WHISKY

Sin­gle malt stand­out The Ma­callan cel­e­brates the open­ing of a spec­tac­u­lar new fa­cil­ity in the Scot­tish coun­try­side. steve reels joins the fes­tiv­i­ties

Prestige Hong Kong - - FIRSTPERSO­N -

The Ma­callan

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

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