THE MACALLAN: PART DISTILLERY, PART GALLERY, PART BOND VILLAIN LAIR
Today we visited only one distillery, but what a distillery. It took over four and a half years to build and cost £140 million, but when at full production the new Macallan distillery will be capable of producing 15 million litres of spirit per year, making it the largest whisky distillery in Scotland; even larger than Glenfiddich, who are busily building a
third still house of their own. The building is unlike any distillery you have ever seen, sunken into the ground and covered with a curved roof made of 380,000 components including 2,500 wooden panels that create a faceted look; making it one of the most complicated wooden roof structures in the world. The whole roof is then covered in turf giving it the impression of five grass covered hills.
Inside is no less impressive, designed in a way so the distillery components empraces the outside environment, rather than hides form it. Photography is allowed throughout the building, except while standing within the circles of brand new copper stills that were meticulously modelled on the original Macallan still design and built by fourth generation copper smiths. But the building is just part of the new Macallan visitor experience.
If you, like me, have a partner who couldn’t give two shits about whisky – He or she would still get a kick out of The Macallan visitor experience.
I’ve participated in my fair share of distillery tours, particular on this trip and one of my biggest complaints is that after a while that can all feel a bit samey; I mean, there are only so many ways you can make whisky, so tours are not going to vary too much.
But then in steps The Macallan, with the most unique distillery tour you will ever take.
Touring Macallan’s new distillery is designed to be an interactive, multi-media experience, that for the most part is well-designed and executed. The tour, or visitor’s experience as Macallan calls it, is based on the distillery’s six pillars: Spiritual home, curiously small stills, finest cut, exceptional oak casks, natural colour and peerless spirit. That may sound like marketing fluff and it is, but Macallan have really made an effort to create and experience that appears to more than whisky buffs.
Each stop in the tour has an interactive stand of some variety (I hope they have IT and mechanical support on call) ranging from a miniature model of Easter Elchies House (the one on the Macallan logo) complete with fully furnished interior and a teeny-tiny bottle of Macallan on the dining table (filled with real whisky), through to a sound and light show inside a giant oak cask, reminiscent of those theme park 4D movies with smoke and heat effects. If you, like me, have a partner who couldn’t give two shits about whisky – He or she would still get a kick out of The Macallan visitor experience. The building may be an architectural marvel, but the working distillery is an engineering wonder in itself. The scale is immense, but it doesn’t look like a dirty, boring, industrial site.
You could be mistaken for thinking you were inside a complex nuclear reactor, the Large Hadron Collider or what I couldn’t help but think, some kind of Bond villain’s evil lair.
Occupying most of the building are 36 copper pot stills, arranged in three rings of 12 stills each, separated by kilometres of piping and storage vessels below. There is a single gigantic mash tun, supplying an array of 21 wash back and a fake wall at the end of all this, concealing the expansion space for an additional 12 stills!
The Macallan’s wanky distillery video, is the most impressive wanky distillery video you will likely ever see.
During the tour, visitors walk across and expansive mezzanine floor, always in view of the rest of the facility, the surrounding outdoors and the guts of the distillery below. The design of this place is phenomenal and say what you will about the whisky, you can not help but be impressed by this one of a kind distillery.
Near the end of the tour, you go inside an enclosed circular ‘cinema’ and watch what is essentially one of those wanky distillery videos that many distilleries subject you to at the start of their tours; but The Macallan’s wanky distillery video, is the most impressive wanky distillery video you will likely ever see. Following this, you are taken to a bar where a knowledgeable and well-spoken bartender takes you through a five-dram Macallan tasting float from new make spirit, to the almost £200 per bottle Macallan Rare Cask.
Something I found interesting about The Macallan whisky from a production point of view, is the relationship between their ‘curiously small stills’ and ‘the finest cut’ pillars.
All distilleries are different, but The Macallan prides itself on taking a middle cut or ‘hearts’ that equates to less than 20% (around 16% I believe) of the volume of a spirit run. This means that 80% of the spirit run are relegated to foreshots (heads) and feints (tails). The decision of where to cut a spirit and hence what determines the ‘hearts’ is made based on the properties of the distillate and the desired profile of the finished spirit. I tasted the Macallan new make (reduced to cask filling 63.5% ABV) and it tasted very good, but claiming you take such a small percentage of your spirit run as ‘hearts’ tell me there was an awful lot of rubbish on either side of it.
That’s not surprising considering the size and shape of Macallan’s stills (unchanged in this new distillery) which should produce a heavy and oily spirit higher in undesirable compounds. So while it may sound like The Macallan are selecting a small slice of the spirit because it’s the best, it may be more likely their spirit isn’t that desirable for the most part so they can only use such a small portion of it. I’m sure if they could use a higher percentage of each spirit run and still produce the quality of whisky they aim for, they would.
Back to the tour though. After the tasting, you are given an opportunity to explore the photography gallery – yes, there’s a photography gallery in the distillery; or sample more whisky and/or cocktails. I tried a tasty take on a New York Sour, made with a Spanish Rioja red wine float, kindly prepared by Seb, one of the bartenders at the distillery.
The final part of the tour is a trip underneath it all into the highly impressive private cask vault which doubles as an exclusive dining space commanding £250 per head, but that’s just the start of it. If you want to use the dining ‘vault’ space, you need to pay for all the tours, associated expenses, chef, waiting staff, etc. because when you dine at The Macallan, they close the entire facility to the public from 6pm onward, making it your own private distillery wonderland – No idea what the ‘actual’ cost of hosting a dinner here would be, but I’m betting it’s not cheap.
Other features of the distillery (yes, there’s more) include a private VIP bar, café, boutique store and a huge collection of rare Macallan bottles and memorabilia that can be explored with a digital periscope contraption in order to get a close up look at everything.
The new Macallan Distillery really needs to be seen to be believed and I would recommend it to anyone, not just whisky drinkers. Make sure you pre-book however, because Macallan are limiting numbers to control crowds and to provide a more enjoyable and leisurely-paced experience for visitors.