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The Macallan distillery was founded in 1824 by Alexander Reid, but it is Roderick Kemp, who sold his controlling share in Talisker to buy the distillery in 1892, that is viewed by many as the true father of this Speyside malt. Kemp was a giant of the Victorian whisky industry and he quickly established The Macallan as one of the most desirable spirits on the market. The distillery would remain under the ownership of his descendants until it was finally sold to Highland Distillers (now Edrington) in 1996.
The Macallan is one of the most recognisable single malt brands in the world today and is widely seen as the most collectable, regularly breaking records at auction and selling for tens of thousands of pounds on the secondary market. It came as something of a surprise then, when Edrington announced in 2012 that they were to take the distillery in a bold direction. Creating a new structure from the ground up, traditional aspects were to be abandoned in favour of radical new architecture, installing up to date technology and incorporating tourism at the very heart of the build. Costing in the region of £140 million, the new distillery took over from the old in November of 2017 and has been running public tours as of June 2018.
There can be no doubt that a lack of creativity has existed where new distillery builds are concerned, so it was with great anticipation that I learned of such a brave approach being taken by the team at Edrington. In early August I finally found time to pay the site a visit and certainly wasn’t disappointed with what I found.
The distillery could almost be confused for a natural landscape at first glance, consisting of a row of grassy mounds, one after the other, stretching into the distance. It is an impressive sight, though the weather has not been kind. You have to sympathise with anyone who launches a new grass-roofed structure in the midst of Scotland’s driest ever summer. No doubt our nations regular supply of rain will return in good time however, and future visitors will be greeted with an abundance of lush greenery, as was intended.
A long, paved walkway leads to the entrance, building a sense of excitement as you draw near a set of unmarked doors which open automatically, drawing you inward towards a subterranean cavern of a room. It is a rather subtle portal for such a grand building, but it helps to magnify the impact of the vast reception area which greets you as you enter.
The distillery comprises of a series of domes. Under the first is reception, bottle archive, shop, cafe and tasting bar, while the rest house production, with each dome containing 12 Pot Stills, arranged in a circle in front of their corresponding washbacks. It’s an exceptionally practical design which, like all the best ideas, leaves you wondering why no-one has thought of it before. Tours work round the periphery of the production area, focusing on interactive display units based on the Six Pillars, the supposed ‘foundation stones’ of The Macallan’s character. It’s an interesting approach with some excellent displays which would be wonderful aids to those learning the process for the first time, though I confess that it struck me as a little strange to be wandering round a distillery largely ignoring the ‘real’ equipment.
The tour concludes with the presentation of four drams, all of which, it has to be said, were of a high standard. The real highlight for me however, was the Edition No. 4 which I tried at the tasting bar afterwards. Alas, the final bottle had been sold by the time I made it back to the shop so instead, I opted to take home a bottle of the 12 year old sherry oak cask, perhaps the most ‘traditional’ offering of the day.
The distillery is an architectural masterpiece, stunning both inside and out, but it is also a fine example of what can be achieved with a mind open to the evolution of the whisky industry. Tradition is incredibly important (and it would be heartbreaking to see every distillery follow suit, smashing down their pagodas to be replaced by new, futuristic designs), but there is certainly room for a little imagination here and there and Edrington deserve a lot of credit for having the courage to lead the way, especially with such an important brand.
The Macallan 12 Year Old ‘Sherry Oak Cask’ is bottled at 40% and costs around £60 a bottle.
Smell: Lots of Dried Fruits – Raisins, Sultanas, Figs… Winter Spices, Caramel, Orange and Old Dunnage Warehouses…
Taste: Caramel and Orange with Dark Chocolate and light Cinnamon with a touch of Oak. Despite the famously small Macallan stills, it could do with a little more weight on the palate for me.
Value for Money: For me, The Macallan name alone isn’t enough to justify the £60 price tag attached to this bottling, though it has to be said, the quality is high for a 12 year old malt bottled at just 40%.
A little overpriced then (though that is hardly a surprise), but an enjoyable dram nonetheless. Rich in flavour, with a welcoming aroma, the 12 year old Sherry Oak Cask is perhaps the most affordable, and most available example of a traditional Macallan dram. Worth trying at least once, just to see what all the fuss is about.