Whisky Tourism plays a crucial role in Scotland’s economy. A Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) survey found visitor numbers to distilleries totalling 2,004,745 visits in 2018, representing a 56% rise on the number recorded in 2010.
According to a survey by the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions (ALVA), Scotch whisky distilleries are collectively the third most-visited attraction in Scotland behind the National Museum of Scotland and Edinburgh Castle. Interestingly, distilleries in Scotland only started to allow visitors just over fifty years ago, when William Grant & Sons opened the doors to Glenfiddich distillery, inviting the public in and creating the industry’s first ever visitor centre in 1969.
But whisky tourism is not just about visiting distilleries and there are many businesses created on the back of the Scotch whisky industry in Scotland. One such company is Once Upon a Whisky and its Colombian founder Camilo Gomez. He was kind enough to write this guest blog post for Inside the Cask on how he started his own whisky tourism business.
“Everything started back in 2009 when I finished my undergraduate studies in Colombia. I have a background in business administration and when I finished, I decided to reward myself with a trip to New York. The idea was to travel and spend a couple of months enjoying some good summer days (just like Scotland… you know). The idea of the trip was also to take some time to think about my future as a professional in the business world. To be honest, I never saw myself working in an office doing boring jobs from 9 am to 5 pm. So, I decided to take some time to study international mixology at the New York Bartending School. The idea was to learn about the world of drinks and hopefully, someday be able to combine my formal business education with some sort of art, the art of mixing drinks.
When I came back to Colombia, I founded “La Cocteleria” as a side project. The idea was to deliver premium cocktails to private events and music festivals. At the beginning was difficult to find customers and enough cash flow able to pay for the bills. So, I got a job in the car industry in the marketing department. After a few years dealing with cars, spare parts and La Cocteleria as a side project, I heard that William Grant & Sons were looking for a whisky ambassador for Grant’s whisky, a very popular blended Scotch in Colombia and many other countries worldwide.
After a few interviews with the local and global teams, I got the job and I would say that’s the exact time when I got passionate about the whisky industry. My role included tasks like tastings, events, PR, content creation, develop relationships with the on-trade and off-trade and loads of travels across Colombia and Scotland. After a few visits to this beautiful country, I quit my job as an ambassador and decided to come to Scotland for good. My “excuse” was an MBA at Glasgow University. Right after I finished my master degree, I founded Once Upon a Whisky. The idea was to tell stories while visiting distilleries, pubs, shops and anything related to the whisky culture.
Where does passion for Scotch whisky come from?
Definitely started when I was working as a brand ambassador for William Grant & Sons. My mission in that position was to pass on the passion of whisky. It’s impossible to do such a thing if you don’t feel it. Working with them allowed me to discover a drink that symbolises many things. Whisky represents culture, art, music, cocktails, travels, heritage, business. Moreover, whisky is something that you can be proud of being passionate about, it’s not like selling bricks or truck tires. Whisky has history and it’s also an exciting product. People buy whisky because they want it, not because they need it. It is much more fun dealing with products or services that deliver happiness and passion than those that we only buy for need.
What was it like to start your whisky tourism business? Any challenges?
Loads of challenges, first of all, being a Colombian living in Scotland and educating people about their drink is not something that many whisky enthusiasts would appreciate too much. Second, the language barrier has been always a big challenge. Before I came to Scotland I never had to speak in a different language publicly. I’ve been dealing with that since the first day and even though today is a bit easier, it’s still a challenge having to communicate with customers and suppliers in a different language. Although my English is relatively good, that part has been always a barrier. However, for native speakers thinking about starting a venture in the tourism industry, I think my experience will give them a bit of hope.
Nevertheless, the biggest challenge I have faced all these years is related to cultural differences. Colombians and Scottish are very different. Sometimes we tend to support our country and our people before supporting someone else and I get that. I don’t mean everyone behaves the same way and I have met friends, colleagues and other whisky lovers that have supported me massively during all these years. However, it’s been a few times when I have felt underestimated or misjudged just because I came from somewhere else or because I don’t speak the same language. On the other hand, if we look at the bright side, the nature of my profession has allowed me to meet amazing people from different nationalities. Customers and industry peers have been very supportive at every stage of my career as an entrepreneur and I feel very thankful about that.
Reaction to a Colombian teaching tourists about Scotch?
As I mentioned previously, this point has been one of the biggest challenges. But I must say, that after each tour, tasting or event, pretty much everyone changes their mind about that first “negative” impression. Customers can see when you are passionate about what you do and it’s easy to prove it when you know your stuff. Being a Colombian living in Scotland talking about whisky almost daily has become one of my unique selling points. I don’t see this as a disadvantage anymore. On the other hand, I see it as the differential factor that makes my tours different from other competitors. The way I understand whisky differs in great proportion to the way locals interact with the drink.
Customers have learnt to see it that way and based on their feedback it seems to be something that they appreciate and respect. They find my opinions and quirky ideas very constructive when it comes to whisky appreciation.
Whisky tours and whisky tastings in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Whether for small or large groups, private events or tours for the general public. Once Upon a Whisky offers whisky-walking tours, cocktail tours, one-day distillery excursions, food pairings, and a one of kind event where we mix whisky, doughnuts and films through a storytelling experience.
Any curiosities/ anecdotes/ funny moments to share?
During the last three years I have dealt with thousands of customers, every single group is a different story but if I had to choose one, I would choose my friend Britt from Belgium. By the time she came over we weren’t friends at all, I had never seen this girl before. I did the tour with her and a few other customers. Right after the tour, she invited me for some beers. Long story short, we ended up the night dancing Scottish folk music at The Park Bar in Finnieston in Glasgow. We became really good friends, so a couple of months later she invited me to visit her in Bruges. It was her turn to show me how people from Belgium drink their beer. A fantastic memory and a friend for life, these are the kind of things that are priceless and unforgettable. One of the perks of the job I guess.
How do you cope at these challenging times?
Covid-19 has changed our lives forever and I’m glad I was in a position to be able to innovate and make quick decisions about the future of my business. During the last few months, I’ve been executing virtual whisky tastings twice a week. I have partnered up with The Dram Team, a subscription whisky club that delivers fantastic whisky to their subscribers.
The idea of the virtual tasting is to tell stories about each whisky/distillery, show customers how to enjoy and properly taste whisky while I take them on a virtual journey across distilleries, regions and flavours. So far, I have hosted almost 400 happy customers. Their feedback has been fantastic and now I’m very motivated to continue with the virtual tastings in the future. Who would have thought that such a negative thing like a pandemic would have been able to develop another business unit for my company? I think I’ve been a very lucky guy. You can see a bit of the activity on this video (below) which I have done to promote the virtual tastings.
Anything else/ other services?
Yes, part of my strategy with Once Upon a Whisky is to educate customers in all things whisky through different channels: the tours, the virtual tastings and a range of infographics that explain the way I understand whisky and the way I want to communicate my message to the general public. Always considering the storytelling ingredient in combination with a beautiful design. So far, I have developed three of them that are available to buy in my Etsy shop.”