of it. The Laird of Aberlour presented me with a pair of hair-trigger pistols, and they were never out of my belt for years. I got together three or four stout fellows for servants, armed them with pistols, and let it be known everywhere that I would fight for my place till the last shot. I had a pretty good character as a man of my word, and through watching, by turns, every night for years, we contrived to save the distillery from the fate so freely predicted for it. But I often, both at kirk and market, had rough times of it among the glen people, and if it had not been for the Laird of Aberlour’s pistols I don’t think I should have been telling you this story now.”
That quote is from a 1909 book ’Smugglers’ by Charles G. Harper which has one chapter on whisky. It makes the point that although George Smith was a a licensed distiller the only assurance the government initially offered was the prosecution of anyone who molested him. This he found far from reassuring as he would much prefer to be protected from molestation, in the first place. It was necessary for a revenue officer to be almost killed in pursuance of his duty for the government use enough force to support the civil order.
The book has an account of an incident that caused the government to increase its efforts:
At the time of their [a force of 50 excise men augmented by some sailors] arrival the glen [Glenlivet] was, to all appearance, deserted, and their coming unnoticed, and the sight of the peat- reek rising in the still air from some forty or fifty “sma’ stills” rejoiced their hearts.
But they presently discovered that their arrival had not only been observed but foreseen, for the whole country-side was up, and several hundred men, women, and children were assembled on the hill-sides to bid active defiance to them. The excisemen keenly desired to bring the affair to a decisive issue, but the thirty seamen who accompanied them had more discretion and the party accordingly marched ingloriously back, except some sailors who, having responded to the smugglers’ invitation to partake of a “wee drappie,” returned gloriously drunk.
So the hiking trails show us something of the landscape and isolation but perhaps don’t give the full story. They do however remind us of the wildness of the landscape and the origins of the industry.

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