Whisky tourism: An exclusive look at Macallan's new S$250m distillery
CNA Lifestyle toured the brand new facility on the single malt whisky label's famed Easter Elchies estate, fulfilling the dream of whisky fans everywhere.
First announced in 2012, The Macallan finally unveiled its spanking new distillery, which is open to the public this month. This space was not only built to quench the global thirst for single malt whiskies, but also create a unique distillery experience for its growing fandom.
Even though I have had the chance to taste numerous single malt and blended whiskies over the years in a professional (and occasionally, unprofessional) capacity, I was truly excited to see what The Macallan had up its sleeve.
While some whisky geeks might turn their noses up at the brand and consider it "mainstream", that wouldn't be fair to the people who are arguably one of the main reasons why single malt whisky is as prized as it is today.
This striking new facility is cut into the slope of the land, taking its cues from the ancient Scottish hills that surround Macallan's famed 1.5 sq km Easter Elchies estate.
The 14,800 sqm distillery and visitor centre cost a whopping £140 million (over S$250 million) to complete, and was designed by Roger Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) – the London-based architectural firm behind projects like Heathrow Terminal 5 in London and Beijing New International Airport in China (as well as a private residence on Nassim Road in Singapore).
Unlike most whisky distilleries in Scotland, where you’ll see charming brick buildings that seem to be dripping in distilling history right from their front gate, the exterior of Macallan's new distillery, at the first glance, doesn’t seem like very much. Just five undulating mounds by the side of the road that look like part of the Scottish highlands in the distance.
Pleasant, but not really anything to shout about.
It is only when you turn the corner and catch a glimpse of the main entrance of the distillery that you start to realise how there might be more going on under the surface.
EIGHT HUNDRED VINTAGE BOTTLES AND FIRE-PROOF GLASS
The new experience at The Macallan begins in a similar fashion as the old distillery tour: Guests arrive at the heart of the estate, where Easter Elchies House stands. The rustic manor, built in the 1700s, is a focal point of the natural beauty that surrounds it. The house is just a stone’s throw from the new distillery and is considered the spiritual home of The Macallan.
In fact, an image of the house is seen on the label of every bottle of single malt whisky produced at Macallan – a subtle reminder of the brand's longstanding heritage.
As you eventually enter the new distillery, the lush natural landscape of the estate gives way to a seductively modern interior of matte, charcoal walls with slivers of illuminated amber accents. The smooth transition between the different environments and gradual realisation of the expanse of this subterranean development is really quite humbling.
You’ll be forgiven if you find yourself spending more time than usual gawking at the space around you. During the walk-through, I believe I heard some muffled squeals of excitement in my group. I can’t be 100 per cent sure they didn’t come from me.
Graham Stirk, one of the project partners from RSHP, explained that because the environmental status of the site was of an “area of great landscape value”, the distillery was constructed by digging into the natural contours of the site to minimise any adverse effects to the landscape’s character.
Yes, the new distillery quite literally uses nature around it as a blanket (or invisibility cloak, depending on your pop culture inclinations).
Two tall glass walls flank the welcome area. 10-metre-tall, thick fireproof glass (equipped with its own sprinkler systems) on the right safely separate the main “factory” floor from the visitor centre. Stirk told us how the decision to visually link the visitor centre experience to the distillery was an important one but proved to be quite challenging.
Essentially, his team had to spend about £300,000 to build a similar glass wall, only to set it on fire to prove to the authorities how fire resistant it was. Considering the rather flammable nature of a distillery’s output, we’re quite happy that we needn't worry about lost opportunities at the gift shop.
The glass wall on the left is dramatic even on its own, housing over 800 vintage bottles of The Macallan that are dated up to two centuries back.
It is a jaw-dropping sight that deserves an extra moment of awe (and because you’ll need to tilt your head all the way back to really take it all in). Visitors can also use the interactive consoles at the base of the wall to discover a little more about each and every bottle on display.
If, like me, you enjoy the occasional deep dive into the history and lineage of whisky, there’ll be quite a bit of archived information that will take more than a day to get through.
A THOROUGHLY MODERN OPEN CONCEPT
The tour begins up a circular flight of stairs, where you’re greeted by a grand, open-concept style distillery. Almost all the machinery that makes Macallan whisky possible is in full view. It is a spectacular sight to behold.
Because the new distillery was built from scratch instead of being an extension of an existing production space (as is the case of many Scottish distilleries in the last decade), RSHP and The Macallan had the rare opportunity to rethink how a modern distillery could look and operate.
This led to a circular design theme inspired by brochs – prehistoric circular stone towers found uniquely in Scotland. The impressive 36 wash and spirit stills were constructed in series of three circular arrangements, with each “production cell” consisting of four wash stills and eight spirit stills.
This layout is not only visually stunning, but its modular nature also easily allows for additional production cells to be added, should there be a need to increase production down the road. The empty circular lot at the far end of the distillery means The Macallan knows it’s bound to happen sooner or later. We get it, guys. Don’t have to rub it in everyone’s faces.
A SINGLE MALT EDUCATION
For those who aren’t familiar with the different steps involved in whisky distillation, fret not. An initial stop in the tour is at an interactive display table that takes you through the process, while Broadway-worthy spotlights above indicate exactly which part of the distillery is responsible for what. It is an impressive way to get schooled.
In fact, there are several interactive stops along the tour that provide an even more immersive experience to guests who aren’t whisky geeks. A visual demonstration of the difference in using “curiously small stills” for distillation, compared to taller ones, is quite enlightening, and there’s also the “inside” look at the creation of a cask and the importance of wood selection.
In the latter stop, you actually step into a human-sized cask with light projections on the staves before a smoke machine adds theatrics to the toasting of a cask. It’s all quite dramatic. And pretty fun.
Each of the stops highlights one of six different pillars that Macallan feels upholds and defines the unique character of its whisky. The final stop, in particular, is rather special. We won’t spoil it for you but just know that sonic waves are involved. You have to see it for yourself.
The tour concludes at the circular bar located within the distillery – the admission fee of £15 also entitles you to four drams of whisky. We’re quite sure these will taste just that much more exceptional, after you’ve seen what went into making them.
In case you’re wondering, yes, you can order yourself another glass or two or three before you head back to reality.
If you’re planning to take a visit to The Macallan's new distillery on your next trip to the region, we suggest touring at least one of the many other Scottish distilleries first, before making your way over to Easter Elchies estate.
The way this modern distillery seamlessly integrates a visitor’s experience with actual operations in whisky making, while looking over the beauty of the Scottish Highlands, is unlike any other scotch distillery experience that exists today, so some context is necessary to truly appreciate its thoughtfulness and breath-taking moments.
The Macallan might be known for single malt whiskies, but this new distillery sure is a magnificent blend.
The Macallan Distillery officially opens to the public on Jun 2. There are over 12 flights daily from Singapore to Aberdeen via Amsterdam, London and Paris.