The iconic Macallan Distillery, located in the heart of Scotland’s whisky trail, is where centuries old whisky-making methods are conducted in a modern temple of production that lifts the spirit and your soul in equal measure. Angeline Bayly pays a visit.
Although I have enjoyed countless behind-the scenes tours of wineries over the years, only once before have I had the opportunity to visit a whisky distillery, so when the invitation came to check out The Macallan Distillery and see first-hand where and how one the world’s most iconic spirits is created, it was too good a chance to miss.
So, it was with a great deal of excitement – and no small amount of curiosity – that I took the stunning drive southwest from Inverness airport along the A9, before taking the turning for Grantown on Spey, and following the 30-mile route along the A398 that offers tantalising glimpses of the River Spey before you eventually arrive at the gates of the Macallan Estate in Craigellachie.
Not that you’d know it. There’s no flashy sign or large bold writing on the wall beckoning you in. Instead, you are greeted at the gates by a lone watchman who checks you are expected and grants you permission to continue. All very Willy Wonka.
Once through the hallowed portals, the lengthy driveway gives little away as to the precise nature of what lies ahead. Passing the historic and beautifully restored Easter Elchies house – which dates back to 1700 and is available for those who want to stay for an extended fishing trip – it’s only when you turn a corner and are presented with a 120-metre long structure carved into the hillside, and see the sunlight reflecting off the giant glistening copper stills, that you are able take in that you have arrived at one of the Holy Grails for whisky lovers the world over.
EXPANDING PRODUCTION, ENHANCING THE VISITOR EXPERIENCE
For fans of modernist architecture, the Macallan Distillery is worth a visit even if single malt isn’t your thing. The sheer scale of the structure is a wonder to behold. Designed by the late Richard Rodgers, and first opened in 2018, the building – two-thirds of which is underground – boasts the world’s largest free-standing roof, while a 15-foot-tall window runs the entire length of the south-facing side. The eye-catching design was partially inspired by the Bodegas Ysios winery in Rioja Alavesa, Spain, which features an aluminium wave for a roof that blends into the scenic mountain backdrop, and also by traditional Scottish brochs, or roundhouses. Either way, its undulating grass and wildflower-topped roof blends serenely into the surrounding Speyside landscape, hiding the vast dimensions that lie within.
The new building, which cost £140 million, has enabled Macallan’s whisky production to be increased by a third (up to potentially 150 million litres a year) courtesy of the now 36 copper stills on site compared to the previous 18. It has also enabled the visitor experience to be enhanced, with all the whisky production element housed under the same roof as the visitor centre, which boasts a sizeable retail space, a spacious bar area, numerous galleries and exhibition spaces. It also features a series of interactive displays representing each of Macallan’s ‘six pillars’ that underpin the core values of the brand. Among them are a walk-through oak ‘forest’ and cask-firing demonstration, while the traditional distillery spirit safe is forgone in favour of a Lalique sculpture representing the third pillar, the ‘finest cut’.
Walking through the entrance door you’re immediately greeted by a vast wall of whisky, with bottles that stretch from the floor to as high as your neck will allow, while giant beams of Scandinavian oak stretch high above you like the vault of a vast cathedral. It’s breathtaking in both its scale and ambition.
FOOD FOR THOUGHT
In addition to the numerous opportunities there are for drinking Macallan’s whiskies on site, visitors can also find out why it is such versatile partner for food – as well as an essential ingredient – when booking The Macallan Mastery Experience, a four-hour small group tour which includes a five-course tasting menu and costs from £250pp.
Chef Pawel Sowa heads up the on-site restaurant, Elchies, which not only caters for special events, but also serves a whisky and sherry-inspired tasting menu that finds inventive ways to integrate the flavours of the whisky and sherry – the casks from which Macallan is matured in – into a variety of dishes.
On my visit, the menu – which is served with paired wines – included a fermented barley risotto that was flavoured with caramelised yeast and malt foam and offered a tantalising glimpse into the influence of the humble barley grain that is manipulated with only water and yeast to create a glass of liquid magic. There was also a dish of ‘neeps and tatties’ garnished with caviar and a manzanilla sherry sauce that alluded to the long-standing partnership the wines of Jerez have on Scotland’s number one export.
The show-stopping dish, however, was a dessert featuring new make spirit delicately aerated into an ‘Angel’s Share’ cloud, which in turn, was suspended over a dish featuring Italian meringue, rhubarb, shortbread, new make spirit jelly and a violet Chantilly cream. The ‘cloud’ slowly dripped the aerated spirit onto the ingredients below. Magical stuff.
Although hard to top, that was followed by a divine tiramisu that had been expertly fashioned into the shape of a coffee bean that had been subtly infused with Macallan whisky.
Suitably wined and dined and ‘whiskied’, we began our guided tour with an introduction to what Macallan describes as the ‘Jewel Wall’, the aforementioned towering edifice of single malts, some dating back to the 1800s, that are sealed behind a wall of Perspex. From there we moved to The Macallan Archive, a collection of 398 bottles, 19 decanters and four flasks that are on public display, many for the first time, that serve to bring Macallan’s 200-year history to life like never before.
Some of the more exclusive collaborations that Macallan has been involved with over the years are also on show, including one with French glassware company Lalique, a bottle of which recently sold at auction for over $600,000 with the proceeds going to charity. Macallan is also the official whisky of the 007 franchise, and there are nods to James Bond and his favourite single malt throughout the building.
STILLS & MASH
From there we moved upstairs to view the working part of the distillery, which itself is like a piece of art, with the vast vaulted ceiling looking down on 36 polished copper stills and a myriad of pipes heading in different directions.
Macallan’s stills are arranged in three circular ‘pods’ of 12, each pod containing eight spirit and four wash stills. The original distillery’s wooden and stainless steel washbacks have been rejected in favour of fermenters fitted with a new external cooling system that allows for greater control over temperature during fermentation. The stills are smaller than you’ll find at most other distilleries, which are said to better capture the larger evaporating molecules, not just the fine molecules that reach the top, giving Macallan more flavour compounds to enjoy in the final product. The site also features a single 17-tonne mash tun, said to be the largest in Scotland.
With any project of this scale and scope comes a commitment to the surrounding environment, and Macallan’s distillery is no exception. At least 90% of its energy requirements come from renewable sources, primarily through intelligent heat recovery and biomass.
Macallan draws water from the River Spey from four boreholes and uses a range of barley, including some that is grown on the 485-acre estate. Still size aside, the process of making Macallan is much the same as any other whisky distillery, but what makes it stand out from its rivals is that it is the original brand that use sherry casks in which the maturing process takes place. Macallan only ever use each barrel twice, and once they have lived out life at the distillery, they are then sold to independent businesses, cooperages or other distilleries.
Macallan Cave Privée
The final part of the tour included a memorable visit to the Macallan Cave Privée, the home of the brand’s private cask collection. The vast circular vault is located in the middle of the building and features a walkway that takes you to the heart of the vault looking out over a priceless collection of some 150 barrels that contain some Macallan’s most exclusive privately-owned casks. It was here that we were invited to taste a 30-year-old Macallan (2022 release) that is valued at over £4,500 a bottle.
We were then guided back upstairs to the bar for a further tutored tasting and were treated to a flight designed to showcase the quality and diversity of the brand. These included a 43.5% ABV single malt from The Home Collection (£475 for 70cl); a 48.6% Edition No.6 (£350), and a 48% Rare Cask Black (£619).
After we had enjoyed our drams, we were led to The Macallan Boutique where we were seated in a private room where VIP guests are given the opportunity to purchase a selection of unique bottlings that are not on general release. With prices ranging from £900 to around £2,000, my credit card was kept securely hidden away, but a number of our party wasted no time in heading towards the shop seeking a liquid memento of their visit.