The Scotch Whisky Experience team are, perhaps understandably, whisky enthusiasts through and through – it’s what makes them such great tour guides, infusing their passion for all things Scotch into everything they do. So give them a chance to explore somewhere that really is a bucket list experience, and you can be sure they’ll be first in line. Visitor Experience Manager Jim Allan was one of the lucky visitors to Diageo’s tour of their world-famous whisky archive back earlier in 2018, as part of International Scotch Day on 8th February. Read on to find out what it’s like…
“When whisky enthusiasts think about central Scotland they may consider Rosebank or Deanston distilleries, or perhaps even the mammoth warehousing complex at Blackgrange near Alloa. But delve deeper and in a village in the “wee county” of Clackmannanshire, there is a true hidden gem that few know about and even fewer ever get the opportunity to visit.
On the outskirts of the village of Menstrie (within a site that contains amongst other things, a yeast plant), the treasure trove that is the Diageo Archive can be found.
Although moved to Menstrie in 2001 and expanded in 2013, the archive is relatively unknown and is not open to the public. However recently, as part of Diageo’s celebration of the second International Scotch Day on the 8th February, 100 members of the public, selected via a balloted application process, were each able to spend one hour in this incredible whisky archive.
Staying local to Menstrie this was a rare opportunity to explore whisky history, and so in January 2018 a ballot application was submitted and success ensued: roll on 10am on 8th February!
Arriving in good time, our group received a warm welcome, not only from Diageo’s Archive Manager Christine McCafferty and her wonderfully knowledgeable staff, but from the plethora of Johnnie Walker advertising materials on display.
To ensure that everyone got ample opportunity to view the exhibits, the group was split into two and I started off in a magnificent room detailing some of the site’s history whilst looking down upon the portraits of many of the great names in the history of DCL and Scotch whisky. The Distiller’s Company Limited, or DCL as it was known, was started in 1877, eventually evolving into the global company of Diageo through the acquisition and development of various household drinks brands.
The village of Menstrie will probably be unknown to anyone other than locals, but in terms of the history of Scotch whisky it was a revelation to learn that the whole area had been a hive of whisky production: the huge Glenochil Distillery previously sat on the Menstrie site itself, and in Alloa as far back as 1766 there was just one licensed distiller and as many as 17 illicit distillers!
It transpired that originally in 1764 the site was founded as the Dolls Distillery and through the years this became Glenochil, a large grain distillery which subsequently had a Coffey still installed. The evolution of Glenochil continued and it became one of the founding distilleries of DCL. It was even visited by one Mr Alfred Barnard as distillery number 107, as described in his famous book Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, first published in 1887. The history contained in this one small room alone was nothing short of astounding.
It became apparent that the opportunity to visit this incredible collection had attracted a wide range of people, some of whom had travelled a considerable distance to seize the opportunity; but conversely there were also local residents who had simply come to learn more about what the archive was about. One had even decided to attend to learn more about where their relatives used to work.
All too soon it was time to leave this fascinating room and move onto the highlight of the visit, the bottle archive. On entering this cathedral of bottles, it was brought home to everyone that Diageo is a huge global brand in terms of spirits, but it’s the Scotch whisky bottles that really take pride of place.
The archive naturally highlighted the importance of brands such as Johnnie Walker, Bells and Haig, whisky brands that have helped popularise Scotch across the globe. However, there were also surreal displays such as the J&B crazy colours, some examples of which I doubt many have ever seen all together before. Simple, but absolutely stunning.
Time in the bottle archive was understandably limited and there were so many outstanding bottles it was difficult to pick out any specifics. One series does stick in my mind, however: there have to be few places where a single year’s complete selection of Diageo Special Releases can be seen together.
The Diageo archive is a special place containing iconic bottles, historic artefacts and considerable commercial memorabilia, and anyone who saw it would undoubtedly have their own favourite. So what was mine on the day?
Well, as a fan of Talisker, a bottle that had to figure highly was one labelled as being bottled by the Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. The label simply stated:
“It’s a fine speerit the Talisker, there’s no a petter made”
Here’s hoping that the Diageo Archive continues as a repository for all things whisky. It truly is an incredible experience.
The Diageo Archives are not open to the public. The only way to visit them is during a specially organised event (such as the one on International Scotch Day).
Photos: Jim Allan