Single malt standout The Macallan celebrates the opening of a spectacular new facility in the Scottish countryside. steve reels joins the festivities
WHEN THE MAKERS of Scotch whisky piped their distillate into casks 25 or even 12 years ago, they could have had no conception of the explosion in demand for the precious amber liquid that was about to take hold around the world. Ageing gently in dingy warehouses, single malt whisky was geared to a slower, more domestic market with a fairly constant demand. Now, it’s arguably the most sought-after spirit in the newly wealthy societies of the East – and the Scotch whisky industry has been scrambling to meet this unanticipated demand by releasing all sorts of singular, nonage-statement whisky expressions with eccentric names. After all, you can’t just snap your fingers and say, “Increase supply of the 15-year-old 100 percent!”
The Scotch Whisky Association lists just 126 distilleries licensed to produce Scotch whisky – which must be made in Scotland – and one of these, The Macallan on Speyside, has taken a bold and imaginative step to address production concerns. “We projected that in 30 years’ time we’d need three to four times our current output,” says Ken Grier, The Macallan’s creative director. The answer? Build an audacious and architecturally fabulous facility that functions not only as a distillery but also as a visitor centre and a major Speyside tourist attraction in its own right.
I fly into Aberdeen to attend the opening of the new distillery earlier this summer. We’re met by a group of chauffeurs, black-suited, standing in the arrivals hall like a band of escapees from Reservoir Dogs, and I’m soon front seat and cruising through the lovely Aberdeenshire countryside and on into Moray and the town of Elgin. I’m in a black, Macallan-liveried Mercedes V-Class, one of 23 deployed by the brand for the week’s festivities, during which it will host hundreds of guests in three separate events. It’s a portent of how big The Macallan is thinking.
The next day dawns cloudless and I’m out in the early morning sun for a stroll in the woods, where I encounter a genial giant who asks if I’m looking for a henge. I head back into Elgin with its grand old houses of aeolian sandstone, golden-gone-grey, and its 13thcentury cathedral, bare and ruin’d now but in its day one of the most impressive structures in Europe.
It’s still sunny, but by 5pm, as I join the other guests piling into the cars for the trip to The Macallan Estate, the fickle Scottish weather has turned dreich: cold, drizzly, miserable. It doesn’t bode well for the party tonight.
We’re in black tie or gowns, and the bare-shouldered ladies are looking apprehensive. But our chauffeur is large, jovial and Greek, and the short drive to The Macallan passes pleasantly enough. The new
distillery’s lead architect, Graham Stirk of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, is in our group. He wears a high-collared mandarin jacket surmounted by an open, friendly face topped with an unruly mop of sandy hair that makes him look like some furry woodland creature looking for acorns. He’s a little coy about the project, and indeed as we drive through The Macallan Estate the new distillery is invisible, cordoned off by hundreds of metres of black hoardings.
We’re led to an open-sided marquee on a lawn outside Easter Elchies House, the gabled Highland manor that appears on the label of every bottle of the single malt – and plied with cocktails and canapés. The cocktails are, of course, Macallan-based, while the canapés – langoustine with seaweed and anemones, haggis puff pastry, and half a dozen others – are by the Roca brothers of El Celler de Can Roca, the Catalan restaurant that’s regarded as being among the best in the world. They’re cooking for us tonight.
The temperature has dropped to eight degrees and the ladies are getting chilly, but our hosts are prepared. Blankets appear and are gratefully adopted, stolestyle, by several shivering guests, including a few of the men, and as the light fades we’re guided to a large yellow Hobbit-style door that leads to an interior – marquee or permanent structure? It’s too dark to tell – like a fairy grotto, with glowing candelabra and twinkling lights in the ceiling, and the suggestion of a sort of leafy sinuosity all around. My table – one of 14 – has a centrepiece comprising a curved wooden strut supporting three fist-sized stones of different colour and texture. My interpretation of this puzzle is that the wood is a whisky cask stave and the three rocks represent the Roca brothers.
The menu is designed as a journey through the three lands of The Macallan: Galicia, where the Spanish oak is harvested for The Macallan’s casks; Jerez, where the casks are seasoned for two years with oloroso sherry; and Scotland, where the seasoned casks are filled with spirit and laid down to mature. It’s a complex series of dishes accompanied by sherry and whisky, an excellent tribute to the outstanding single malt whose new production facility we’re here to celebrate. At one point, brothers Josep, Joan and Jordi appear on the dais, to the delight of the diners, and there’s also a short recital by Scottish violinist Nicola Benedetti, before the party moves on to the main event.
By the time we’re led out of a side door to a gathering point overlooking Easter Elchies House it’s dark, and time for a history lesson in the form of a light show ingeniously projected on to two sides of the old manor. It’s a thrilling spectacle tracing the history of The Macallan: blaze and intrigue; clash and clamour; salmon and Spey; barley and cask; the curiously small stills; and a poem, Macallan Spoken-Song, by Scottish National Poet 2011-2016 Liz Lochhead.
But for all the ooh-ah factor, this is just a warm-up for what’s to come. A bare-armed nymph clad in a gossamer-thin white gown and bearing a lantern appears on the lawn, and bids us follow. The procession halts along the ceremonial way, and another light show starts. To the accompaniment of a pulsating soundtrack, shafts of light probe hundreds of feet into the sky above what appears to be a line of low hills, but is in fact the grass-covered roof of the new distillery, one of the most complex timber structures in the world, with 380,00 individual components, almost all of them different. It’s an astonishing sight, the undulating roof like an organic wave-form suspended above a glass facade, in perfect harmony with the Speyside landscape – apart from the searchlights stabbing the sky and the multicoloured hues lighting the structure.
The interior is no less astounding. The entrance hall is 28 metres high and features a massive display archive of almost 400 different bottles of The Macallan past and present. There’s a gallery, currently displaying photographs of the building’s construction taken by the likes of Steve McCurry and Paolo Pellegrin, and interactive displays featuring what the brand calls the “six pillars” that underpin its core values. But it’s the production facility itself that’s the star of the show. Centred on an enormous mash tun, said to be the biggest in Scotland, are three circular pods of copper pot stills, 36 in all, that are identical in size, shape and Lyne arm orientation to The Macallan’s traditional “curiously small stills”, as well as 21 stainless-steel washbacks for wort fermentation.
The first spirit ran through the facility at the end of 2017. “We’ve taken exceptional care that the spirit produced in the new distillery is identical to the spirit that we produced in our previous distillery,” says Grier. I sip the expression of The Macallan bottled specially for the distillery opening. The youngest whisky in my glass is 55 years old, I’m assured. I’m very glad nothing’s going to change.
THE YOUNGEST WHISKY IN MY GLASS IS 55 YEARS OLD, I’M ASSURED