A Closer Look: The Malt Whisky Trail

April 20, 2019

Scotch whisky tourism is booming. Since 2010, distillery visits have risen by about 25 percent. Whisky distilleries welcomed 1.7 million visitors in 2016 alone.

A large chunk of those visitors set their sights on Speyside, home to the iconic Malt Whisky Trail®. Distiller spoke to its director, James Johnston, about the surge in whisky tourism. He even gave a few handy tips for getting the most out of your trip to the Trail.

Could you give us the CliffsNotes on the Malt Whisky Trail?

The Malt Whisky Trail has had a presence in this iconic whisky-producing region since the mid-1950s, but it is only recently that it has awoken as a brand and looked to fully maximize the potential it has. It is a collective of like-minded organizations that put passion and collaboration at the heart of all they do for what is the ultimate scotch experience.

Malt Whisky Trail: James JohnstonJames Johnston / Photo Credit: Malt Whisky Trail®

What is key to the success of the Malt Whisky Trail?

The Malt Whisky Trail, the one and only Malt Whisky Trail, includes eight distilleries covering all compass points of Speyside, and with the Speyside Cooperage at the “center” of the geographic distribution. Key to the Malt Whisky Trail is not only the remarkable experience you will enjoy at each of the partner member locations, but the quality, diversity and authenticity of activity, locations and opportunities that lie between each.

The Malt Whisky Trail has undergone intensive re-branding a few years ago. You’re very active in the digital world now. What was the reason for that?

The Malt Whisky Trail was recognized as a “sleeping giant”. In 2012, the then Board of Directors elected to undertake a program to address the manner in which the market space was developing, the opportunity available and the fact that this fantastic asset had perhaps languished in the shadows for too long. I was invited to come in and chair the Malt Whisky Trail, and to stimulate the necessary change. The re-branding is just part of that journey—I think it is fair to say that the giant is most certainly now awake!

Before this role, you were never professionally involved the whisky industry. How did you land the role of Chairman?

My background is in public service, and perhaps I have been better known for delivering on challenging change programs in other sectors. Until invited by the late David Urquhart [from Gordon & MacPhail, ed.]—a giant of a man himself—to take up the pro-bono role of Chairman, I had nothing to do with this industry. The learning curve has been steep and perhaps a fresh pair of eyes has provided insights and a different perspective that has contributed to the giants awakening.

Malt Whisky Trail: A whisky tasting along the trailA whisky tasting along the trail / Photo Credit: Malt Whisky Trail®

What lessons have you learned during your involvement with the Malt Whisky Trail?

The malt whisky industry in Speyside has shown me how you can deliver consistency, authenticity, quality, passion and knowledge, yet retain a uniqueness, as well as promoting a confidence to celebrate one another’s success. The Malt Whisky Trail is all about people. People collaborate; people effectively partner—what a great lesson for us all, and in any aspect of life or work.

What do your recommend for people looking to spend a few days in Speyside? What are some can’t miss destinations along the Trail?

I’d start the journey off with a tour of The Glenlivet distillery, and if time permits, an exploration of the Smugglers Trail. Next, head to Cardhu distillery and experience the home of Johnnie Walker with an in depth tour of the first distillery started by a woman.

Make your way to Craigellachie for your last tour of the day at the Speyside Cooperage and explore the ancient craft of coopering. Spend the night at the famous Craigellachie Hotel and enjoy the finest of Speyside’s larder at the Copper Dog restaurant.

The next day you could go on a trip to Glenfiddich distillery and enjoy a cup of coffee at their Malt Barn café before heading on your tour. Before moving on to your next distillery, stop at the legendary 13th-century castle ruin, Balvenie Castle, in Dufftown.

Continue onwards to Scotland’s oldest working distillery, Strathisla in Keith, to experience an insightful tour at the home of Chivas Regal. Lastly, make your way towards Rothes to complete your last tour of the day at Glen Grant distillery set amongst beautiful, victorian gardens.

Your last day on The Trail should begin with a tour of Glen Moray’s ever growing site, and enjoy a quick brunch at their cafe before heading to Forres to tour Benromach. Finally, make the brief journey to historic distillery Dallas Dhu and explore the distilleries history over the years.

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