Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners’ Macallan distillery and visitor centre is an ingenious response to both programme and place, discovers Ben Addy
What a business. With hundreds of millions of pounds’ worth of product ageing in ranks of vast green hangars, it is impossible to visit the Macallan distillery without pondering, with a smile, the remarkable and audacious economics of the Scottish whisky industry: it makes use of the cheapest and most abundant inputs available in this part of the world (water and barley), transformed by a simple process that is as old as civilisation – and yet the end result, conditioned in second-hand barrels before being packaged up in sophisticated branding, outstrips every other industry in terms of its net contribution to the UK’s balance of trade.
Given how assiduously and seductively scotch whisky is marketed to achieve this feat, it is unsurprising that the locations where this production takes place have always featured in the mythology: from the historic antecedent of the illicit still hidden in a remote glen to the romantic but functional pagoda roofs that came with industrialisation in the nineteenth century.
Think also of the bondhouse supergraphics that proclaim brand identity in building-sized lettering to the surrounding landscape, and it’s clear that it was only a matter of time before the industry picked up on the potential – already identified in the wine-making business – for contemporary architecture to further increase brand distinctiveness.
Macallan, or rather ‘The Macallan’, stole a march on its competitors in autumn 2012 by appointing Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners to design its new distillery at Craigellachie, Moray, after a limited competition process. Much as the chutzpah – and it must also be said skill – of the distillers draws a smile, this new building also provokes delight, from the rolling roof form with its startlingly direct but nevertheless successful analogy to the undulating landscape of the lower Spey valley to the choreographed theatre of the integrated visitor centre, as well as several much subtler allusions embodied elsewhere in the building.
The building is arranged as a linear sequence of circular cells set into an east-facing hillside with the River Spey at its foot. Each cell sits beneath its own barrow-like hillock in the roof form. The three middle cells are the ‘still houses’, each containing all the equipment required for the distillation process. In effect the building operates as three distillery processes running in parallel, and the operation could easily be expanded in the future through the addition of further cells. At the north end, the mash house provides the first step in the production process. Again, the plan provides open spaces for additional mash tuns and grist mills to enable doubling of capacity should this be required.
At the south end, the principal entrance and public area adapts the trope with a taller barrow coupled with a flattish plateau to make a cavernous space for the visitor experience. Along the western edge a service spine set into the landscape provides vehicular access to each cell from a submerged concrete canyon.
Drawing a parallel again with the distilling process, the creation of this building has been undertaken with great care, from the appealing composition of raking struts and ties that alternate along the leading edges of the roof to the principal beams arranged in grid form in plan to achieve perfect coherence with vertical structure below (as opposed to being normal to the undulating surface).
The building is naturally ventilated; the challenge is to get rid of the excess heat and vapour produced by the distillation process in a controlled manner. The hillocks help by capturing hot air in a pocket above the stills, before venting through permanently open triangular exhausts, prominently arranged in a ring above each still house. What might be thought of as a whimsy in the roof-form is therefore as functional as the ventilation pagodas seen at Macallan’s neighbours along the Spey. Indeed once the connection is made, the triangular shape and symmetry of the vents, coupled with their associated lightning conductor ‘finials’, bring to mind nothing other than a scotch whisky distillery.
Underneath the three central barrows each circular grouping of stills, pots and pipework, together with the necessary access provision, has been designed through a close working relationship between RSH&P, engineer Arup and industry-leading coppersmith Forsyths. The decision to coordinate as a cluster the necessary vessels for washbacks, low wines, spent lees and hot pot ales alongside the bright copper wash and spirit stills – each presented at first-floor level with a void beneath, densely packed and then rotationally repeated – very successfully celebrates the inherent beauty of these objects. Crucially for a visitor experience, the close adjacency also makes the functional relationship between each component abundantly clear.
The production cells are separated at their southern end from the visitor entrance by a full height glass screen – allowing direct visual connection along the length of the building but in so doing bringing the obvious challenge of maintaining fire separation between the two compartments. This was achieved through the development of a (now patented) water cascade system that, in the event of fire, creates a constant deluge on both sides of the glass.
With the tallest hillock above it, the visitor entrance area is noticeably more cavernous than its counterparts, sufficiently so to contain an enclosed multi-storey drum with whisky-tasting areas beneath the timber roof. At ground level the drum houses a bonded warehouse where privately-owned casks are arrayed around a central viewing area.
A similar sense of theatricality is on show throughout: low-level lighting, choreographed circulation and material specification combine with the necessary climatic and security separation between public areas and the bonded warehouse to reinforce the literal exclusivity that exists between the two domains. Although it is surrounded by a visitor attraction, the warehouse must match the climatic conditions found in the green hangars elsewhere on the estate: not too hot, not too cold, a bit damp at times, dry at others.
Lighting design by Speirs & Major “references the dynamic light qualities found in the local landscape”. The designers endeavoured to use a balance of light and darkness to create a sense of theatre. Light is used to celebrate the scale and form of the building, and to guide visitors through it. Their journey ends in the Cave Privée, a circular whisky store, where programmable dynamic light and black polished surfaces create kaleidoscopic effects. Different qualities of light deployed throughout the bar and visitor centre “allude to the breadth of tasting notes that characterise The Macallan”, says the designer.
When the alcohol vapour that permeates all spirit distilleries (famously the ‘angels’ share’, in the case of whisky) combines with moisture and settles on hard surfaces it encourages the growth of a particular black fungus, Baudoinia compniacensis. ‘Whisky fungus’ is so pervasive in these environments, particularly close to the distillation process itself, that RSH&P has specified a high-quality black concrete for much of the internal and external retaining walls, so that the fungus will merely add to the patina over time rather than giving the appearance of dirt or degradation.
A similar close consideration for material is present in the roof, from the precisely detailed ring beams at the perimeter of each hillock to the surprisingly ordinary ‘construction’ grade of laminated timber used for beams and soffits. The relatively humble finish is one of the great strengths of the design. For all the sophistication in detail and luxuriant displays of golden liquid, the matter-of-fact material is a reminder that this is principally a working industrial facility.
The building presents industrial process as theatre, and it is very successful in this regard, with a calibrated balance between its constituent parts. The process and visual appeal of whisky-making is neither overblown nor underplayed, with the building presenting an enjoyable choreography of form, structure and equipment. The maker of the stills, Forsyth’s, is well known in the north-east of Scotland not only for its traditional copper and brass work but also for its extensive involvement in the North Sea oil industry. With all the exposed pipework, immaculately fabricated pressure vessels, pots and tanks on display here, there is a happy sense of appropriateness that the design of this building should have brought together this particular specialist fabricator with this particular architect.