Why The Macallan 2.0 is the ultimate challenge to its Scotch whisky rivals - Comment

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The opening this week of The Macallan's newly-"reimagined" Scotch whisky distillery by Edrington is a defining moment in the category, believes Neil Ridley. So, what is the knock-on effect for the rest of the Scotch industry?

Edrington officially opened the new distillery for The Macallan this week

Edrington officially opened the new distillery for The Macallan this week

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to take a tour around what might very well be the biggest game changer in Scotch whisky in the last 20 years. A big claim, I realise, but when you finally get to see inside Edrington's new distillery for The Macallan - a vast, mostly subterranean complex that the group has finally completed for its flagship single malt - I defy anyone to not take a sharp intake of breath and think huge thoughts about the future prospects for the brand specifically, for Scotch generally and for the wider Speyside region.

The decision to undertake such an ambitious project, to build an entirely new distillery rather than expand the existing site with a bigger production capacity, was taken by Edrington's board in late-2013, led by the vision of creative director Ken Grier. For those of you unfamiliar with Grier's work, he's the man who created and maintained the widely-acclaimed Masters Of Photography series, aligning the Macallan brand with some of the most well-known photographers in recent history.

Given his clearly artistic bent and love of buildings like the Bodegas Santiago Calatrava in Rioja - arguably the most progressive-looking winery in the world - the new distillery was never going to end up looking like a glorified shed with a traditional pagoda roof slapped on top. Indeed, the team of architects commissioned by Grier and Edrington, Rogers Stirk Harbours + Partners, set out to bring a radically-different vision to Speyside's landscape.

That said, the most remarkable thing about the distillery is that, from the outside, there's really very little to indicate just how bold a move the group has taken with its GBP140m investment. On the approach, a series of curious grassy humps, modelled on traditional Pictish watchtowers, gives little away. Head into the cavernous entrance hall with its remarkable tessellated triangular roof structure and you're suddenly transported away from Scotland - and Scotch (™) - to a place that might defy logic to the purists.

Scotch whisky, this isn't.

Okay. Scotch whisky it very much IS, but done a lot more stylishly than anyone thought possible: An 18m-high glass wall housing a complete archive of Macallan bottlings; a circular tasting bar with nearly 1,000 open bottles dating back to 1937; a restaurant led by a Michel Roux protege.

All this before you actually see the distillery in any of its glory: 36 immaculate new stills, laid out in a minimalist, glass-fronted gallery with walkways to rival a Bond villain's lair; the world's biggest mash tun and a series of experiential areas with lights, smoke and theatrics that detail the production process in a dazzling fashion, developed by the same people who put the wow factor into the BMW museum in Munich and the new Egyptian museum in Giza.

You'll find no stags here, no heather, no mizzle and thankfully, no tartan.

In the past, one could argue that with some of its releases, The Macallan had been guilty of 'doing' luxury in a very loud, ostentatious way. The Lalique decanters and eye-watering auction prices have enraged as many drinkers as it has excited, as well as laying down a jewel-encrusted gauntlet to its closest rivals to try and compete with- most of whom have managed at best to come out with derivative 'Me-Too' expressions.

With this new distillery, though, The Macallan has set out a vision far beyond whisky and well out of reach of its closest rivals.

It has also brought an entirely-new dimension to a relatively small area of Scotland, which despite talking a big game internationally, falls woefully short of the tourist experiences offered in, say, Cognac or Champagne. I recall a time several years ago when I visited one of Scotland's oldest and most recognisably-beautiful distilleries located a short drive away from Speyside, where the brand ambassador took me for lunch locally. After much disappointment, premature kitchen closures and blank looks, we had to settle on some slightly stale sandwiches that had been left over from a wake in a local pub. An amusing but, sadly, uncomfortable truth that at the time, made me think just how much Scotch needed to up its game if it wanted to attract the sort of visitors it was appealing to in other markets.

Now, it has. And, then some.

By all means, accuse me of sounding overly-glowing at this week's official opening. In return, I urge the Scotch sceptics - especially those who work in marketing or innovation - to take a public tour to see what all the fuss is about. I'll bet you the entry price - GBP15, which you can easily expense - that you'll come out thinking differently about where Scotch is heading, or could be if you throw the dusty old rule book away.

Being a luxury product isn't simply about making a liquid that is either old, desirably rare, or packaged in a polished wooden box. It's an attitude, which has to run deep into the ethos of the brand. The Macallan has already done this successfully for a decade.

The Macallan 2.0 has refined that definition of luxury even further.

Click here for more commentary from brown spirits expert Neil Ridley

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