Last June, The Macallan Distillers Ltd. opened a sprawling new distillery on the 370 lovely hillside acres it has owned since before Victoria was queen, high above the River Spey in northeast Scotland. The new place is at once impossible to miss and impossible to find.
It’s impossible to miss because it’s about the size of a mid-tier Smithsonian—Edrington, the charitable trust that owns the Macallan and several other big liquor brands, spent $180 million to build it. It’s about two football fields in length. Amid the uncluttered, hangar-like interior, there’s a three-story double-sided glass brand wall where visitors can admire 843 historic Macallan expressions, with high-tech periscopes to examine the specimens at the top. The production area has 21 massive fermenters, and three dozen new copper stills built by Forsyths. The brand is capable of producing about 15 million liters of alcohol each year. The distillery itself has its own brand ambassador.
But it’s also impossible to find, since it’s mostly underground—or at least it gives that impression. (For once, the term “groundbreaking architecture” seems apt.) The side of a tall, rolling hill was excavated, the distillery constructed, and then new hills reinstalled atop it. The London firm of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners served as the lead architect (they previously designed London’s Millennium Dome), and built it such that the distillery seems to peer out from the hill, a single, sinuous roofline amid green swales, like a series of eyebrows regarding the distant hills querulously. The roof itself, made of 1,800 wooden beams that fit together like a puzzle without glue or screws, undulates in five gentle, meadowy mounds, which look like the hills around it, save for a few skylights. The green roof is sowed with 28 varieties of indigenous plants.
Bilbo Baggins, meet the Batcave.
The distillery is an achievement in and of itself—the architectural bravado, which projects a self-confidence that befits a brand whose collectible bottles can sell at auction for more than a $1 million—but also because it marks a bold departure. Macallan has essentially tossed out the musty, bardic, romantic tomes upon which Scotch whisky’s image has been written. It’s embracing a new, digitally-inflected culture that celebrates the romanticism of the future.
Scotch whisky is ascendant these days. Exports are up—sales to the United States have increased 65-percent over the past fifteen years, with the pricier single malts leading the charge. (The less expensive blended whiskies, made with grain alcohol in addition to alcohol distilled from malted barley, have been faltering.) Today, Scotland is home to 128 operating distillers, the most since 1945.
Throughout the booms and busts, Scotch producers for the most part maintained their connection to the hazy early romanticism of whisky. Their labels, ads, and the Scots baronial distillery design all conveyed misty moors, gentlemen in top hats, bagpipers, kilts, Bobby Burns, and ancient grain mills.
The past’s persistence is best seen when touring Scotland, the roadside signs directing travelers to distilleries feature stylized images of the “Doig ventilators,” the pagoda-like spires that cap many distilleries (especially around Speyside). These were designed by architect Charles Doig in 1889, and had the practical purpose of enhancing air flow across the malting floors. Never mind that just a handful of Scotch distilleries still do their own floor malting today. The image persists, a powerful link to a peat-smoked past. The secular saint of Scotland, poet Robert Burns, joined two of the region’s favorite topics in a simple, much quoted line: “Freedom an’ whisky gang thegither.”
Hitching whisky’s future to an often factual, sometimes manufactured heritage was pioneered in the latter half of the 19th century, when Scotch first began to move from regional curiosity to global commodity. Among the more clever marketers was Tommy Dewar, the showiest of the Dewar’s Dewars and the P.T. Barnum of whisky. At an exposition in the 1880s, where beer and bottled spirits were being showcased, he noticed other vendors were using music boxes as curiosities to attract gawkers to their stands. So essentially unholstering a bazooka at a squirt gun fight, he brought in a bagpiper who blew long and hard. Expo organizers sought to stop him, then threatened to sue. All publicity being good publicity, Dewar invited the lawyers to pry his cold, dead fingers from the blowstick and drones.
To be sure, Macallan, hasn’t ignored its storied past—it was founded in 1824—and marketing material often makes reference to it’s “Spiritual Home,” the Easter Elchies House built of sandstone in 1700. The new distillery was situated such that the entryway connects directly to it.
But the New Romanticism of Scotch is less about yesterday, and more about the emerging embrace of experience, efficiency, environment and exclusivity.
The experience part is baked into the new facility’s official name—“The Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience.” The project designers worked with Stuttgart-based museum design specialist Atelier Brückner to create an entertaining, immersive happening for guests as they are guided along expansive second-floor catwalks with panoramic views of stills and fermenting tanks. Stops are built around the six stations representing the “six pillars” behind the Macallan brand, with each stop offing a dramatic display that arise from ingenious platforms by means of spinning a wooden wheel around it. As I found on a recent visit as guest of the brand, when the tour guide talks, colored lights brighten and dim throughout the distillery, showcasing mashing, fermentation and distillation.
While massive in size and ambition, the distillery is also ruthlessly modern and efficient when it comes to production. Constructed around three pods of twelve stills arrayed in a circle, the production line is all but fully automated, run by just two distillers on each eight-hour shift, who rarely need to walk the distillery floor. They spend most of their time monitoring the process from a computer-filled back room.
Few new distilleries open today without a nod to being environmentally sound, and Macallan is no exception. In addition to the eco-friendly design concept—it doesn’t sit imperiously atop the rolling landscape, but strives to disappear into it—they’ve made strides in reducing the impact on the environment more broadly by aggressively using heat recovery and biomass generation to reach the goal of producing at least 90-percent of energy from renewable resources.
Then there’s the exclusivity. Macallan already does a grand job of telegraphing rarified desire—five of the 10 most expensive whiskies ever sold were produced by Macallan—but the distillery adds to that notion by borrowing elements of a private club. You can’t just drive up and ask for a tour, as you can at many distilleries throughout the island—tours are always booked in advance, and the more advance the better your odds of getting in the door. Tours are limited to nine per day, a dozen people per tour, at $20 per person. (That’s 800 people a week, or roughly half of the number of visitors who tour Jack Daniel’s or Buffalo Trace on a busy day.) Tour guides strive to ensure that no tour group even sees another group while being ushered through the facility.
That makes the distillery not only hard to find, but hard to visit. Which in the age of overtourism and mobbed attractions might be the most romantic notion of all.