With Edrington’s new £140 million state-of-the-art distillery set to open to the public next month, Sean Murphy heads north to Speyside to find out just how impressive the new site really is.
One of the world’s most recognisable brands, The Macallan whisky, has appeared in everything from James Bond films to TV shows like Suits and Better Call Saul, and has been described by many as the “Rolls Royce” of the Scotch whisky world.
Known for its slick marketing and luxuriously aged bottlings, it’s a brand that is firmly rooted in its rich history (having been established in the Craigellachie area in 1824) and is well versed in its global appeal. That was why in 2012, when parent company Edrington announced plans to invest £100 million (a figure that has since stretched to £140m) in a new state-of-the-art distillery – which would replace the old one – as well as a visitor centre, people were shocked to see just how radically different the proposed design for the new distillery was.
Described at the time as a “site of major architectural significance” in the heart of Speyside, the new site was to be built to reflect and complement the natural beauty of the area surrounding The Macallan Estate.
Employing the team behind many notable buildings around the world including the incredible Las Arenas building in Barcelona and the Millennium Dome in London, internationally acclaimed architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, Edrington unveiled plans that seemed to be completely radical for an industry that never seems to stray far from the traditional architectural roots of function over form and structural elements like Charles Doig’s now famous pagoda, which is a prevalent feature on many of the country’s distilleries.
With a strong focus on sustainability – matched by the vision of Edrington – the architectural experts laid out plans for a futuristic distillery that would be “cut into the slope of the landscape” of the hill site on Easter Elchies Estate overlooking the river Spey, and take its visual cues from “ancient Scottish earthworks”.
This is still a traditional Speyside Distillery – just with a new wrapping.
With an undulating roof planted with a Scottish wildflower meadow, the building was to be made up of five peaks that represented the rolling hills of the region, with the first four of these indicating the location of the four individual production cells beneath, and a taller fifth peak marking the entrance and visitor centre – all of which you’d struggle to pick out from the surrounding scenery when viewed from afar.
To Scott McCroskie, managing director of The Macallan, this new site would reflect not only the success of their brand but also the industry as a whole, while creating a unique production facility that would expand their production capability and could truly be described as a home for their flagship single malt.
“Every year we look at the long-term forecasts and see what we are going to need in 12, 20 or even 30 years time and, as we were seeing a really positive dynamic in single malt whisky going forward, with The Macallan brand doing exceptionally well, we were seeing demand for our single malt grow and grow.
“We’ve never had enough supply to meet the demand as it is, and looking to the future we can only see that demand continuing to gather apace as places like China and potentially India become really big markets.
“So we were looking at how we could seek to satisfy some of the demand that was out there and looking at the old distillery, we considered an extension, but really a big part of this project was that we wanted a home for The Macallan that matched the stature of the brand in the market.
“So we decided that we would do this properly and create a distillery that allows us to produce a bit more in the future but also provides a stunning brand home and our shareholders have been really supportive.
“We aren’t looking at this as a profit centre, we simply want to underpin the brand and be able to bring people from our markets around the world and show them how the whisky is made and what The Macallan is all about, and while it’s nice to have a really nice visitors’ centre it’s more important to us to teach people about the brand and highlight how our excellent whisky is made.”
The result is a stunning piece of engineering and design, with over 400 people specialising in more than 20 different trades including coppersmiths, master joiners and craftspeople coming together and working for three and a half years to create what McCroskie describes as a “cathedral of whisky”.
The roof alone is one of the most complex timber roofs in the world with 380,000 individual components and 2,500 roof panels which have been covered by 14,000 m2 of meadow – including 10cm of soil and an irrigation system – which has been seeded with a mix of indigenous grasses and wildflowers.
Ian Curle, chief executive of Edrington, explained that sustainability remained a constant throughout all of the design and planning phases and that he believes that over 95 per cent of the energy they’ll be using will be from renewable sources.
He said: “As we are the first industry to have a sectoral environmental strategy that we’ve been working on collectively for about five or six years now, it became very important for us because what you see here at The Macallan Distillery is an investment for the future so it has to be future proofed, and the sustainability of the site is vital to that.”
From the outside, the new distillery is reminiscent of the homes used by the hobbits in Lord of the Rings, such is the beauty and rustic aesthetics of its design, but, when you take a walk up the long path and step through its doors you are instantly transported to a production site that feels like it could come from 50 years in the future.
Soaring spaces are filled with glass walls harbouring hundreds of The Macallan whisky bottles, while huge screens flash iconic images of the brand being enjoyed around the world; there is a genuine sense of wonder and awe that is usually reserved for more traditional buildings such as the cathedrals, basilicas and castles you’ll find dotted around Europe.
And with 36 new locally made copper stills, 21 stainless steel washbacks and numerous cutting edge visual and interactive displays that really delve deep into the production of this “peerless spirit”, as well as a coffee shop, bar and dining space you could be forgiven for thinking this new site would be cramped and busy, instead the distillery feels spacious and clean, with a natural flow that will see visitors taken around a 40-minute guided tour with never more than 12 people at one time being able to enjoy all of the aspects of a distillery visit.
As Ian Curle succinctly puts it: “This is still a traditional Speyside Distillery – just with a new wrapping.”
Set to officially open to the public in June, Edrington’s investment mirrors the current buoyancy of the Scotch industry as a whole which continues to grow in markets around the globe as well as drawing in record tourist numbers across Scotland.
There were 1.7 million visits last year alone – up almost eight per cent on 2015 – and the SWA have confirmed that nearly half of Scotland’s 126 (and counting) distilleries are now open to the public, prompting the big companies like Edrington and Diageo, who recently announced £150 million investment in a new Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh and whisky tourism at many of its distilling sites, to pledge more financial support to their whisky brands in Scotland.
A movement that SWA chief executive Karen Betts very much supports, leading her to state that the new distillery was a “great statement of confidence by Edrington in The Macallan brand and in the future of Scotch whisky”.
She added: “Edrington’s investment reflects significant investment being made across the industry at the moment, amounting to around £500m over the last five years. This has seen established distilleries, such as The Macallan, expanding and new distilleries – like the Isle of Raasay and The Borders Distillery – opening. More broadly, this reflects an industry in growth, with the value of exports up nine per cent in 2017.”
It’s an exciting time for the industry and The Macallan in particular, who must now be looking forward to giving fans of their brand a taste of the future.