I have the great pleasure of introducing Jeannine, one of the tour guides for Glendronach, BenRiach and Glenglassaugh.. Tour guides are the smiling face we all know and is the first contact every visitor to a distillery has and possibly one of the most important positions there is as they can make your tour fantastic and make you a fan forever or totally spoil your experience..
A journey into whisky..
It all started when my kids got summer jobs as distillery guides. The conversation at the table suddenly livened up and the whisky chit chat became a new ritual at the dinner table in the house up on the Terrace just a few yards from one of the most iconic distilleries in the North-East. Whisky t-shirts, white blouses and shirts with company logos started making their appearance in the laundry basket. Tartan skirts, kilts, whisky anoraks and name tags completed the uniforms.
Naturally, when you emigrate to Scotland, whisky is a must have in your house. I would buy the uisge beatha to take home to France as a present, have a few bottles in the cabinet for visitors, pour my choice dram for new year when we’d go first footing ( A Scottish tradition, which is to visit your neighbour with a dram and a piece of coal for the fire) but would only have an occasional nip myself.
My parents were wine growers who also distilled fruit so Wine was always on the table. We used Kirsch in fruit salad and black forest gâteau, rum in cake, Marc de Gewürztraminer, (a spirit made from the sweet Gewürtztraminer grape) in coffee, Gentiane for digestive upset, Pastis for apéritif and whisky came last, mostly used medicinally by mum who never goes anywhere without a mini of Scotch in her handbag. Amazingly I only recently found out that the family home in France was a distillery in the 1870s before it was turned into a pub called “Le Lion d’Or” and subsequently into a winery by my parents.
I then I married a Scotsman, hence it became the summer ritual to bring a different bottle and initiate the gallic palate to a variety of Scotch. I didn’t really know very much about Scotch then, apart from having a dram now and again, Highland Park, Cardhu, Glenmorangie, Chivas, Glenfiddich were the standards and occasionally An Cnoc, Dalwhinnie, Knockando, Glenfarclas, and GlenDronach but It depended a bit as to what was on offer (or not) at the duty free, the choice was far less extensive than nowadays with travel exclusives and what not.
Back in Scotland, I would take overseas relatives (and even school groups) to visit a distillery. Regarding visits, Glenfiddich was back then the first choice because already at that time, in the auditorium, visitors could put headphones on and select the channel required to hear the film in their own language. That was some 30 years ago.
After that summer in 2014, things began to take a new twist. I realised my ears would prick up every time the word whisky was mentioned. It sounded just fabulous and I became enthralled by the lure of the international world on my doorstep. Supply teaching (Foreign Languages) somehow had also lost its lustre and working in the industry felt like a new and exciting venture, It didn’t take long to take the next step and I applied for a job as a guide. With a distillery on my doorstep, I have literally been breathing in whisky for the last forty years, the wind chasing the sweet scent from the fermenting wash all over the neighbourhood and every day I am blessed with the delightful sight of the famous twin pagoda from the oldest working distillery in Highlands, Stathisla. I was more than ready.
You might be wondering why I didn’t apply for a job there. I don’t think my son would have liked to work with his mother! Three years on, whisky has taken me on a amazing journey. It has become a real passion and it’s a great joy to take our visitors round GlenDronach, Glenglassaugh and BenRiach. Occasionally I may do parts of a tour in two-three languages, translating key areas for visitors with very little English. I have become quite adept at facing my group and walk backwards as they follow. Like this, I am able to engage with everyone while making our way outside to a focal point of a tour.
On a typical day, I would do two to three tours, connoisseur or other and I navigate between three distilleries. Between tours, the guides make sure clean glasses are available, shelves are stocked up, visitors are seen to at the till, drams are set up for the guide who is on tour, information about the whisky for sale is given, labels for hand fills are pre-signed by the manager and enough bottles are ready for the popular distillery exclusive, bookings are taken and noted in the diary, stock taking is done and records are kept up to date. It’s the team effort that ensures everything runs smoothly. One of my favourite moments is unlocking and opening the musty Dunnage warehouse. Immediately you smell the angel’s share as you enter the silent world of whisky maturing quietly in its cocoon, the casks, breathing in unison with the wood, the damp cool earth floor, the mysterious darkness, the ambient air, the spiders spinning their cobwebs and dusty rafters, the invisible alchemy that transforms our spirit into your exquisite dram. Another favourite time is pouring our drams and witnessing people’s happiness as they taste the amber elixir.
I love working in all three distilleries. While being different, they complement each other in interesting ways. Each one is like a precious jewel glittering for different reasons and together they form this beautiful crown. The precious gems are held together by sparkling diamonds, our pristine spirits flowing crystal clear in the spirit safe. GlenDronach with its focus on maturing whisky in the finest Sherry casks is the Ruby. BenRiach with its whisky maturing in bourbon barrels and its many wood finishes is the Topaz. Coastal Glenglassaugh with its collection of old and rare whiskies is the Sapphire. I am often asked what my favourite drams are and if I like a peated whisky. I would say they are GlenDronach 18, Glenglassaugh Evolution, BenRiach 12 from our distilleries and yes I do enjoy a peated dram too.
I like to give the best tour I possibly can and adjust to the needs of the people. Some want to know more about the production side of things, other are less interested in geeky detail and prefer history/heritage. It’s about striking the right balance so that everyone has a wonderful time and hopefully has learned something he/she hasn’t heard before elsewhere. It matters to me that each individual is very happy with his/ her experience.
I like to talk a little about the people who founded the distillery, They are heroes in their own right as without their vision, we wouldn’t be in the enviable position of having so many working distilleries famous the world over. I strive to know as much as I possibly can about each of my distilleries and of course about the drams we serve. That’s a challenge because the range between the three distilleries is extensive and I can only manage a very small dram but a bit of homework is essential from time to time! For me it’s all about an appreciation of whisky, nosing it, tasting a few drops, making notes and who in their right mind wouldn’t like that!
I read a lot about whisky in general and try to keep up to date with what’s going on in the industry via social media. In my spare time, I will visit distilleries (I love that homework too!), go to a whisky show or sometimes to our local and excellent whisky bars to taste a different expression and I always have my little notebook on me. It is important to experience a variety of whiskies and not just Scotch. An exploration into the aroma and flavour world awakens all your senses.
To date I have visited about fifty distilleries in Scotland over the past two years and a handful in France, there are over a hundred with visitor centres in Scotland alone, so the future is amber in colour. There can be many memorable moments for the visitors during a tour: getting surprised by the wash when looking into the wash back, feeling the heat generated in there under the action of the yeast transforming the liquid into alcohol, perhaps getting a splash in the passing if I open the lid a tiny bit when it’s switching, crunching on a bit of freshly malted barley, handling the shiel or maybe the rake to become aware of the hard work the guys have to do when doing the malting, seeing the barley germinating and feeling its warmth on the malting floor if their tour coincides with us doing our own malting at BenRiach. Nosing and tasting the whisky at the end of the tour is the crème de la crème.
It is truly a wonderful job and I do my best to be a knowledgeable guide and good ambassador for our distilleries. My next step is to perhaps do an online certificated distance course on brewing and distilling and for sure spend some time in production at our distilleries. It is good to follow the journey from spirit right through to whisky not just in an intellectual way but also very much with hands on. That’s where the spirit leads me.
slàinte. Jeannine. Guide at Glendronach, BenRiach, Glenglassaugh.
I would like to thank Jeannine for this absolutely enthralling insight into her life within the industry.. I am sure everyone who reads this will agree just what a great read this is and appreciate the time and effort Jeannine has put in.. Thank you again and I look forward to chatting to you next time I visit..