Northern exposure

Northern exposure

Mrcin Miller explores Edinburgh's five star attraction that seeks to increase awareness of Scotlanad's whisky heritage

Travel 16 Jun 2001 | Interviews | By Marcin Miller

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The vast majority of tourists who come to Scotland don’t travel any further north than Edinburgh and, therefore, don’t make it to the distillery visitor centres that are found in the rest of the country. To cater for those unadventurous types who don’t head further north, The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre was born – intended to complement the distillery centres elsewhere in Scotland. Perfectly located for tourists at the top of the Royal Mile, in an old Victorian school and only yards from the entrance to Edinburgh Castle, is the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre. Opened in 1988, the centre is co-owned by 19 distillers whose avowed joint mission it is to promote the enjoyment of Scotch whisky to a worldwide audience. The Centre is part of an exclusive club with Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Yacht Brittania and the National Museum – they’re the only Scottish Tourist Board five star attractions in the city. Last year the centre welcomed 189,000 visitors. In a year when Scottish tourism suffered, this increase on last year’s figures suggests that they are doing something right. Alastair McIntosh, as the founder and Managing Director of The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, already had 23 years of experience in the whisky industry before embarking on this project, including directorships at William Muir, The Edrington Group and JBB (or Whyte & Mackay as it was then). Susan Morrison was one of the very first recruits to the new centre and came direct from university (having studied German and Russian at Strathclyde, Edinburgh and Vienna). She quickly found she had a demonstrable passion for whisky. Last year she was appointed General Manager. “I’ve seen many changes in my twelve years here”, said Susan, “but what has remained constant is our mission to ensure that visitors receive the very best experience possible and leave understanding why Scotch whisky is so special.” Significant investments have been made in improving the technology, developing new displays, opening a tasting bar and restaurant and making the tour suitable for disabled people. “However, what we have always understood is that central to the success of this operation is motivated, caring staff with excellent customer care training, who understand how to treat our customers and make every visit the best.” Susan’s knowledge and love of whisky resulted in her being appointed a Keeper of The Quaich last year, making her the youngest female to ever achieve this honour. The heritage centre tour runs every 15 minutes, seven days a week. Visitors are greeted by multi-lingual guides who take them through a succession of areas dedicated to explaining, in simple terms, the processes involved in the production of both malt and grain whisky. There is relatively detailed information on the regions responsible for producing the various whiskies and on the unique properties of Scotch whisky. This tour caters for an international tourist market as commentary can be enjoyed in eight different languages. As part of the tour, visitors walk through an authentic washback, see a model distillery, a pot still and a coffey still, before an introduction to the art of blending. Following this, they start out on a barrel ride through 300 years of whisky history where authentic sounds and aromas bring the story to life. You leave the tour having improved your knowledge of whisky but not yet having had the chance to taste any. Seeing an opportunity to improve the experience, Alastair opened a whisky bar and restaurant in 1998. The bar offers over 220 different brands (all supplied from the 19 shareholder companies), whisky cocktails and liqueurs and, because of support from the main players in the industry, is able to offer many unusual brands difficult to find in other retail outlets. All 220 brands are for sale along with a good selection of other quality Scottish products, books (including Whisky Magazine), flasks and preserves in the gift shop on the ground floor. In addition to the complimentary dram that every tour visitor receives at the start of their tour, the bar offers the chance to join The Scotch Whisky Appreciation Society. For a fee of £5, the visitor can enjoy four complimentary tastes of Scotch in 10ml measures with tasting notes and information on where to find the relevant brands for purchase in the gift shop. Members are also entitled to a 10% discount on all whiskies and whisky liqueurs in the tasting bar, a two for one ticket for future tours and an ongoing £2 discount on the purchase of 70cl malt and blended whiskies. This club has proved extremely popular and now has over 6,000 members worldwide. The management team have explored ways of minimising the effects of seasonality as the centre is, primarily, a tourist attraction. This has been done by offering corporate entertainment to companies and individuals wishing to hold private parties. Tutored whisky tastings are on offer in one of the centre’s two meeting rooms, one of which, The Castlehill Room, features a magnificent stained glass window which dominates the room and depicts the history, mystery and romance of Scotch whisky. The bar and restaurant offers a superb basement, cellar style location for ceilidhs and parties for up to 100 guests. As Susan points out: “The aim will remain to promote the worldwide quality image of Scotch whisky and encourage the love of Scotch.” If you wish to contact The Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre, call them on +44 (0) 131 220 0441. Or alternatively you can log on to their internet site at which can be located at this address:
www.whisky-heritage.co.uk
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