E-pistle 2007/029 – Do the Scots deserve their reputation?

By Joe Barry, South Africa

Legend has it that the Scots as a nation are “mean” and what exactly is meant by this – that the average Scot is tight fisted, stingy, counts every penny before turning it over, has long arms and short pockets or what? Because I have met many individuals to whom none of these characteristics apply, people who are generous to a fault and who most certainly do not fit the description of a MacScrooge. But the reputation persists and to explore whether or not it is deserved I am going to examine the way Scotland markets its distilleries compared to the way South Africa markets its wineries. Now South Africa doesn’t have distilleries (well, only one and not open for visitors) and Scotland doesn’t have wineries (?) so we are talking about each country’s premier locally produced beverage and of course only comparing the facilities that are open to visitors.

The wine producing areas in South Africa are principly the West coast centered on the Orange and Olifants rivers and the southern Cape Province in Stellenbosch and surrounding areas and because there are in excess of 300 wineries individually producing many varieties they are all well aware of the competition that exists and each one does their utmost to promote and market their own products. At any single winery you visit there is one thing that is certain – you will be offered a taste of as many of their range of wines you care to try, the only question will be whether you have to pay or not. Some of the more commercial and well known estates in tourist areas charge for a tasting which is usually deductible from a purchase but there are many where the tasting is free and does not depend on you doing a tour of the winery.

The most memorable tasting I ever had was at van Loveren in the Robertson / Bonnievale area where we sat outside at a table in a beautiful garden. The wine list was brought and I was asked to mark the wines I wanted to taste. I marked 6 (out of a choice of 30+!) and waited for what I thought would be a tray with small glasses containing a little of each wine. What arrived was the waitress carrying 2 glasses and 6 bottles of wine which she put on the table and told us to “carry on, enjoy yourselves and take your time.” And it cost nothing. Do you know how much of their wine I have bought since?!

In 2004 I did a “distillery tour” where we had only 5 days to see as much as we could starting at Laphroaig where we did the full tour to see how a distillery functions. We then had to see all the remaining distilleries on Islay as we were leaving the following day so full tours were out of the question. And so the rest of the tour went on in the same vein visiting 15 distilleries in all.

And now comes the strange part. If you do not do the full tour at a distillery it is extremely difficult to get the Scots to part with a tasting dram even if you offer to pay for it. On Islay, of the six distilleries where we did not do the tour, two allowed us to taste, two would not and two we did not ask. On the mainland Blair Athol let me taste because I could prove I was a member of the Bells Fraternity in South Africa (their’s is a main ingredient in Bells whisky) and Glenmorangie allowed me to buy a dram for a pound! ( I chose to taste their new Burgundy Wood Finish which had not reached SA yet). The others would not budge and gave excuses mainly that either it was against the licensing laws  or they were just not allowed to offer. I pointed out if they visited any winery here in SA they would never be refused a tasting, at worse they might have to pay for it and the reply was usually a polite shrug. At Royal Lochnagar there were four glasses out but these were for nosing not tasting! (A good idea and the only time I ever saw it.)

Eventually I met Iain Henderson  to whom I had a personal introduction from Hamish Scott at whose B&B we had stayed in on Islay,  one afternoon at Edradour when we arrived just before closing time.  He admitted all these excuses were nonsense, that it was just individual  policy and we had a friendly discussion during which I explained I could not do a full tour every time, could not buy a bottle at every distillery and the whole point of tasting was if you happened to really like the product you might then buy it at a later stage but by not allowing a taste there was no chance of a choice. After all this when I even offered to pay for a dram he refused, citing company policy as the excuse – not even one from his own private stock for two South Africans who had come a long way to see his distillery! But lets not be too harsh, maybe he had to get home early that afternoon. But it was still frustrating especially when there is no apparent logical reason.

In conclusion I do not understand why a distillery would go to the trouble of building a visitors centre, encourage people to come and then tell them they cannot try the product unless they spend two hours doing the full tour. Let people make up their own mind and for those who don’t have the time let them pay for it if necessary, the distillery can’t loose. But to deny consumers the opportunity to try your product is marketing madness and I think the Scots need to take a leaf out of the South African wineries book on marketing and customer relations. In any event I will be returning to Speyside in March 2007 and will be interested to see if attitudes have changed.

And the answer to the question – well, I have my own opinion but I have laid out the two scenarios.
I will leave you, fellow whisky lovers, to decide on the answer for yourselves…

Oh, one more thing. If the lady running the shop at Bruichladdich had been in every distillery we visited I would not be writing this e-pistle. She was by far the most attentive friendly and service orientated person I met on my entire trip and needless to say offered us a free tasting despite not having done “the full tour”!