World’s most co-ordinated distillery: Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience

The exterior of the Timber Awards Winning Project Macallan Distillers Visitor Experience Centre. The building's wavy design and green roof give the appearance of rolling hills.
Published: 05/03/2020

In this blog Toby Jeavons, of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, project lead on the Macallan Distillery and Visitor Experience, outlines the building an ambitious scheme and the extensive use of timber in the project. The project was the overall winner of the RIAS Best Use of Timber Awards in 2019. 


The building has one of the most interesting yet complex glulam structures, why was this chosen over another material?

It was a fresh challenge with a large learning curve. When we got to the site and learnt about the project, elements started to emerge and come together. These projects usually don’t have one single genesis – there are a few ideas that tend to come together.

We were aware that the existing distillery at the Macallan had a timber roof. So, through knowledge of the product and speaking to the client, it was clear that timber was very important, not only to single malt whiskies but particularly to Macallan. They place a particular emphasis on the quality of their timber casks and the importance it has to the flavour profile of the whisky.

A celebration

We celebrated not only how the building works but also how it is put together and its materiality. It is fundamentally a factory with a great deal of industrial equipment. We wanted to express and celebrate the stainless-steel vessels, pipework, and the naturally hand-beaten copper stills.

The greenery of the landscape was seen as one of the materials of the project, and the timber roof was complimentary ‒a slightly softening material against the hard industrial equipment.

The building also responds to the production process in its form, reflects the hill forms and the line of the horizon. It just seemed more appropriate. The form and structure developed as the project evolved.

The glulam structure

It did not start off as a glulam structure particularly. It is conventional at one level as far as it is a series of traditional compression domes that load down vertically onto a steel ring beam which was designed and integrated. In between these compressive domes are tensile sections where the timber is ’draping’ in-between the adjacent domes.

When the project was designed with Arup’s Structural Engineers and ultimately procured, Wiehag were the selected manufacturing sub-contractor. They brought in their knowledge and manufacturing processes which were biased towards glulam.

The engineered concept designed and evolved such that the core of the beam becomes glulam. Another manufacturer may have evolved the beams alternatively for the internal composition – externally it would always have looked like it does now. 

Can you say something about the commissioning/procurement process?

It was a traditional contract insofar as the design was held within the responsibility of the client’s design team prior to being tendered. But there was a number of design packages with a requirement for specialist sub-contractor involvement in the final resolution of the design.

The timber roof is an example where Wiehag were appointed sub-contractors. Their input led towards the final resolution and how it was logistically made, put together and delivered to site.

What was the biggest challenge with designing the building?

It’s hard to name one – it’s quite an ambitious scheme overall. We set ourselves a goal of delivering the most co-ordinated distillery building in the world

It’s a highly volatile facility, as all whisky distilleries are. It comes with the same classification as a petrol chemicals plant. We wanted to place the visitor experience next to the production distillery – which the brief didn’t require us to do. This would allow the visitor to look into the distillery, so it was important that we had a large glazed wall dividing the two spaces.

The glazed wall had to be a two-hour fire compartment. This wall was quite a technical challenge because we had to have a portion of that wall prototyped and mocked up at full scale with an integrated sprinkler system. It was then physically tested at the building research establishment, where it was burnt and demonstrated to comply.

We also had to demonstrate, in the event of a spillage of the highly flammable product in the distillery, that it was drained away in a particularly rapid time scale.

Technical issues

The response of digging into the ground came with certain challenges. The coordination of the shell and core along with the process equipment was a vitally important part of the project. All the equipment had to vent to the outside. It had to be read as one facility and not as a shell with a process fitout. 

We had to work very closely with the client and the process equipment manufacturers to ensure that the positioning down to the detail was highly coordinated with the floor surface and the roof. So that was certainly a challenge as well.

With the roof, there was a coordination issue in just bringing the various parts together as one holistic idea. The steelwork was made in York, and the timber roof was all made in Austria. 

As the building is located in a fairly remote part of Scotland, those elements had to be designed in tandem, with a close understanding of each other’s tolerances. It then had to physically be brought to the site and erected in the middle of a field at height, in a windy winter climate. 

These are obviously design challenges, and there are also construction and logistical challenges ‒but they are all part and parcel of the whole process.

Expressed grid

The underside of the roof is an expressed grid and network of beams – there is no ceiling as such – so you see the underside of the structure. The beams are on a perpendicular three-meter grid, deliberately set so that any partitions or the façade have always got something clean to come and meet.

There are no curves in the roof either – it is all straight, faceted sections ‒and it allows the façade to engage in a logical way.

What was your favourite part of the project process?

The whole project was a pleasure to be involved in, and I think we realised that fairly early on. That even from our own career perspective, we are lucky enough as a practice that all of our projects are pretty interesting.

But nevertheless, I think we were always aware that this was going to be a particularly special project. A beautiful part of the country and an interesting market-leading product. The client was incredibly supportive and very ambitious.

They were pushing things as much as anyone else, and it may sound clichéd but it is true that you get a good scheme with a good client. Everybody involved, from the design team, consultants and contractors – everybody realised that it’s something special and I think once everybody involved was aware, they wanted to do a good job.

No one wants to let the side down, so everyone brings that extra bit of enthusiasm and commitment to the project which isn’t necessarily always the case. It was a real pleasure in that respect.

Artisan stills 

The stills were very artisan as products. Each one of these copper stills took a number of people many weeks, literally hand-beating each of them. They are pretty incredible things and they are almost old-fashioned heavy engineering / heavy industry – like making bells.

We had the benefit of market-leading manufacturers and designers Forsyths of Rothes for the process equipment being based just over three miles up the road from the site.

What is your favourite aspect of the finished project?

I think the way it satisfies its concept. For me, when you enter the site and see the oblique roofscape rolling away from you with the backdrop of the adjacent hills, it is a very powerful image. And how it has so successfully bedded into the landscape now does seem to be working well. 

We are all pleased with the point of entry – walking through the entrance lobby tunnel and then emerging into the reception is always a really special moment. Also, the circular private cellar – the cave privée – located in the middle of the visitor’s centre is a unique space.

t’s hard to pick out one bit over another. It is very much a holistic entity.

What advice would you give someone who wants to build remotely?

We would not have achieved doing what we did if it was not for the client who wanted to do it in the first place ‒and their level of ambition that drove the tone of the project. 

To some extent, there are of course some logistic complications that come from being relatively remote. Obviously, you have to get goods, services and people to that location. You do have narrow winding roads to deal with and a difficult typography. It is not particularly flat, so you have large, wide deliveries coming up a narrow road for a long distance. 

Local accommodation, I think, would be an interesting one ‒ that is something that one might not immediately think of. If you are going to need ‘X’ number of people on site, where are they all going to stay?

For those of us that do not live in a rural environment, coming from a more urban area, to gradually move into the countryside was actually part of that whole decompression and the pleasure when you find yourself in the most amazing place. So – celebrate it!

Header image credit: Mark Power