Last month we were spirited away to Speyside for something very special indeed: a sneak-peek, behind-the-scenes tour of The Macallan’s remarkable new single malt whisky distillery and the opportunity to quiz the people behind it. Of course, we jumped at the chance…
When a press trip starts with a non-disclosure agreement, you know you’re on to something good. That’s exactly how we kicked off proceedings in the sumptuous surroundings of Easter Elchies House, The Macallan’s spiritual and very traditional home, in mid-April. The sizeable Speyside estate was bathed in sunshine, from the incredible warehouse farm at the top of the hill (The Macallan matures every single one of its 300,000-odd whisky casks on-site), down to the broad and babbling River Spey, swollen by late snowmelt in the spring warmth.
In between lies the focal point of the visit. A 120-metre-long, spaceship-like, undulating swathe cut into the rolling hills of the estate, small triangular vents popping up from the complex, grass-covered roof formed from 2,500 tessellating elements. A giant, continuous glass fluctuation fronts the whole thing, sleek and rippling like the River Spey itself. This is no ordinary distillery.
For starters, it looks like something crossed between an airport and a Bond villain’s lair. The scale, even from a distance, is startling. Ten metres tall in places and clearly a feat of modern engineering, this is no quaint chocolate box production site playing on its heritage. Oh no. With the new build, The Macallan has turned Speyside distilling on its head.
“It wouldn’t have been right to build the sort of faux-Victorian distillery,” says Ken Grier, The Macallan’s creative director and the driving force behind the new site. “What we did was build something which has grandeur, something where the space is beautiful within.”
Plans for the new Macallan distillery were first unveiled in 2013. In a statement, parent company Edrington spoke of a desire to create ‘a site of major architectural significance in the heart of Speyside’ while ‘delivering additional capacity’, both in terms of production and visitor numbers. “This is a confident investment in the future of The Macallan and its home on Speyside,” Edrington CEO Ian Curle, said at the time. “Our plan for the estate includes a contemporary distillery that embodies the international style of The Macallan and builds on the brand’s tradition of quality and craftsmanship.” It seems the decision was as much driven by brand building as it was meeting production needs.
Fast-forward to today and the project is complete. Some stats: the build is part of a whopping £500 million investment in the brand over 12 years, of which £140 million was put aside for the distillery alone. The stills, which were made by local company Forsyths, were part of the largest copper order ever. Another local business, Robertson Construction, oversaw proceedings, with more than 400 people from 20 trades working on-site over the course of the project. And the result? Capacity will swell by up to one-third to hit 15 million litres of pure alcohol each year, all achieved by using 90% renewable energy (“100% on a good day,” remarks Grier).
The whole thing was thought out by architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, and spirit first flowed off the stills in December last year. When we visit in April production is fully up-and-running, with the visitor centre 60% finished, according to Grier. It’s clearly been quite the journey.
“I’m very, very proud of this project,” Grier continued. “I think what we’ve done here is distinctive, visionary… I think hopefully it’s highly engaging. I think it brings the heart of the brand, the terroir of the brand, to people in a very interesting way. And I’m very proud of it.”
On that note… best actually take a look inside the new Macallan distillery!
Inside the new Macallan distillery
We start the tour at Easter Elchies House. With our backs to the historic property, we look up the hill towards the new production site – and a slate-like pathway, zig-zagging with asymmetry, lures you up towards a glass door. From afar the entrance looks tiny and dark, an illusion which goes to emphasise the sheer scale of the rest of the building. As you walk closer, you realise the doors themselves are actually quite enormous.
Step inside and you are dwarfed by the size of the atrium. It’s built with the proportions of an airport, a likeness emphatically underscored by an incredible floor-to-ceiling archive housing 840 Macallan bottles from down the years. Crowning the feature wall is a huge screen, playing Macallan shorts on repeat. Behind the wall is another achieve, this time the Jewel Box, packed with 398 bottles and nine decanters dating back through the decades. It’s a remarkable collection.
We continue the walk through the visitor centre area, past a sleek retail space and through to a slightly more pared back bistro space – Scottish with a Roca Brothers’ twist, in-keeping with the brand’s ongoing partnership with the trio of chefs from the once-best restaurant in the world, just outside Barcelona. We pause to admire the bold shapes inside the space, formed by stainless steel and concrete, with flashes of orange accents. “We wanted it to look like a Tim Burton movie; big, heavy shadows,” Grier quips. And you’ve got the visual impact of that enormous tessellating roof, too.
We head up a spiral staircase in the centre of the space – made from polished plaster, “an artisan product” for a “glass-like top surface”, architect Toby Jeavons proudly tell us – and we emerge on the upper floor, with views across the local Speyside hills and back towards Easter Elchies House. An interactive pop-up device tells guests a bit about the house’s history and of its stature as The Macallan’s spiritual home. The floor-to-ceiling glass genuinely gives a sense of space – it’s an unusual feeling for inside a distillery.
We proceed through a vast glass door, separating the visitor centre from the production area (fun fact: the glass wall separating the two parts of the distillery is equipped with a first-of-its-kind water curtain, triggered in the event of a fire) and if the scale of the operation wasn’t yet apparent, you now cannot be in any doubt. You can see the stills and washbacks through the wall, but up close you appreciate the scale. Three circles of wash and spirit stills lay out in front of you, 12 in each – four wash and eight of those ‘curiously small’ spirit stills – with a total of 36. It’s a huge operation. The size of which is underscored further when we head to the far end of the production space…
This, technically is where it all starts – and it is gigantic. The vast vessel in front of us is the new Macallan mash tun, and it’s a 17-tonne monster. To put it in context, the pit in the floor in the video above is exactly the same diameter as the mash tun, and has been left in preparation for the installation of a second, should expansion be required. With mashing being a pinch point in most distilling operations this is a sensible legacy plan – even if the volume seems startling.
Concerto and Momentum barley comes in from maltsters Simpsons before it is soaked for two days and mashed. It’s then fed into one of the stainless steel washbacks, located in the circular formations alongside the stills. The 9.5% ABV wash from the 55-hour fermentation then gets fed to the 13,000-litre spirit stills for the first distillation, and then the teeny 3,900-litre spirit stills take over. The final spirit is cut between 68 and 72% ABV (the ‘finest cut’, according to The Macallan folks), and to prove the point, we get to nose the new new make – fruity, cereally, and slightly herbal, to my nose.
The configuration of the stills adds to the extraordinary visual impact that the distillery has. Copper and glistening, the wash and spirit stills (two spirit to each wash) reside in their loops, flanked on the outside edge by their washbacks. Each circle – or pod – feels majestic, imposing even. That there are three adds to the towering scale. And it’s not just the mash tun that’s been built with room for expansion. Apparently the far wall of the distillery could be extended further to include another pod, should growth require it.
We exit the production space and move back into the visitor area, where a whole host of interactive activities explore coopering and the different casks, barrels, puncheons and butts used in Macallan maturation (clue: it’s all about the sherry), the variation of natural colour in whisky, and a clever installation which suspends a drop of liquid using nothing but sound waves. It’s impressive, immersive and educational – and genuinely engaging, even for someone who has done her fair share of distillery tours.
There’s time for a quick walk round the tasting and bar area, before descending back down the stairs for something very unusual: a trip into what feels like an underwater chamber. Picture the shark walk at a Sea Life Centre – this is what it feels like as you walk into the Private Cellar.
Just 140 casks reside here, and there’s talk of running an cask owners’ programme for these select few barrels, butts, puncheons and more.
The big question: Will the spirit be the same?
The elephant-in-the-room question: how, given that the new distillery is so different from the existing, historic site (which will be preserved for some future, yet undisclosed, use, BTW), how can anyone be sure the spirit from the new Macallan distillery will be anything like the current stuff? “Forsyths had to map the previous stills to make this death-mask… every bump, every crack and whatever in them,” Grier explained. “And then they had to replicate that exactly. It’s an amazing process and they were great partners.”
But flavour comes from more than just still shape. What else has the distillery done to get the spirit as close to the original as possible? It’s a question we put to Nick Savage, The Macallan master distiller.
“You’re right; other things affect that character, not just the still,” he acknowledges. “Over the last couple of years, in conjunction with our technical department, we’ve almost been fingerprinting the old distillery. So understanding the makeup of everything between mashing and fermentation – what’s the wort composition? What’s the sugar breakdown? And so on and so forth. What does the fermentation profile look like between fermentation and distilling? What’s the wash composition that we’re looking for? And a number of other different parameters – there are lots of other different parameters that go into that!”
He adds that they’ve monitored all the variables over time. “Distilling is organic and therefore variable to a certain extent, and that’s where the skill comes in controlling it. So actually, [we’ve been] trending that to see what the Macallan fingerprint is both from a target and a tolerance, so to speak.” It gets techy. “We know that whatever instrumentation that we’ve got up at the new distillery, we know the target that we’re trying to hit. So the same sugar content of our wort, for example. Have we got the mash tuns to be able to deliver that? Have we got the processing capability? What are our processing parameters going to be? And we check off to make sure that that’s the same as where we came from.”
To sum up: “We understand where we’ve come from, we understand our DNA and we understand it to the nth degree at each part. And we’ve trended ourselves over a period of time. And not just for those two years; there’s lots of historical data, to make sure that there’s no big step changes and to make sure that we’re matching it exactly from where the old distillery was. That’s the approach that we’ve done.”
Full disclosure: we asked to nose the new new-make against a sample of new make from the old distillery. This didn’t happen. If anyone gets the chance to experience both, let us know the verdict!
But our thoughts on the whole distillery? Even after contemplating for weeks, it’s difficult to sum it all up. The scale of the project, the audacity to completely reinvent what Speyside distilling can look like, and the feats of engineering to make it possible can only make the new Macallan distillery an awe-inspiring site to behold. It’s bold, it’s brazen and it’s brimming with an unusual kind of beauty. The distillery opens to the public from 2 June. Have a look for yourselves and let us know what you think!
The new Macallan distillery in their words…
The master distiller
Dr Nick Savage, The Macallan master distiller: “The architecture and the distilling process – how do they marry up? It looks great from a design perspective, but how do you make it work technically? Actually, there was always the alliance that if it doesn’t work technically then we’re not going to do it.”
Toby Jeavons, project architect, Roger Stirk Harbour & Partners: “There was a need for the scheme to be phaseable, potentially, and I suppose that could have been done in a number of ways. There was the modular approach taken to what we refer to as a stillhouse… – so we had one cell that we knew would produce ‘x’ amount and that we could just replicate. Having done that we put [the production equipment] in a circular fashion, put the stills in the middle, in a celebratory way, kind of put them on a pedestal, literally.”
The creative director
Ken Grier, The Macallan creative director: “I think everybody now looks at it and says ‘this is the tremendous statement of what The Macallan stands for. You know, build it and people will come. So it’s been that faith, and it demonstrates the care, attention, passion in every aspect of everything we do.”
The managing director
Scott McCroskie, The Macallan managing director: “How will we measure the success of the new distillery? That’s a really tough question, actually. Because we aren’t looking to drive sales immediately… we will increase visitor numbers but it’s not a numbers game. It’s more about a really good experience for a slightly higher number of people. I guess it’s the impact that it has on the brand and people’s perception of the brand through time. Which is hard to measure at the best of times… It’s a funny one because you do a business case and it’s one part business case, and two parts leap of faith. It just feels like the right thing to do.”