Macallan whisky’s spectacular new Batcave-style distillery

It’s out with the conservative image for The Macallan and in with a starchitect-designed statement distillery

Image: Chris Burke

There comes a time in every chap’s life when a bit of an image refresh is required. Sometimes a new haircut or a sharper suit is all that it takes. However, sometimes those changes need to be a bit more radical. Makeovers come easy in the world of fashion. But Scotch whisky has always been pretty conservative, image-wise. So the recent unveiling of The Macallan’s new £140m distillery in Speyside has been big news in whisky land.

Designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, the architectural practice established by Richard Rogers, this modernist HQ is the first distillery to be designed by a ‘‘big-name’’ international architect. This puts it on a par with statement wine buildings including Marqués de Riscal’s Frank Gehry hotel in Rioja, Château Margaux’s Norman Foster winery and Antinori’s arresting HQ in Chianti Classico (or so they hope, anyway). From the outside, the new distillery is quite subtle – cut into the side of the hill, it has an undulating turfed roof and widescreen window that give it the appearance of an oyster just starting to open. But inside, it has all the scale and drama of a Batcave. ‘‘We wanted it to look like a Tim Burton movie,” says the project’s architect, Toby Jeavons, “with big, heavy shadows.”

At every turn this building makes you look up. By the entrance a 10m x 30m glass display case towers with 840 archive bottles of The Macallan. In the centre, atop a vast, polished concrete rotunda, a bar serves 952 different drams   against cinematic views of the distant hills. There’s also an inner chamber where VIPs can dine in the midst of 140 privately owned casks. 

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The Macallan was established in 1824 and, like most Scotch whisky distilleries, it had always got by with a setup that was pretty utilitarian But Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners – a practice famous for putting the inner workings of buildings on the outside (it is also famous for projects including The Leadenhall Building in the City of London and Terminal 5 at London Heathrow) – has made the engine room of the distillery beautiful too. 

Under a ceiling that peaks at 24m, visitors can wander among 36 working copper stills, peer into washbacks alive with fermenting wort and explore interactive exhibits made by collaborators including Magnum and Lalique. “It’s been more than just a project – it’s been a defining part of my life,” says Jeavons, who spent six years on the building. 

I’d say it’s a defining moment for Scotch whisky too. “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have” – so the saying goes. And if that’s the case, The Macallan wants to be a single malt that’s defiantly 21st century.

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