Visiting The Macallan Distillery In Scotland Is The Ultimate Modern Whisky Experience

In general, Scotch whisky distilleries are actually rather unglamorous places. Tasting rooms and gift shops might be pristine and inviting, but warehouses will have cobwebs in the corners and still, houses built purely with function and efficiency in mind—and the buildings themselves may be decades or even centuries old. This is, of course, part of their very appeal.

But The Macallan is different. As an institution, it has been around since 1824, but its current distillery building is as new as they come. It opened in 2018, a £140 million investment that took three-and-a-half years to complete. Although the craftsmanship practiced within is still traditional, the place itself is very much of the 21st century, and has a mentality and presentation that reflects that.

The distillery is nestled in The Macallan’s 485-acre estate, itself in the heart of Scotland’s Speyside region. The drive from the front gates exposes its undulating, green grandeur, and glimpses of its history. On the way in, visitors will pass some of The Macallan’s 64 warehouses, as well as the original distillery buildings that are well-kept but currently dormant—perhaps to be made someday into a museum or other edifice.

It is, at first, easy to miss because it is built into a hill, and its roof was constructed with a mind to maintain the illusion. The roof, built as a series of domes, is even turfed with local grass, and from the rear looks like an array of hills—only the chimneys and skylights give it away. It therefore looks like a Hobbit’s home, or a Hobbit mega-mansion, at any rate. The roof holds some 14,000sqm of turf, acting as a wildflower meadow and supporting local flora and fauna.

Coming around to the front will reveal its grandeur. The distillery is 120m long, and 24m at its highest point. From the start, it was an ambitious project that was intended to be embedded seamlessly and harmoniously into the estate, and eventually entrusted to the noted architecture firm Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners. Sustainability was one of the main driving forces of the new distillery. Excess heat from the whisky-making process is cycled back into the building for heating, and almost all of the distillery’s considerable energy demands are derived from renewable resources. For issues of consistency, some natural gas is still used in the heating of stills, but this too is being looked at, and the distillery is expected to be fully powered by renewables in the near future.

The visitor experience starts outside, as the drop-off point is by the old Easter Elchies house. This historical manor, built in 1700, was once rented by The Macallan founder Alexander Reid. Today, the distillery calls it a spiritual home. It stands as a traditional counterpoint to the new building, which is a short distance away up a natural stone path. From this angle, its glass façade with its minimally visible supports seems especially futuristic.

It is claimed to be unintentional, but due to a quirk of ventilation, the visitor’s entrance is suffused by heavy tropical fruit notes of The Macallan’s new make spirit, freshly materialising at the far end of the building. The building is divided in two: on this side is the visitor’s centre, and the bulk of The Macallan’s experiential offerings. It is a massive, open space. There are barely any dividing walls, no floors, and only a couple of mezzanine levels. There are also long sightlines everywhere, even upwards—the roof seems very far away, but from inside its Scandinavian pine construction is clearly evident.

Near the entrance is the boutique. It is a surprisingly expansive lifestyle store, selling whisky accoutrements, such as glasses; tangentially related accessories, such as silverware and ice baller; and those not at all, such as tweed outerwear. The latter is not so out of place when one considers that a visit to The Macallan should not be restricted to its buildings—its private stretch of the River Spey is only a short distance away, and in sunny weather makes for an especially fine place to picnic.

Opposite this is the Jewel Wall, which has the potential to steal a lot of time away from the more enthusiastic whisky connoisseur. It is a mini-museum and archive, with about 400 historic bottles on display, tracking the various ups and downs of The Macallan’s history. Other exhibits include things such as records and certificates, and memorabilia such as past advertising.

The middle area is dominated by the circular bar on the upper level. It has, of course, about as complete a collection of The Macallan’s various releases as one can find anywhere in the world—including a few hard-to-find and discontinued limited editions, served by the glass no less. The seating area extends to the front windows and its idyllic view of the estate. Other attractions on the upper level include galleries dedicated to the blending process, and one to The Macallan’s cask cooperage in Jerez, Spain, where sherry-seasoned casks are prepared specifically for their eventual use in whisky maturation. A dining area also serves as a gastronomic focal point, and a fine place for a mid-tour pitstop.

The other side of the building is the actual production facility. The two halves are separated by even more glass, 10-metre-high panes so generously proportioned that they had to be custom ordered. This transparency means that wherever you are in the visitor centre, The Macallan’s stills are always visible. There are 36 of those stills—24 wash stills to 12 of the slightly larger spirit stills—commissioned from copper to be a match for the traditional, ‘curiously small’ stills that are a key contributor to The Macallan’s personality. They are some of the smallest stills in the industry, which means less reflux and hence a heavier, more viscous result. The Macallan dilutes its new make spirit to 63.5 per cent ABV before casking. It is odd to think that none of this spirit, produced in the new building, has yet to make it to the final bottling stage—the oldest would only be five years old by now, far too young for a Macallan single malt.

Opening the door to the production side invites a blast of heat—distillation involves boiling, after all—and the full spectrum of floral, fruity, and malty fragrances that are a signature of whisky-making. Visitors are welcome to inspect the process on a series of upper walkways that function as a viewing gallery—and stills aside, the entire process is indeed housed here. One can observe malted barley being ground into grist before being soaked in water in the mash tun—from which the castoff is processed as biofuel to provide some of the building’s energy—and then pumped into steel washbacks where they can ferment before finally being sent to the stills.

In a building that was designed around transparency and unobstructed viewing, there are two things that are unseen that might be expected from a distillery: a dedicated tasting room, and maturing casks. But casks are meant for warehouses—or are they? Look for an unassuming set of unmarked doors below the bar. The room it leads to seems empty and devoid of attractions, but wait until they turn on the lights. It is very dramatic. Suffice to say, The Macallan keeps a little bit of itself as an underground surprise.

The Macallan

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