The strange case of the Bothy Still
Gavin D Smith looks at how Diageo's forerunners flirted with the idea of launching a ‘boutique' distillery based on an illegal operation – and how it ended up on the shelf
Today we take distillery visitor centres for granted. They have become part of Scotland’s tourist infrastructure, with ‘whisky tourism’ estimated to generate around £17m per year, and more than 40 distilleries opening their doors – and their cash tills – to visitors.
Recently it has even been announced that a ‘whisky chieftain’, or whisky tourism development manager, is soon to be appointed in order to exploit worldwide interest in Scotch whisky.
This is all a far cry from the situation that prevailed during the mid-1960s, when distilleries were strictly production facilities, and the only way to gain entry was via an amenable manager who was feeling benevolent after his lunchtime dram or three.
Just as its successor Diageo dominates the Scottish distilling scene today, so the old Distillers Company Ltd was the largest whisky-maker by far 38 years ago.
DCL was not noted for its innovative and forward thinking, yet during 1965 the company’s management committee devoted a considerable amount of time to a radical proposal to create a ‘boutique’ distillery and associated retail facilities for the general public at a location in the Highlands.
It was a concept of public interaction that was only to find its eventual expression around the time of the launch of the Classic Malts series in 1991.
By 1965, Scottish tourism was growing significantly, and a number of distillers were beginning to respond to requests from curious sightseers keen to catch a glimpse of how the mysterious drink was made.
They were also starting to consider that single malts might be marketable in their own right.
At the forefront of these revolutionary notions was the family firm of William Grant & Sons Ltd of Glenfiddich, who first opened their doors during the mid-1960s, going on to create dedicated visitor facilities in 1969.
According to Diageo’s marketing director for premium malts, Dr Nicholas Morgan, “DCL was horror-struck when Glenfiddich let the public in. There was a huge culture of secrecy at the time, and it was hard enough to get into a distillery even if you worked for the company!”
DCL’s answer to the issue of public access was the Bothy Still Project. According to Nick Morgan, “the idea was to build a tiny working distillery rather than show people around a real one.
“It was to be a small working distillery perhaps arranged along the lines of the illicit still in the famous Landseer painting – a heather roof, shop and car park.”
The minute books of DCL record for 31st March 1965 that “The management committee considered a proposal by Scottish Malt Distillers (the malt distilleries’ operating arm of DCL) that a Bothy Still and Scotch Whisky Information Centre should be erected near the A9 trunk road
somewhere between Kingussie and Carrbridge to further the interests of DCL and the sale of group whiskies.
“It was believed that this could be brought about by presenting the history, tradition and process work to the large number of summer and winter visitors to Scotland on holiday each year and who would be interested in receiving an insight into Scotch Whisky and the DCL.
“No facilities were available at the present time. The committee approved the proposal in principle, and instructed Mr Burnet to submit a firm project in due course. They directed that the group’s public relations officer should be consulted on the matter”.
Four weeks later, the committee met again to discuss the matter, and this time the minutes show a note of caution. “…while the idea had merit, it was difficult to see how it could be made efficacious for promotional purposes.
“It was suggested that DCL might meet the capital cost of such a project if any company were willing to meet out of their advertising allocations the revenue charges of running it. It was agreed that this question be put to the members of the home committee”.
Minutes from meetings on 11th and 12th May 1965 record that “Referring to the Committee’s decision that it was prepared to recommend that DCL might meet the capital cost of a Bothy Still and Information Centre if any company were prepared to meet the cost of running it, Mr Braid (Harry Muirfield Braid, chairman of John Walker & Sons Ltd and a member of the DCL management committee from 1963 until his retirement three years later) said that none of the managing directors of the Blending Companies considered that they could meet the expense of this project.
“The management committee considered the matter further and decided that having regard to the fact that every malt distillery in the North of Scotland bore the name of a blending company as its licensee, it might be possible to advertise that company’s connection with the distillery by means of an advertising hoarding.
“It was thought that the tourist board would assist in persuading the county council to permit the erection of hoardings. Such hoardings could indicate that the distillery was open to visitors on certain days of the week”.
The minutes conclude in splendidly Victorian fashion.
“A necessary corollary was that one or two persons would require to be engaged as cicerones. It was remitted to Mr Braid to pursue this proposal”.
Nicholas Morgan observes that “ostensibly DCL was run by a management committee, with an independent chairman and representatives of the brand-owning companies and others on the committee.
“The truth is probably that the brand owning companies were hugely powerful, and certainly regarded themselves as autonomous. That spirit of independence went all the way from the biggest companies such as Johnnie Walker down to the smallest ones like Low Robertson & Co.
“The dissension regarding the Bothy Still centred on who would have the biggest shelf space in the shop! I was told by people who were involved at the time that the most influential players, such as Walker and Haig, were reluctant to fund something that might be seen to promote
The project got to the stage of formal plans being drawn up, but the minutes of meetings held on 14th and 15th September detail the fate of this innovative idea.
When it was decided not to proceed with the Bothy Still project the management committee proposed that a selection be made of distilleries which could be developed for the reception of the general public and other guests, such distilleries being, of course, on tourist routes or close to main centres of tourism.
Thirteen distilleries had been selected for this purpose and consideration would require to be given to possible transfer of licences between companies to provide publicity to the best advantage”.
The minutes concluded with the information that a subcommittee should be set up “to make necessary arrangements with the companies concerned.”
Says Morgan: “It was characteristic of DCL that all of this went into the minutes, but nothing was done for twenty five years!
“Cardhu distillery was rebuilt during 1960/61, and the whisky was launched as a single malt in 1965. They had started to show trade guests around during the later 1960s, but Cardhu was the first distillery to have anything we would recognise as a visitor centre.
“Attitudes changed at the time of the Guinness take over of DCL in 1986. Bell’s had allowed trade guests into Blair Athol distillery for many years, and now money was spent developing the visitor facilities there, and also up the A9 at Dalwhinnie.
“During 1987 White Horse invested in visitor facilities in the maltings of the old Malt Mill distillery at Lagavulin, and around 1989, Talisker, Dalwhinnie, and Glenkinchie all had work done. There was huge investment by the company in visitor centres during the late ‘80s and early ‘90s”.
Morgan insists that “they are extremely important shop windows for the industry as a whole and for companies and their brands. It does have a major impact on visitors who often are not ‘pilgrims’ or particular brand aficionados, for example at distilleries such as Oban in our case.
“We aim to give a very authentic experience of visiting a real working distillery, and we focus on how and why we make the products as we do. Therefore there is no whiz-bang high-tech stuff for the public in our distilleries”.
Despite the many excellent opportunities available for anyone keen to gain a greater insight into whisky-making today, it does seem a pity that DCL did not go ahead with the Bothy Still Project.
Real distilleries are all very well, but to see Landseer’s painting brought to life beside the A9 by the staid representatives of DCL – that would really have been something worth travelling for.