First announced in 2012, The Macallan‘s stunning new distillery and visitor centre will finally open to the public this June… and looks set to unveil an awe-inspiring visitor experience unlike any other.
It can be tough being an innovator in the Scottish whisky industry. Distilleries in Scotland are generally restrained by centuries of heritage, almost honour-bound to hold themselves to a certain level of practicality and tradition in pretty much every aspect whether it’s in the making of whisky or the selling of it. Those who dare to be different, like The Macallan, tended to stick out like a sore thumb. Cynics in certain circles were doubtful of The Macallan maintaining its quality when the brand moved to source their own supply of sherry-seasoned casks, for example, while others were quietly critical of its relentless luxury marketing and believed they were over-glorifying the whisky lifestyle. Yet others too would sneer at how the brand celebrates the stratospheric prices vintage Macallan liquid is commanding at auctions. Its flashy new £140m investment – originally budgeted at £100m – is likely to add more fire to such accusations.
Not that any of that would faze The Macallan’s Creative Director Ken Grier, the man behind the idea for the new distillery.
“Coming into the idea for the new distillery was that we knew we needed to have more capacity, but we also knew we had an opportunity to do things in a different way,” recalled Grier. “We could have built another facility on the existing site, but we decided not really because it didn’t do what we wanted it to do – those were built as very practical process sites, not with the brand being positioned for what essentially is the creation of a luxury product. It didn’t have the right underpinning, the right message about the quality and craft.”
He remembers going through the book Wineries of the World and seeing a picture of Rioja’s Ysios winery while thinking to himself, ‘Why can’t we have something like this?’
The main entrance to the new Macallan distillery and visitor centre, as seen as you walk up from The Macallan’s spiritual home, the Easter Elchies House.
The more Grier spoke to internationally acclaimed architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – who had won the right to design the new distillery in a competition – the more excited he got. “There was an opportunity here to not only build what essentially was a manmade object that flows with and integrates into a landscape of outstanding beauty, but also one that is highly functional,” Grier added.
But those ideas would mean breaking away from the look and feel of a traditional Scottish distillery. And true to type, The Macallan leapt at the chance.
Ironically the outward appearance of The Macallan’s modern new distillery would be inspired by the broch, those ancient rounded stone structures from the Iron Age that dot the Scottish landscape. But inside the new facility – which has taken six years from conceptualisation to its eventual official opening next month – was entirely different. Cut into one of the undulating slopes in Craigellachie that was once a barley field, those driving past may never have guessed that those mere bumps on the Speyside landscape (main picture) are home to some of the most technologically-advanced equipment available to a distillery.
Each “pod” in the new Macallan distillery holds 8 spirit stills and 4 wash stills in a circular, octopus-like layout flanked by massive mash tuns and fermenters – unlike most other distilleries which lay them out in a linear fashion – for a current total of 24 spirit stills and 12 wash stills.
Indeed, stepping into the new Macallan facility is akin to flying past the illusionary shield that protects the fictional nation of Wakanda from the rest of the world in the Marvel’s comic universe. It’s currently made up of five different mounds – or what the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners would call pods – one of which houses the visitor centre, three that contain the massive mash tuns, fermenters and stills that are the heart of every distillery, with the remaining pod available for future expansion.
The new plant will bring The Macallan’s production capacity up by approximately a third, to a total of 15 million litres per annum when it’s fully commissioned. Part of the reason is the new equipment’s efficiency, The Macallan’s Master Distiller Nick Savage pointed out.
“One of the most amazing things about the new distillery is that it can turn around a 17-tonne mash from start to finish in three hours. That’s phenomenal from a technical perspective,” Savage says. “How these new technologies help us make consistent new-make spirit for The Macallan is really interesting to see.”
The geodesic roof of the Macallan’s new distillery – as seen above the facility’s tasting room – is comprised of wooden triangular panels, almost none of which are similar to the other.
The visitor centre, too, contains some of the most technological advanced architectural features designed into any building. The geodesic roof alone is one of the most complicated timber structures in the world, comprising some 1,800 single beams, 2,500 different roof elements, and 380,000 individual components, almost none of which are equal or the same.
“(The builders) took spruce from Scandinavia, planed it in Germany, created the roof sections in Austria, and then computer designed it so that when it came everything just slotted in like a jigsaw puzzle. There was a big pole in the middle to hold everything up, so when you took the pole out if things didn’t go well everything would collapse. But thankfully everything locked in place,” recalled Grier.
Graham Stirk, architect and senior partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners pointing at the thick fireproof glass wall that separated the distillery and visitor centre portions of the new Macallan distillery.
Even the thick glass wall that separated the distillery from the visitor centre was a technological marvel. “We were very, very keen on what we wanted – the distillery to be connected to the visitor centre so we didn’t want a big blank wall in between. We took that big challenge of having a glass wall that you could look into the distillery yet give us fire protection; nothing of that scale was done before,” explained Grier.
They ended up scaling a model section of the wall just to burn it. “We burned up £300,000 worth of wall just to prove (its fireproofing capabilities to the authorities),” he grimaced.
What’s different about the new Macallan facility and pretty much every other distillery that fancies itself as a visitor attraction is that rather than having the visitor experience tacked as an afterthought, the one here has been fully designed to coexist with distillery operations. Every visitor can fully witness distillery workers as they go about the job, yet because of the way things are laid out, not get in the way of operations. There’s walkthrough to examine the working stills for example, with a 3D exhibit smack in the middle explaining how The Macallan’s ‘curiously small’ stills – which took six men from Scottish coppersmiths Forsyths six months to make – pick up the desired compounds in the distillation process even as workers go about their business.
Macallan’s new distillery accords visitors an amazing view of the Scottish landscape outside even from within the still room.
“I genuinely think the way it’s laid out visitors will get a great view of things but also go away with a greater understanding of the whisky making process than any other tour they will ever go on,” insisted master distiller Savage.
What’s not located within the new facility are Macallan’s warehouses housing barrels laid down with maturing spirit, strewn across the Macallan property like massive monoliths. The Macallan’s brand owners Edrington Group may have thrown £140m on the new property, but that’s not all they’ve invested. In total Edrington’s investment programme is closer to the tune of £500m, much of which has also gone into new warehousing facilities.
New modern storage warehouses under construction on what was Macallan’s Overton farm, each of which can hold 25,000 casks and stack some 10 hogsheads or 8 butts high when completed.
While they’re still employing 19 traditional dunnage warehouses, The Macallan also own some 25 far larger modern warehouses similar to those from more new world whisky distilleries, with six more under construction and another four planned. That’s 54 warehouses in total, and when fully complete will hold some 300,000 casks of maturing spirit at any one time.
As you can imagine, with the increased capacity comes the need for more wood. To that end, The Macallan’s Master of Wood Stuart MacPherson was brought in early to make sure that the distillery was not only getting the right volume of casks, but also of the right quality.
“Can we get the right wood from the northern forests of Spain? Have the cooperages themselves got the right capacity to deal with the amount of casks coming through? These were some of the questions that Stuart had to deal with,” shared Savage.
“It’s why I spend more than half my time in Spain. Sometimes my wife even remembers me,” joked MacPherson, whose family lives around Glasgow.
Macallan workers prepping casks seasoned with sherry at an on-site cask storage facility.
“We have been thinking about (this expansion) for the longest time so we were able to talk to cask manufacturers earlier the fact that we will be ramping up production,” adds Grier. “We were able to forecast early enough that right now we’re looking at fulfilling future targets as opposed to past targets,” he added.
That increased production, though, is unlikely to mitigate the skyrocketing demand for The Macallan whisky around the world any time soon. The truth is that it take a while before any of the liquid from the new distillery is going to be commercially ready.
“We’ve always liked to produce beautiful whiskies; we’ve always liked to put them into beautiful decanters, and work with things that have an aesthetic about them. We’ve always tried to be thought leaders and tried to do things ahead of the industry, and (with this new distillery) I hope we’ve sort of set a benchmark for that.”
– Ken Grier, Creative Director for The Macallan
“Normally (our) whisky takes at least 12 years to come out,” pointed out Grier, who will be retiring from The Macallan near the end of this year and sees the completion of this project as the pinnacle of his career. “The key thing now is to ensure that the new plant works perfectly and produces a great, consistent spirit,” the 58 year-old added, with a tacit understanding that he may not be around to taste some of the finished whiskies whose new-make spirit is starting to flow from those stills.
“If you think about it, my four-year old little girl will in years to come become the customer for what is coming out of the new distillery,” pointed out Savage.
“It’s weird to have to tell her that she’s going to be one of the first to appreciate what’s we’re now making.”
*All photos copyright of SpiritedSingapore.com. A big thank you to Edrington Group for a preview look of the new Macallan distillery.