Michael is our Visitor Experience Manager, home to both Kingsbarns and Darnley’s Distilleries. Our Netherlands-native Experience Manager runs the day-to-day operations in the visitor centre, including the café, shop, tours, ecommerce fulfilment and general upkeep of the property.
How did you get into the industry?
I’ve always worked in hospitality ever since I was 14 years of age; firstly alongside my studies, then during my (world) travels and eventually I made it my profession when I further developed my skills at Skibo Castle, in the north of Scotland. There I was fortunate enough to really learn about whisky, both while serving it and when visiting local distilleries, and over the years in management roles at other 5+star properties I gained more knowledge and started to conduct whisky tastings.
With the birth of my second child I decided to find more of a ‘9 to 5’ job to improve my family time/work balance. When I heard Kingsbarns Visitor Centre was looking for a manager I felt this suited me greatly as I love working with whisky and working for an independent, family-owned business.
What impact has the pandemic had on whisky tourism?
Whisky tourism, like many other travel-related sectors, came to a complete halt due to the pandemic. Our Visitor Centre closed for several months and when we re-opened, we were mainly seeing UK based people, rather than foreign travellers. This meant a different audience, with a different buying style, were visiting our distilleries. It was a while before we were able to offer tours again but over the summer of 2021 people’s confidence has grown and we’ve seen healthy sales of our spirits despite far fewer visitors as the international travellers are still few and far between. People have been drinking and experimenting with different drinks at home more so we’ve seen an uptake in people that have only just begun to appreciate whisky and decide to visit the distillery to learn more.
How has the experience landscape changed over the past decade?
Having only been open since 2014 it has been an ever-changing experience for us, with the main change of course being the release of our own Single Malt Whisky in 2019. This meant we could give people a taste of our very own product, rounding off the tours in style. As we release more editions of our whisky the experience becomes more interesting for whisky lovers and we do see more of the top end experiences being booked as people don’t ‘just’ want to visit a distillery but they want to learn about what we do and what our products offer.
How would you like to see the Kingsbarns experience develop in the future?
The dream is to become as much a household name as some of the bigger, well-established distilleries; not to be ‘the new kid on the block’ anymore. We have a very loyal following but we’re still seen as ‘too young’ by many: this was certainly true 20 years ago but modern techniques allow us to make a young whisky taste great!
What is your all-time favourite release and why?
The Distillery Reserve 2020 was a STR Cask (Shaved, Toasted and Re-charred) and the flavours coming from this cask made for a whisky that was full bodied and ripe; flavour-wise, that blew me away but it doesn’t showcase the lighter, Lowland style that we are normally looking for. The floral Kingsbarns Spirit was completely overshadowed by the wood and therefore, even though it tasted great, my favourite release must be the Dream to Dram; just because it is so approachable and just a nice drinking single malt.
If you were able to share a whisky with anybody, living or in history, who would it be?
Many years ago I looked after the bar at a private Billy Joel concert and one of my tasks was to keep the big man’s glass topped up throughout; he drank strictly Bourbon (and a great Bourbon as it happens). We talked briefly after the concert about Bourbon vs Single Malt Scotch and I’d love to enjoy a ‘Dream to Dram’, a good cigar and some great music with him and maybe convert him to ‘our style’ of whisky!
MICHAEL VAN DER VEEN
INTERVIEWED BY KRISTEN