INTO THE FUTURE
The Macallan is ushering in a new era with a spectacular state-of-the-art distillery built into the Scottish landscape. Oliver Giles gets a first look
he small Scottish village of Craigellachie feels as if it’s been frozen in time. A bridge in and out of the hamlet is marked by two turrets that look like they’ve been plucked from the top of a medieval castle. Charming stone cottages line the main road, and hills covered in pine trees roll towards the horizon. Craigellachie even has a resident herd of fluffy Highland cattle, all of them glossy enough that they could star in a campaign for Scotland’s tourism board.
But just outside this picturesque village there’s a strange sight. Bulging out of a grassy hillside are five smaller mounds. These hillocks perfectly mimic the surrounding landscape, but there’s a sliver of glass at the front that reveals they’re entirely man-made. Simultaneously reminiscent of the ancient world but oddly sci-fi, they could easily be the innocuous facade of a Bond villain’s high-tech lair.
The reality isn’t quite as outlandish but is still surprising. This serpentine, grass-covered roof houses The Macallan’s new distillery, a factory so cavernous that St Paul’s Cathedral could comfortably fit inside. Four years in the making and rumoured to have cost as much as £120 million, this subterranean building will boost The Macallan’s production capability by 30 per cent, meaning the brand’s famous whisky can be enjoyed by more people than ever. But the building is more than simply a production facility. It also houses the visitors centre, a restaurant and a whisky library. As Toby Jeavons, one of the lead architects on the project, puts it, “It’s the home of the brand.”
The Macallan entrusted architecture studio Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners with the job of designing this era-defining new building. After receiving the brief, Graham Stirk, one of the studio’s senior partners, immediately turned to Scotland for inspiration. “There were three images we used of particular Scottish forms which date back to antiquity,” Stirk explains. “One of these was a burial cairn, which are burial mounds made out of boulders and rubble that have been grown over. The landscape has reappropriated what was a man-made form.”
The new distillery is next door to Easter Elchies House, a manor house built in 1700 that sits at the heart of The Macallan estate. Although this traditional building could not be more architecturally different from the distillery, Stirk wanted to link the two, so designed a walkway that stretches from one to the other.
“For the walkway, we looked at another ancient Scottish form: a well in Moray that was cut into an earth mound. The cut through the earth is almost like going into an Egyptian pyramid,” explains Stirk. The pathway tapers dramatically to a small entranceway that looks as if it’s leading underground. When visitors step through the doors, the undulating roof soars above their heads.
While the building’s exterior is designed to blend in with nature, the interior fully embraces its role as a factory. There’s only a sheet of glass separating the visitors area from the manufacturing facility, so as soon as you walk in you can see the enormous steel vats, copper stills and miles of piping that make the base spirit that, after years of maturation in oak casks, becomes The Macallan whisky. You can stay this side of the glass and explore the store, restaurant and whisky library or—with a tour guide—you can venture into the factory proper.
“We didn’t want to hide the production facility away,” says Jeavons. “Most people who come here won’t just want to learn academically about whisky; they want to see how it’s made.”
Whisky connoisseurs will be pleased to hear that you can do more than see The Macallan— you can taste it, too. Part of the visitors centre is a casual restaurant, though its laidback style belies the amount of expertise that’s gone into the menu. “Our chef has been working with the Roca brothers on the menus for our opening parties,” reveals Gail Cleaver, the general manager of the new distillery, referring to the famously creative Spanish chefs behind El Celler de Can Roca, one of the world’s best restaurants. “They’ve been talking about things like a charcuterie board, but made with local venison and game.” Naturally, all dishes pair perfectly with whisky.
And, of course, there’s a bar. Bottles of vintage whiskies line the walls and VIPS are ushered into plush, intimate rooms where they’re presented with a menu that lists almost every whisky The Macallan has ever made. The most expensive, it’s rumoured, costs £15,000 per dram.
That price may seem extreme but, sitting beneath the soaring roof of The Macallan’s distillery, it’s not surprising that wealthy whisky fans are willing to splurge in this unique setting. For whisky lovers, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, equivalent to an oenophile drinking Bordeaux in the halls of Château Margaux or a fashionista visiting Louis Vuitton’s ateliers to watch artisans make the brand’s bespoke trunks.
So while the new distillery fulfils a practical purpose—an increase in the amount of whisky the brand can produce every year—it also cements the status of The Macallan as a luxury product sought after by fans around the globe. It will be a place of pilgrimage for those fans, and will no doubt help win over a new generation of whisky drinkers. However you look at it, one thing is clear: this distillery shows that The Macallan is looking towards the future—and it’s thinking big.