AI, avatars and cocktails - how distilleries are adapting to rising visitor numbers

Whisky continues to be a huge driver of visitors to Scotland, leading to many new visitor experiences. Rosalind Erskine looks at the latest new ways to learning about our national drink when visiting distilleries.

It’s the summer holidays and with it comes visitors to Scotland. Increasingly these visitors are seeking out food and drink experiences, according to new research by VisitScotland, and the most popular of these is visiting a whisky or gin distillery. Findings from the Scotland Visitor Survey 2023 showed that almost half of visitors (46 per cent) took part in at least one food and drink activity (in addition to eating out) during their trip last year, with nearly a fifth (19 per cent) of long-haul visitors now naming food and drink as the reason for choosing Scotland as a destination.  Visiting a whisky, gin distillery or brewery (26 per cent) was the most popular type of food and drink activity followed by farm shop or farmers market (22 per cent), fine dining (14 per cent) or other experience such as a cookery class or afternoon tea (9 per cent).  

This research comes off the back of the Scotch Whisky Association stats that showed that Scotch whisky visitor centres have collectively risen to become the top visitor attraction in Scotland, with footfall more than doubling since 2021. Scotland’s biggest drinks brand, Diageo, reported that, in 2023, 1.13 million people visited its sites in Scotland, with 359,000 of these to its flagship venue, Johnnie Walker Princes Street.

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Part of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experiencePart of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experience
Part of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experience | Dewar's Aberfeldy

It’s this star attraction, which opened in 2021, that has set the tone for whisky visitor experiences. It’s fun, approachable and very slick and stylish. I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who’ve been and were pleasantly surprised by the tour, with its interactive elements, personalised drinks and real-life walking man actor-led story of Johnnie Walker. Outwith the tours the bars, in particular the 1820 rooftop bar, have innovative cocktails and a paired food menu. Diageo have taken what was a key retail store in Edinburgh and transformed it into a destination for whisky fans and tourists. The team behind the attraction have used AI in the Flavour Finder quiz, which visitors to their Johnnie Walker Experience on Princes Street take before the Journey of Flavour tour. This quiz asks a short series of questions around flavours, which are ranked by guests on a sliding scale. AI then assigns them a flavour profile based around the flavour wheel – smoky, spicy, fruity, tropical, creamy and fresh – which then informs the drinks they will be served during their experience. It’s a bit like Disney but for adults, and that’s no bad thing given whiskys often stuffy perception, especially from those who aren’t lovers of a dram.

But how has this flagship destination influenced others, as visitor numbers increase? While many are happy to visit distilleries for their sense of place, one-off bottlings and story of the brand, there’s an expectation of more, especially as people look for unique experiences - something they’re willing to pay more for. The Scotch Whisky Experience recently invested £3.5m into a new tour, doing away with their somewhat twee barrel tour and opting instead for immersive videos, rooms with wow factor and a focus on storytelling. It has something of the Johnnie Walker about it and that’s no bad thing.

Part of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experiencePart of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experience
Part of the new Dewar's Aberfeldy warehouse experience | Dewar's Aberfeldy

Another business to adapt to growing demand is Dewar’s Aberfeldy, the home of Aberfeldy single malt and Dewar’s blended whisky. It has also recently unveiled a new, interactive and stylish visitor experience located in the original 1898 warehouse buildings. The historic, Charles Doig-designed distillery, situated in the picturesque town of Aberfeldy, launched the new Warehouse Experience in late June. The distillery is already home to an engaging museum, created by archivist Jacqui Seargeant and her team. This is where the tour starts, before heading into the production stages of whisky making. Then visitors will be taken to the Warehouse Experience, which begins in the old filling store with the Aberfeldy Single Malt casking and maturation story. There’s plenty for the Instagram-savvy, from statement lighting to secret doors. From there, guests enter the Blenders Bothy to understand the four stage ageing process of the Dewar’s Double Double range. Here is where the brand utilises the latest projection technology,  as an avatar of six-time International Whisky Competition Master Blender of the Year, Stephanie Macleod, appears to guests to talk through the range. After this, guests will then be invited to discover their Dewar’s persona through a multi-sensory flavour quiz culminating in a personalised tasting of Dewar's that matches their taste profile in the brand-new tasting rooms, alongside a tasting of Aberfeldy 12 Year Old Single Malt Scotch whisky. 

The new tasting roomThe new tasting room
The new tasting room | Dewar's Aberfeldy

Stephanie Macleod, Dewar’s Master Blender and Malt Master said that the experience will give guests a deeper understanding of the final stages of the whisky-making process. She said: “Dewar’s Aberfeldy Distillery stands as a testament to the Dewar family's rich legacy in whisky making. Its location, blessed by the pure waters of the Pitilie Burn, not only provides a pristine water source for our Aberfeldy Distillery but also connects us to the timeless traditions and craftsmanship of our forebears. With guests now able to visit our iconic warehouses, built in 1898, they will now gain a deeper understanding of the final steps that our new-make spirit takes to become the premium, quality whiskies that go on to be enjoyed around the world."  

It can only be a good thing that visitors to Scotland are engaging more and more with our food and drink, specifically our national drink. While we can’t guarantee the best weather, we can guarantee a good dram enjoyed and understood thanks to these new innovative and informative experiences.

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