Whisky production is a fascinating part of Scotland's history, says Judy Mackie
There appears to be a belief among some in the whisky-making industry that the amber nectar and visiting school parties do not mix.
The Dallas Dhu Whisky Museum, for example, is coy about the prospect of under-age visitors, voicing concern about alcohol and young people. Even at the Glenfiddich Distillery, in the Moray village of Dufftown, which welcomes visitors of all ages, there is a faint uneasiness about exposing children to the full impact of a trade which has alcohol at its heart.
"School parties are very welcome here, but the whole children and alcohol issue does pose a bit of a problem when it comes to knowing how much they should be told," says chief guide David Mair.
Schools, however, seem to have no such hang-ups. Barbara O'Brien, headteacher at Craigellachie Primary School, sums up the feelings shared by many teachers who choose to visit distilleries with their pupils.
"In this area," she says, "it is virtually impossible to ignore the whisky industry. The parents of many of our pupils work at local distilleries and it is a part of our heritage. We feel it is far better to see the alcohol industry as part and parcel of normal life and to discuss the issues which surround it in their proper context, than to avoid the subject and perhaps encourage the taboos and horror stories which arise through lack of education."
The simple solution, according to teaching professionals, is to take the initiative and make it clear to the distillery what you want to derive from the experience. That way, the teacher controls the focus of the visit, and the distillery guides are relieved of a difficult dilemma.
Ethics sorted out, a fascinating experience awaits primary and secondary groups visiting Glenfiddich Distillery and the nearby Speyside Cooperage at Craigellachie. The two are unrelated businesses (Glenfiddich has its own coopers, and casks are crafted on site, though not in public view), but whisky and coopering are so bound up with each other that to miss one out would be folly. Both sites can be fitted into a morning or afternoon. It doesn't matter which you visit first.
Stalwart of the celebrated Moray whisky trail, the 110-year-old sandstone-clad Glenfiddich Distillery, owned by William Grant Sons, nestles in a glen, close to Balmenie Castle. The castle's immortalisation in Shakespeare's Macbeth is effectively portrayed in the atmospheric and informative pre-tour audio-visual presentation, which unashamedly targets the foreign visitor with images of clan tartans and tales of bloody battles, but will also appeal to young viewers with its high tech special effects.
The presentation ends with a simple description of the whisky-making process at Glenfiddich and outlines the history of the Grant family, whose entrepreneurial flair has made the single malt famous throughout the world.
The tour begins with a journey which is as much of an olfactory experience as a visual one. Visitors are lured from the rich, malty smell of the Mash House, where natural Highland water from the Robbie Dhu springs is married with finely-ground malt, or grist, to produce a sugary liquid called wort, through to the hoppy aroma of the tun room, where yeast is added and fermentation takes place in huge oak washbacks, and finally to the steamy spirit-scented stillhouse, where Glenfiddich is distilled twice in magnificent, copper pot stills, built and maintained by the distillery's own coppersmiths.
Less strong-smelling but just as fascinating is the original wood-beamed warehouse, where the whisky matures in rows of old oak casks which lie undisturbed in the cool silence for many years. Having formerly contained Spanish sherry, these casks are responsible for the whisky's rich, amber colouring. An additional bonus for schools is the bottling factory, which can be viewed from a glass-panelled gallery - Glenfiddich is the only Scottish distillery to bottle its product on site.
With a throughput of up to 250 bottles a minute on the largest of several production lines, and the engineering challenges posed by the company's distinctive triangular bottle, the busy plant has for some years engaged the interest of staff and pupils at Speyside High School.
"Many of our higher-level technology studies pupils have based their industrial studies on the bottling plant, looking at the process in an engineering context. The distillery is very supportive of this and is happy to arrange visits," says principal teacher Ian Barker. The tour is rounded off in the malt barn, where juice and biscuits can be provided for school parties, and adults are invited to sample something a little stronger. And "afore ye go" - to coin a rival whisky firm's catchphrase - there's the gift shop, whose attractive wooden interior reflects the traditional style of the distillery buildings.
Glenfiddich Distillery, Dufftown, Banffshire AB55 4DH. Open Easter to mid-October. Entry free. Schools book first.
A leaflet is available. Contact David Mair or Pat MacPherson, tel: 01340 820373