Our final days in Speyside this winter were blessed with more sunshine and yet more excellent whiskies. Fortunately with a few members of the team on the road together, it's easy enough to switch over the responsibility of the designated driver; a particularly important duty as this also includes driving the Dram Drone, which by now has covered pretty much the entirety of the Speyside region - you can follow its exploits on our Instagram page.
Of course, no trip here would be complete without at least a quick visit to one of the most famous distilleries of all, particularly after an extensive rejuvenation in the form of a new production facility. The last time I visited Macallan, the grounds looked somewhat like a warzone. Landscaping work had turned much of the area around the distillery the other way up, heavy machinery was lurking menacingly around the site and there was a general atmosphere of top-secret activity.
This time we were able to explore the final result of all that work, with the incredibly unique and modern distillery in full swing and open to visitors. The ambitious architectural design has paid off, with the building’s flowing natural lines and grass roof blending it into the surrounding hillside. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that this is a monument to how far distillery methods and technology have come in recent decades.
Macallan’s spirit production is now modular in design, with the space being divided into large circular bays in which the apparatus is arranged. Three of these bays are effectively individual stillhouses in their own right, each one possessing the pot stills, condensers, receivers etc. required to turn wash into new make spirit. The final bay includes the mash tun, which is so large it had to be installed early on in construction, the building then being put up around it (in fact it’s worth checking out footage of the tun being brought up the road to the distillery). There is room here to expand in the future, but no specific plans are in motion just yet.
The tour is well worth it, even if like us you’ve seen dozens of distilleries already; the new Macallan truly is that unique. Designed from the ground up with visitors in mind, the journey around the production area incorporates impressive visuals which include an excellent description of the many options available in cask maturation (though the Macallan bottle rising out of the display, bathed in golden light and Celtic music, may have been a tad much). Some have said the new aesthetics might be a step too far for something as steeped in tradition as Scotch whisky, but regardless of your opinion I'm sure you'll agree they're worth experiencing.
There’s also a subterranean array of maturing ex-sherry casks beneath the visitor centre. So there’s that...
Our final day in Speyside this winter also had to include a visit to our friends at Glenfarclas, a short journey down the road but one that seems to involve moving to the opposite end of the scale. One of the oldest distilleries in Speyside, Glenfarclas has retained a strong sense of tradition and history, such as the old water wheel outside the millroom, still turning today. This is not to say they haven’t kept up with technological developments; instead they strive to combine the best of both worlds, upgrading the existing architecture and technique as and when appropriate whilst avoiding change for the sake of change.
For example, on this visit I spotted some new apparatus linked to the lyne arms of the stills, which it turns out are a health and safety measure that allow for the continued use of direct fire to heat the stills. This is thought to add weight and character to the spirit and as such Glenfarclas is, quite rightly, reluctant to change now.
No visit would be complete without a visit to the famous No.1 warehouse, where Ian and Calum was generous enough to let myself and Brendan try some whisky from a couple of very special casks. Personally I tend to shy away from drams with a strong ex-sherry cask influence, but I've yet to come across one here that I don't like.
To this day the distillery remains in the Grant family, which gives Glenfarclas a special atmosphere. Many members of the team live o the site, living and breathing the distillery’s work. A keen sense of identity and careful control of the brand have put the company in a strong position, with global recognition, increasing export and impressive reserves of well-matured, high quality stock.
At risk of sounding like a doting fan, I will take the opportunity to briefly grumble at the company’s continued reluctance to allow independent efforts such as our own to include their spirit; we’ve yet to release a bottling of Glenfarclas and it’s highly doubtful that we ever will, much as we’d like to. Despite this the team have always been very welcoming, and as long as they continue to release such stunning whiskies, we can hardly complain.
Our next road trip will probably be back to Islay, ahead of this year's notorious summer festival, so stay tuned for news!