Whisky tourism providers are gearing up to welcome guests back after 15 months of disruption that has hampered trade.
The industry, which attracts an estimated 350,000 visitors to Speyside each year, like others was forced to close down and turn guests away as Covid-19 set in.
Thankfully, for an industry dependent on its produce, distillers continued to make the water of life whilst waiting for guests to return.
Whisky mansion to provide ‘the ultimate staycation’
One offering that was nearing completion prior to the pandemic was the conversion of Rothes Glen House.
The investment of more than £1.5 million will help support up to 10 full-time jobs once open, with temporary seasonal roles created to supplement events and busier times.
Chief executive Damian Riley-Smith has said he is awaiting approval to welcome guests back.
However, he does anticipate numbers will be down due to restrictions on international travel.
Distilleries may be last to reopen to visitors
Mr Riley-Smith said: “The main impact is on visitors and travel and tourism.
“The industry is scrupulous about standards and I think whisky distilleries have always had the highest standards of customer and consumer care.
“As soon as this started, they were amongst the first to close and I think they will be among the last to open because they don’t want any difficulties for their customers.
“The whisky industry is a social industry, you are drinking whisky in close proximity with other people so I think until it is complete lockdown gone, I don’t think distilleries will open.”
Market demand drove venture
Mr Riley-Smith has transformed the grand 19th century mansion to host guests who are interested in taking in the best of malt whisky country.
The venture, which focuses on providing a high-class service, will provide a facility for visitors to “immerse themselves in whisky heaven”, and was always planned – even prior to the pandemic.
However, with social distancing measures having been implemented, and a desire for private spaces, Rothes Glen fits in perfectly with the requests of many to escape on staycations.
Mr Riley-Smith added: “This is not remotely in response to the pandemic, it is in response to what I would call market demand.
“This was more driven by the fact when there are only half a dozen really cracking hotels up here, there is limited supply and I know the enthusiasm for Scotch whisky grows and grows and grows.
“I know people want to come.
“One of their constraints is where can they stay so they feel they are in whisky heaven?”
By transforming the mansion, Mr Riley-Smith hopes visitors will spend longer in the local area, rather than day tripping from Perth or Edinburgh.
The renovation of the house, which is being conducted in two phases, has been supported from grant funding from Highlands and Islands Enterprise and Royal Bank of Scotland.
All eyes on July 19
Mr Riley-Smith, like others in the industry, is awaiting approval from the government for when distilleries and visitor centres may be able to welcome guests back.
“Hopefully, come July 19 those restrictions will be lifted,” he added.
“If those restrictions aren’t lifted, then that will cause us a challenge.
“The big difference, and it is a huge difference, is that for this year, I had planned that 70% of all our guests who would stay here would be whisky enthusiasts or in the whisky industry or connoisseurs, but in saying that, most of them would have been international.
“I don’t think we will get many – if any of them – this year because of travel.
“We have slightly turned our head more towards Glasgow and Edinburgh and down south this year because I think the staycation is a much bigger thing this year.
“I don’t think we are going to see anywhere near the figures we hoped.”
Home steeped in history
The home dates back to 1893 and was designed by renowned Inverness architect Alexander Ross.
Charles Chree Doig, who was also prominent in introducing the design familiar with many distilleries across Scotland incorporating pagodas, built the baronial style home.
The grade B listed building has also served as a hotel and most recently a private home.
Mr Riley-Smith estimates that within one hour’s drive of the house, there are approximately 59 distilleries to that can be visited.