Friday, July 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

Distillery Visits

The Talisker Chicken

Outside the Talisker distillery there is a hut that sells good coffee and tray bakes. This morning, having driven up from Fort William and allowing plenty of time, I have time to kill and coffee and an oat slice is just what I need. Sitting outside I am approached by a chicken, who obviously knows the score. It hangs about looking at the oat slice, moving its head as if to say “Go on give us a bit, just a bit, go on!” I have no idea whether it is good for chickens to eat oat fruit slice but the chicken was persistent, so I weakened and gave some away. No good. You can’t bargain with these animals, they just want more

On this holiday I have visited two Diageo distilleries Oban and here. At Oban my lunch was closely observed by a seagull, here a chicken wanted my snack. Perhaps the company could produce a series of whiskies where they highlight the wildlife around their distilleries. I don’t know – perhaps they could call it Flora and Fauna. Who knows – perhaps the Talisker chicken could become a thing.

Forget the bird and this is a good spot. The distillery is isolated but gets 71,000 visitors a year (the 2nd most popular Diageo distillery) so there is definitely a need for refreshment. Apparently, according to the owner, Diageo have a policy of not having cafes in any of their distilleries, thinking that it dilutes their brand and confuses the message of a company solely focussed on high quality spirits. This is total bollocks, it would only be brand dilution if they did things badly. But someone must have thought it and then convinced others of their righteous purity. On the upside it has allowed someone enterprising to step in to fill the gap. I like the way infrastructures can be created around attractions and how this diversity adds to the experience. If that was the thinking of the Diageo management then I applaud them for encouraging the local community. If, as reported, it is purely a matter of not wanting to mix refreshment and whisky tourism then their thinking is muddled.

To get here I had driven through rain but when I arrived the sun came out and there was a bright peacefulness. What might have been dead time became pleasure as I walked along the shore, took photos and generally enjoyed being where I was. This is the thing about whisky tourism – you are not there only to see the copper and the oak, you are there for the landscape and sense of place. It surprises me that distilleries like Talisker and Tobermory have survived their remote locations, where everything had/has to be brought in and costs were/are that much higher. But they did and I am glad the industry has evolved in the way it has with small establishments preserved because of the distinctive character of their spirit and the fear that it it could not otherwise be reproduced.

Talisker for example has a spice/pepper finish that is difficult to explain. It is just there. Why? no one knows. It is like Clynelish with its waxiness, a characteristic that makes the whisky loved by those who like it. I tend too like distilleries that have a defined character but for me Talisker has an extra complication that adds to the intrigue: I do not like every version. I do not like it when the peppery note is too blowsy, when  it can taste a bit rough – Storm is an example of this. However when it is properly mellowed and the sweetness comes through it is a delight.

So to the visit itself. The first impression is that it is on a tight site, not as bad as Lagavulin or Oban there is nevertheless little scope to expand. All that can be done is maximise the output of the fixed equipment. It therefore runs full time, round the clock and the dial is set to maximum but you would never sense that on your tour. Distilleries employ few people on production, and a lot of the process involves waiting, so there is an atmosphere of calm activity rather than frazzle. As tourists we might get a false impression but everybody who works in the distillery seems to be at ease with each other and the work is seems to be on a human scale. This should not be underplayed because in times when our lives are dominated by giant corporations we still mainly relate to things that are human sized, things that we can fully see and instinctively understand. Diageo might be a big corporation in terms of global sales but its production units are often small and quirky. Forget the men in shiny suits in glass sheathed office blocks, on the ground there is a sense of living industrial archeology, a continuity of practice and equipment in a place built a couple of hundred years ago. If you make that imaginative leap you are again making a human connection.

In fact it is the people who make or break a distillery visit – their friendliness, openness, enthusiasm for the subject and knowledge are the things that make you want to engage with the place. If a visit is a routine naming of parts then it is meaningless. It is remarkable how good most people are in distilleries throughout Scotland. They engage and inform, and are friendly and interested, even though they must repeat the same thing time and again. Our Talisker guide was no exception and as well as imparting a sense of the place there was also a sense that working relationships within the distillery were strong. A telling example is that their distillery-only bottling is chosen by the vote of every member of staff. They have to evaluate a number of examples and rank them before the favourite is put on sale.  A great example of both engagement and valuing the opinion of all employees.  I was so impressed by this idea I rushed down and bought a bottle to just check out the wisdom of the crowd. The crowd might be useless at evaluating constitutional arrangements with the European Union but when it comes to whisky it is spot on. This was a very delicious Talisker.

Do all Diageo distilleries do this? I don’t know. It has never come up at any of my other visits. maybe it just wasn’t mentioned. I will have to find out. That is the thing about good distillery visits they leave you with more questions, more things to discover.


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