Distillery Focus

A New Direction

Macallan’s new distillery marks a turning point for the brand and distillery designs
By Gavin D. Smith
A view of the new distillery
A view of the new distillery
Over the years, the folk of Speyside must have watched many new distilleries rise up from the ground, noting their progress from foundations to flowing whisky. Few, however, can have caused such head-scratching as the creation of the ‘new’ Macallan distillery.

Built in what has irreverently been dubbed ‘Teletubby style,’ the subterranean four-domed structure has taken distillery architecture in an entirely new direction. Macallan’s creative director Ken Grier explains its inspiration.

‘We were looking at the Great Wineries of the World book and there was a picture of Bodega Ysios at Laguardia in Spain, which was very individualistic, and even futuristic and we decided to dream,’ he says. ‘We launched a competition to design the new distillery with the notion of bringing alive a broch – an ancient Scottish dwelling which seems much larger inside than is outside.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners won the competition.

‘The idea was that the distillery would have to fit into an area of great landscape. We had to move half a million tonnes of earth, and creating the domed rooves was incredibly complex. There are 50,000 tonnes of concrete which nobody sees, and 2,500 triangles in the roof and it all slotted into place like a massive jigsaw. We used 25 different contractors, working with a £140 million budget, increasing our capacity by one-third to 15 mla. Crucial to its success was the work of Forsyths of Rothes, who effectively made a ‘death mask’ of all the existing stills, with every bump and dent, so that they could reproduce them precisely.’

Grier declares that, ‘The new distillery is a tremendous statement of what The Macallan stands for as the greatest luxury whisky in the world. There’s fantastic attention to detail and an emphasis on quality and craftsmanship, which reflects our whisky. It’s been six years in the planning and three-and-a-half years in the construction. Transparency and authenticity are so important these days and our new distillery speaks of that. We’re unpeeling The Macallan onion.

‘It feels even better than I expected, when you go into it and touch all the materials. It’s taken up six years of my life and I don’t mind admitting I’ve cried in there – tears of pride and joy. It turned out even better than we hoped.’

So just what experience awaits visitors to the ‘new’ Macallan distillery? In order to emphasise the broch-like illusion of a building that is bigger on the inside than it seems from the outside, the path leading to the main distillery entrance appears to narrow and funnel you into what turns out to be a vast space, fitted out in typical Rogers Stirk style with lots of polished concrete, timber and an essentially urban vibe.

The subterranean four-domed structure has taken distillery architecture in an entirely new direction

To the left of the entrance is what Ken Grier terms ‘our jewel box,’ a floor to ceiling glass wall which embraces 840 archived bottles. There is even an electronic ‘periscope’ so that visitors can zero in on any of those 840 bottles and receive information about them.

Tours commence on the first floor, where the cocktail bar boasts 952 different Macallan drams available for purchase. From the outset, it is clear that the team behind the new Macallan Distillery want to link it solidly to the brand’s heritage, which stretches back to 1824. The first plinth-mounted ‘exhibit’ visitors see is a stunning scale model ‘doll’s house’ of the distinctive Easter Elchies House – with the real thing, dating from 1700, clearly visible from the window. The exhibit is titled "The Spiritual Home."

The second plinth to be visited is named "Curiously Small Stills," and features models of a small still and a larger still, which open up to reveal a clever and attention-grabbing depiction of how the amount of vapour passing over from the still to the condenser varies depending on still size. As a Macallan spokesperson explains, ‘Their unique size and shape give the spirit maximum contact with the copper, helping to concentrate the ‘new make’ spirit and provide the rich, fruity, full-bodied flavours characteristic of The Macallan.’

Despite the attention paid to maximising the visitor experience with cutting-edge technology, it is pleasing to see that ultimately The Macallan’s distinctive stills remain the true stars of the show. The distillery boasts three interconnected ‘circles’ of stills with four wash and eight spirit stills in each circle. If 36 stills prove insufficient to satisfy the world’s future thirst for The Macallan, the new building has scope to accommodate more.

The Macallan has long been keen to emphasise its commitment to an expensive wood policy involving Spanish sherry-seasoned casks. Another plinth explores this topic, with pop-up sections of oak and wood-related effects, including a virtual cooperage experience.

A private cellar is located directly below the cocktail bar, with ranks of butts apparently suspended from the walls. These will ultimately be available for public purchase and filling. This is a cool, dramatic space at the very centre of the distillery and provides a fitting climax to a remarkable distillery tour.

The ‘old’ Macallan distillery closed down in May of this year, with no plans in place for any future usage. According to master distiller Nick Savage, ‘For the last couple of years, we’ve been ‘fingerprinting’ the old distillery, examining wort and wash composition, for example, doing lots of ‘benchmarking’ so we understood exactly what we needed to achieve in every aspect of the new operation. Forsyth’s work with the stills was invaluable. Previously we had some Oregon pine and some stainless steel washbacks, but all the tests we did showed that there was no difference between the wood and the steel in the old distillery, so we opted for all stainless steel in the new one.’

He explains that ‘The place took very little time to come into the ballpark, as it were, of how we wanted the spirit to be. We used low wines and feints from the old distillery, which helped us come on stream much quicker. We operate the same 55-hour fermentations and take the same narrow spirit cut. The only real change is the addition of a fourth water during mashing, which we’ve done in order to maximise extraction.

‘We just intend to lay down stocks; there is no plan to release anything purely from the new distillery or deliberately mix quantities of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Macallan spirit as we go along. Apart from anything else, they’re identical! My brief was to lay down stock so that when the new spirit is being used, you’ll never know the difference.’

‘We just intend to lay down stocks; there is no plan to release anything purely from the new distillery or deliberately mix quantities of ‘old’ and ‘new’ Macallan spirit as we go along. Apart from anything else, they’re identical!'

The £140 million cost of building the distillery is actually just part of a remarkable £500 million investment in the site and brand during a 12-year period by Glasgow-based owners Edrington. In addition to the distillery itself, £5 million has been spent on a new effluent plant, while a rolling programme of warehouse construction, an entirely new filling store, disgorging complex and cooperage, plus a high annual wood bill, account for the rest of the cash.

All Macallan is matured on site and there are now 54 warehouses in total, including some of the traditional dunnage variety close to the distillery and currently eight modern ‘double’ warehouses on the hillside above the distillery. Eventually there will be 14 in total, all racked and each holding 25,000 casks. Additionally, there is a ‘T’-shaped bodega-style warehouse, which can accommodate 80,000 casks. Around 800 casks are filled each week by the 40-strong warehousing team, equating to some 40,000 per year.

Not only does The Macallan have a new distillery, but there are also significant changes to the expressions available, as the company’s managing director Scott McCroskie explains. ‘It’s a constant battle to deploy our stocks as best as possible,’ he says.

‘Demand has far exceeded stocks laid down. Gold will stay on in the guise of Double Cask Gold, but the other NAS expressions in the core range will disappear. We will have Double Cask 12 Years Old and Triple Cask 12 Years Old, formerly known as Fine Oak. We will also have Triple Cask 15 Years Old and Sherry Oak 18 Years Old and the Double Cask range will also eventually go up to an 18 Years Old.

‘A lot of our customers like age statements, although the NAS expression have been selling very well. They were intended to celebrate natural colours, hence the names Gold, Amber, Sienna and Ruby. They were great products, but we wanted consistency all over the world for the core range and we will now have that.’

Claiming to be, ‘the luckiest guy in the world,’ McCroskie says, ‘I love the brand. I drank it secretly while working for other distillers! I love the dried fruit and spice and sherry maturation. It’s highly regarded and a commercial success.

'It’s performing very well in all markets and in the last financial year, we grew in almost every country where we operate. Looking ahead, China is the most exciting market. It’s still early days, but signs are good. I’d love to crack India too, one day.’

Despite a distillery linked to the Teletubbies, Scott McCroskie and the rest of The Macallan team are certainly not living in La La land.
Inside the still house
Inside the still house
The new still house
The new still house
The whisky making team behind The Macallan Distillery
The whisky making team behind The Macallan Distillery
Grass covered domes hide what lies beneath
Grass covered domes hide what lies beneath