"Having long been possessed with an ardent desire to see the Distilleries of Scotland...", Alfred Barnard, 1885

"O Thou, my muse! guid auld Scotch drink", from Scotch Drink, by Robert Burns

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Macallan Distillery, Craigellachie



“From Glen Spey we drove to the above Distillery, which belongs to the same proprietors.  This old-fashioned establishment is situated in the hilly district above the Spey, and is one mile from Dandaleith Station.  It was established in the year 1824, and its internal arrangements are similar to the other Spey-side Distilleries.  The Whisky is Highland Malt, and the product, like that of Glen Spey, mostly finds its way to the English market.  The annual output is about 40,000 gallons.”

Those few lines were all that Barnard wrote about Macallan distillery, the shortest report in his entire book.  7 lines in the book, 80 words.  I wondered if I too could sum up a combination of my trip to the distillery, the surrounding landscape, the distillery operation and the whisky produced in just 80 words.  No chance!  Sorry, you are going to have to read through another one of my essays if I am to do any justice to this world famous distillery.


Barnard noted that his party drove to Macallan from Glen Spey distillery as at that time James Stuart was the owner of both and they are just a few miles apart.  He had held the licence at Macallan since 1868 but bought the distillery land outright from the Seaforth Estate in 1886.  In his report heading Barnard recorded the location as ‘Rothes, Elgin’, perhaps because at that time nearby Craigellachie was just a very small village with an inn and a post office to support what was then one of the main Highland railway junctions.

I was staying in Craigellachie on this stage of my journey and I walked round to the distillery to take one of their tours.  The walk there took a little longer than I anticipated, up hill for most of the way on a busy country road with no footpath.  Barnard has the distillery location as “situated in the hilly district above the Spey” – well that narrows it down a bit Alfred, well done! – but he does qualify this comment by noting that the distillery was also one mile from Dandaleith station.

When the Morayshire Railway line south of Elgin was first opened in 1861 there was no crossing over the Spey and so Dandaleith station on its north side (and at that time known as Craigellachie) was the final stop.  A viaduct was built in 1863 to connect the Morayshire line to the Strathspey Railway Junction at Craigellachie village, and in 1864 the Craigellachie station on the north side was renamed Dandaleith and the Strathspey Junction became Craigellachie.  The main trunk road north to Elgin now runs right through where Dandaleith station used to be and all that remains is part of the embankment retaining wall.

Dandaleith Station embankment retaining wall
Barnard’s ‘hilly district’ is the relatively (for this area) gentle slope on which Macallan sits above the north bank of the River Spey, in-between Aberlour and Craigellachie on the opposite side.  After my walk up to the distillery I joined a tour group of merry pilgrims in the capable and enthusiastic hands of Ashley.  The tour began with some of the history of Easter Elchies, the old name for the estate in which the distillery is located.  Ashley took us back to 1700 AD when Easter Elchies House was built in the grounds near the old Macallan church.

Macallan church ruins and mausoleum
The house was built by Captain John Grant who was buried in a mausoleum in the churchyard when he died in 1715.  The church fell into disrepair in the mid 1700s and little remains of it today; the mausoleum stands in one corner of the graveyard.  In 1820, local farmer Alexander Reid leased the house and adjoining farm and it was he who founded the distillery in 1824, initially naming it as Elchies.  It was later renamed Macallan after the church and the parish in which it was located, although there is some uncertainty over the origins of the name and its meaning.

Back to 1654 the Blaeu Atlas only records the word Elchies for the estate and a previous house, although the north side of the Spey was largely unexplored for that map and others into the 1700s.  Variations of Elchies appear in later maps up to the mid 1800s but the name Macallan is not recorded then.  An 1836 church presbytery report records the "parish of Macallan or Elchies” and the Second Statistical Account of Scotland records a distillery “at Macallan, [conducted] by Mr Reid” in 1835, although that is inconclusive as to the actual distillery name at that time.  A very detailed map surveyed in 1870 has the distillery (and church) named as Macallan, two years after Stuart took over the licence.  Stuart sold the distillery to Roderick Kemp in 1892 and he added –Glenlivet to the name in line with many other distilleries around here.

Easter Elchies House
Macallan was one of the earliest distilleries applying for a license under the 1823 Excise Act, although there is record of unofficial distilling here prior to that.  Easter Elchies House is now considered the spiritual home of Macallan as that was where the distilling license was signed, a drawing of the house now also the distillery logo on their bottles, replacing the Macallan crest that appears around the site.  The house had gradually fallen into disrepair in the early 1900s until it and the surrounding land were bought by the distillery in the 1960s and restored in the early 1980s.  They grow some of their own Minstrel barley in 95 acres of fields in the surrounding Macallan Estate and also keep a small herd of highland cattle (Craigellachie on the other side of the Spey was an old cattle droving junction where a number of passes through the hills converged at a bend in the river).

Entrance to display area and production facility no.2
Ashley then took us from distant history to one of the most modern developments on site.  Production House No.2 was closed in 1988 when there was a downturn in the industry but it was ‘re-awakened’ in 2008 and at the same time its atrium was converted into a shiny new display area for the beginning of the tour.  Here we are introduced to some of the key elements that the distillery hold sacred - granite, water and barley the main items on display - along with a backing track of gurgling water to create an impression of a natural environment.  Very atmospheric but sadly too loud for me to make out all of Ashley’s comments so I could just be writing nonsense below (what do you mean ‘again’?!).

Element display at Macallan
Their production water is brought up from a borehole on site, 150,000 litres per day to supply the three waters that pass through each mash in the two tuns installed here.  The cooling water is pumped up from the Spey and 1m litres are required each day.  Barley was last malted on site in 1952 and the unpeated malt, mostly from Golden Promise barley, is now brought in from industrial maltings after having been supplied by Tamdhu’s Saladin box maltings for many years.

That 2008 re-awakening means that there are once more two production facilities on site.  Production House No.1 dates from the mid 1970s and is the larger of the two with a full lauter tun, 16 stainless steel washbacks, 5 wash stills and 10 spirit stills.  No.2 that we were guided round has a semi-lauter tun, 6 Douglas fir washbacks, 2 wash stills and 4 spirit stills.  Barnard’s comment that the “internal arrangements are similar to the other Spey-side Distilleries” is not something I could get away with here.

Macallan semi-lauter tun
Each mash takes roughly 3 1/2 hours in the No.1 facility and 8 hours in No.2 and the spent draff is then taken the short distance up to The Puree in Rothes for reprocessing.  The washbacks we are shown in No.2 are each filled with 30,000 litres of worts (36,400 in No.1) and we are here shown a DVD on how they create wooden washbacks, described as being ‘raised’ rather than built.  The fermentation runs for around 56 hours to an abv of 8% and the washbacks have both switchers and CO2 capture.

The No.2 still house is certainly unique, with spirit stills that are the smallest in Speyside at just 3,900 litres each.  Two of these dinky wee spirit stills sit on either side of the central pair of wash stills which dwarf them at 13,000 litres each.  The long lyne arms on the stills swoop down to the condensers at an angle of around 45 degrees, amongst the steepest in Scotland, to catch the rich, heavy, oily vapours that contribute so much to the Macallan style.  The stills are now steam heated but Macallan only changed from direct gas firing in 2010.

The early history of the stills is now lost but the production volume of just 182,000 litres p.a. in Barnard’s time suggests there were only two in place then.  By 1965 they were increasing the number from 6 to 12, increased again to 18 in 1974 and then 3 more added in 1975 to make the total of 21 today (MWYB 2011).  These all ran until the 6 stills in No.2 still house fell silent for that 20 year drought mentioned earlier, now once more producing spirit.  The Low Wines come off the wash stills at around 21% and are then very slowly distilled in the spirit stills with a relatively short middle cut of only around 15-16% of the total after a short foreshots run.  Macallan have possibly the highest cask fill % of any distillery at around 71% abv for their single malts.

Macallan warehouse No.7
The warehouse experience at Macallan is like no other in Scotland and the importance of oak casks in the production of good whisky is explained in some detail.  In warehouse No.7,  the oldest on site with the lower walls dating back to 1876, there are interactive displays showing the qualities of different types of oak, the way it is cut, dried and prepared as staves, the effect of different wood grain, etc., all accompanied by woodland noises in another recreation of nature.  A DVD presents, in some detail, the cask production process at Jerez in Spain before the casks are seasoned with sherry for three years.  The casks are then dismantled, shipped to Glasgow for reconstruction and then arrive at Macallan some 6 years after the tree was cut down.

Compared to the tourist brochure bonnie Scotland style DVD introductions provided at the beginning of many distillery tours, the displays that appeared during the tour around Macallan were often more directly relevant and informative about specific processes at different stages.  I think they generally enhanced the overall experience, although the atmospheric noises here were again just a distraction that continued long after the cooperage film ended.  Not somewhere for casks to be sleeping undisturbed!

The final part of the experience as we left the warehouse included a colour wall to show the different hues that maturing whisky takes on during its time in a cask and from different cask types.  The vast majority of the casks used here are first fill sherry casks made from European Oak with some American Oak sherry and bourbon casks as well.  A cask that then holds whisky for 10-12 years will sometimes be reused if it still has something to give but any cask used for 13 or more years is not refilled for the Macallan, the best of its flavoursome goodness considered to have been too far drawn from the wood by that time.  There are 16 dunnage and 7 racking warehouses on the site, holding around 200,000 casks.

Macallan racking warehouses recently built above the distillery
As Barnard’s report was so short we don’t really know the scale of the internal operations at the time, beyond his stated output of about 182,000 litres p.a. which placed it in the lower fifth of the 129 distilleries he visited in Scotland.  Macallan now have capacity to produce 8.75m litres p.a., the fourth largest malt distillery in Scotland, and it has become the third biggest selling single malt whisky in the world.  Highland Distillers took control of Macallan in 1996 and they were then taken over by Edrington and William Grant in 1999, Edrington the majority shareholder of the distillery and overseeing the recent re-awakening.

As our group were on the Precious tour we also enjoyed a nosing and tasting in the smart nosing room.  Our senses were invited to appreciate the differences between the New Make and 4 different whiskies - the 12yo and 18yo Sherry Oak, 21yo and 30yo Fine Oak.  These provided an unexpected variety as my previous experience with Macallan rarely went beyond the 10yo which is the most widely available in the UK.  That was never a whisky I have really enjoyed, although the 10yo cask strength version was an old favourite (I think it was travel retail only and now discontinued but it was always a great dram to have with some dark chocolate - big, bold and sweet).  I think the 30yo Fine Oak was my favourite from the new bunch, triple cask matured to bring together all the elements that we had seen in the warehouse tour.

Macallan nosing and tasting
Further to my brief skirting with controversy on how to define the Speyside Region it is worth noting that Macallan describe their whiskies as Highland Single Malt Scotch Whisky rather than Speyside as you might expect.  The SWA regulations state - “Speyside falls within the borders of the Highland region and therefore Scotch Whiskies distilled in the Speyside area may either be described as “Highland” or as “Speyside”.”  Now, Macallan is one of the closest distilleries to the actual River Spey, their two still houses not more than 500m away in a straight line, yet they avoid Speyside as a description.

Barnard, in his very short report, also describes the whisky as Highland but he does that for all the distilleries in this area at a time before Speyside was recognised as a whisky region.  However, for the first time on his journey, he also uses the description ‘Spey-side’ to refer to the actual distillery.  Was he the one that coined the term?  When he returned to a number of distilleries in the region around 10-12 years later he used both Highland and Speyside as descriptions so it seems to have been catching on before the turn of the century.

Macallan Distillery and warehouses
This was the largest distillery I had visited at that point, in terms of both production volumes and its footprint on the landscape, and the tour and the tasting were both interesting as I didn’t know too much about Macallan as a place nor as a whisky before my visit.  This was definitely a tour I would put into the ‘brand experience’ category, getting into the heart of the whisky rather than of the heritage and soul of the distillery itself - apart from the lower rubble built walls of warehouse No.7 there is nothing left of the ‘old-fashioned establishment’ that Barnard visited.

My thanks to Ashley for the tour and for finding answers to some questions that were new to him, and also to the visitor centre staff for their kind hospitality.  After the tour and some photos around the estate I made my way back to Craigellachie, glad for the walk this time to work off those drams and savour a bit more of the countryside.
A walk uphill from the Spey near Craigellachie brought me to this distillery founded in 1824.  The current buildings date from the 1960-70s and enclose 2 tuns, 22 washbacks and 21 stills producing almost 9m litres of malt whisky p.a.  Macallan has the third biggest world market share % for single malt whisky.  Extensive warehouses are arranged around the distillery and a modern visitor centre welcomes guests to tour the establishment and taste the various expressions of this Speyside Highlander.

There, I could do it after all, 80 words exactly!  It’s like a haiku to my normal unrestrained ramblings; not sure that will catch on though.