It’s Scotland’s greatest gift to the world. And, alongside golf, the thing that Scotland is most recognised for. No matter where you go, no matter who you speak to, if you ask them to sum up this country, malt whisky will be high on their list. The Bay City Rollers might be up there too, Sean Connery maybe, possibly rain – in fact, definitely rain – but you get my drift.

So what is malt whisky?

The books might say it’s a spirit created by distilling a fermented blend of ground malted barley, water and yeast. The rules say it must be matured in oak casks for at least three years and bottled at at least 40% alcohol by volume.

In 1969 Scottish literary historian, critic, scholar and writer David Daiches described drinking it as “a toast to civilisation, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed”.

My view is that it is friendship and memory, wonderful moments and the emotions that go with them – the perfect partner to unforgettable events in all our lives.

It is the heady night my first daughter was born, when I arrived home from hospital and poured an Old Fettercairn to make a joyful, tearful toast to my wife and tiny new baby.

Or the bright May evening outside the King’s House in Glen Coe after my friend and I had climbed Agag’s Groove on the Buachaille Etive Mor. We shared a hip flask of Springbank as we stared up at the mountain, and it was the best I’d ever tasted.

It is the evenings around my kitchen table with my pal from across the road, music playing a little bit too loud into the wee small hours as the whisky and stories and laughter flow.

These moments, these images of times to treasure, that ability to create wonderful memories. That is, at the absolute basic, the essence of malt whisky.

So WHERE is whisky? Now that’s an altogether more difficult question.

Some might say it’s everywhere – in the salty air that blows off the Atlantic, or the sweet, fizzing water that cascades down a Highland mountainside. Maybe it’s in the peat bogs of the Western Isles, or the native pine forests of Deeside.

But others might say it’s nowhere, because, strangely, due to the fact it was born in caves and woods and crofts in every part of the country – there is no place “where it all began”.

If you say golf, even the uninitiated will say St Andrews – everyone knows it’s “home”. If you say whisky, the response will be scratched heads and puzzled looks.

The new Lindores Abbey Distillery in Fife lays claim to being the “spiritual home of whisky”, due to the abbey’s links to what is seen as the earliest written reference to Scotch whisky (or aqua vitae, as it was then known). It appeared in the Exchequer Roll of 1494, and said Brother John Cor, a Lindores monk, was commissioned by King James IV to turn eight bolls of malt into aqua vitae. (Eight bolls of malt amounts to around 500kg, and would have been enough to make about 400 bottles of today’s whisky.)

Glenfiddich Distillery on Speyside would have a good case too. Although malt had been enjoyed in Scotland for generations, it wasn’t until 1963 that the first single malt was made readily available to the world. It was a Glenfiddich eight-year-old “straight malt” (the term single malt was rare back then), and it began a chain of events that made malt whisky the international success story it is today.

Or what about Bowmore, the oldest distillery on Islay – the island that’s the true mecca of malt whisky for so many? The first recorded mention of that was in 1779, though locals believe it was in operation decades before that. Surely that distillery – or even the whole island – has a shout?

Though latest figures show more than 1.7 million people visited our distilleries in 2016, spending in excess of £53million while they were there, there is still no widely-recognised central point of reference around which lovers of whisky, keen beginners or just interested visitors can congregate.

However, on June 2, just six days from now, all that will change.

On that day, the new Macallan Distillery, just outside the Speyside village of Craigellachie, opens its doors to the public – and from that day on the world of whisky will, in my view, never be the same again.

Whisky will have its shrine, its own cathedral.

It started in 2012 as a search for a way to meet overwhelming worldwide demand.

“We considered an extension,” said Scott McCroskie, managing director of The Macallan, “but really a big part of this project was that we wanted a home for The Macallan. So we decided we would do this properly and create a distillery that allows us to produce a bit more in the future but also provides a stunning brand home.”

Construction started in December 2014, and it took an army of up to 400 from 20 different trades to complete the work. So earlier this month, three-and-a-half years after the first sod was cut, I found myself among a party of journalists from around Scotland, attending the ‘Business Media Launch’ of the new distillery. I’d been to my fair share of these places and, though the size might be different or the shape of the stills might vary, I expected the story basically to be the same as everywhere else. Tradition, history, quality, blaah.

But as I walk up to this one – along what can only be described as a granite staircase without stairs – my usual points of reference disappear.

Where’s the ‘pagoda’ roof – a throwback to when distilleries malted and dried their own barley which gives nearly every one the same distinctive profile? Here it has been replaced by five huge mounds planted as a flower meadow – a living roof that seems to grow out of the hillside, to be a part of the landscape.

Where’s the old stone, the attempt to ensure what is basically a factory retains its charm as a traditional jumble of country buildings? Here the feel is deliberately new and modern, yet is seems to belong, to have been here forever.

And inside, the usual olde worlde feel gives way to geometry and space; low ceilings, exposed beams and tartan replaced by glass, steel and concrete in a cavernous, immaculate space that would make a design museum proud. A wall of whisky – hundreds of bottles displayed from floor to roof, some said to be worth more than my house – and giant screens telling the story of whisky, all beneath a soaring ceiling that is a triumph of tessellation

All around, things are done differently here. In the still room, all the usual equipment is on show but it has been arranged in an entirely new way. Three circular ‘pods’, each consisting of 12 stills, feel like groups of people, hands linked in silent prayer to a distant future.

My eyes are wide, my jaw drops open, I just stare in wonder.

Graham Stirk, lead architect at designers Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, said the plan had always been to create something “dramatic and awe-inspiring”. There's no denying that plan has been a success.

They’re already calling this place the ‘Cathedral of Whisky’, a title that is sure to attract pilgrims in their droves. It’s like walking into St Paul’s and staring up at the great dome, but at the same time it’s like being underneath the massive red cantilevers of the Forth Bridge, or standing in the generating hall at Cruachan Power Station.

This is industry and art combined. Tradition and innovation intertwined. Senses overloaded by scale.

The parallels to medieval religious buildings are everywhere. Every detail is given attention, not even the tiniest thing left out – to do it any other way would be sacrilege. 36 new copper stills have been installed, identical in every way to the originals, rather than just moving the old ones; crystal by Lalique provides just the right effect in one of the exhibits; there's stained glass by local craftsmen because it’s simply the best way to illustrate the different colours of whisky as it ages.

And, hidden in plain sight in the heart of the visitor centre, behind an unassuming door tucked away from prying eyes, there's even a mysterious inner sanctum where only the most blessed – the most privileged – are allowed to come. It’s a secret shrine for the owners of a select few private casks. And the price of a place in this exclusive piece of paradise? A minimum of £30,000 was mentioned in hushed tones.

This building is not just about making whisky. It’s about paying homage to it.

Worshipping it, some might say.

The original budget was £100 million but costs overran by £40m. Why so much more? Ian Curle, chief executive of parent company Edrington, was clear about the reasoning. “We made a conscious decision not to try to replicate the past, but to create something new. Early in the design stage it was decided to up the spec and invest more.”

And what does he think of the place now? “It’s still a traditional Speyside distillery, just with a new wrapper,” and, as he gestures around, the pride in his voice is evident: “We’re not being modest here.”

But it’s what he says later that truly betrays the power of this building: “It is cathedral-like. There is something spiritual about it.”

And I understand what he means. This place has a grandeur and rich atmosphere that is hard to process, there’s a sense of silence and calm despite the fact it’s producing thousands of litres of spirit every day. It leaves me feeling the need to whisper.

In years to come this will surely be seen as one of Scotland’s great industrial buildings. It is, quite simply, a masterpiece.

But what of the future? What are the plans to cope with the huge influx of visitors that is sure to be attracted to this place?

Around 17,000 people visited the old distillery last year, and double that number is expected in 2018. To maintain the unique atmosphere of this place, Macallan plans only one 12-person tour every 40 minutes. I think that is a huge under-estimate, and the forecasts will very quickly have to be revised.

But for Scott McCroskie that is hardly the point. “We aren’t looking at this as a profit centre,” he said. “While it’s nice to have a really nice visitors’ centre it’s more important to us to teach people about the brand and highlight how our excellent whisky is made.”

Build it and they will come, the saying goes. It wouldn’t have mattered who built it, or where it was built, it’s simply that Macallan were the ones to do it – though the fact that is it on Speyside, amid the greatest concentration of distilleries in the country, is somehow fitting, and will just add to its appeal.

Well, now it has been built, and surely they will come – in their uncountable numbers – to wonder at the new home of whisky. It’s a pilgrimage all Scots should make.


The new distillery is located just 400 metres from the original, which will be kept intact as a ‘ghost’ distillery.

The building is 120m long and 68m wide. The roof reaches a height of 18m.

The new distillery has created 60 new jobs – thought the actual distilling process can be run by only two.

The roof is one of the most complicated timber structures in the world, made up of 1800 beams and 2500 individually shaped panels, comprising 380,000 components. It is designed to move and flex with environmental conditions

There is 14,000 square metres of meadow on the five mounds of the roof, planted in 10cm of soil with built-in irrigation.

Inside the visitor centre, 398 archive bottles – many chosen by tour guides so they can point them out when showing guests around – nine decanters and nine flasks are on display. The natural colour wall on the tour displays 3275 sample bottles.

There are 12 wash stills (the first stage of distillation) and 24 spirit stills (which produce the finished spirit).

The spirit stills are the smallest on Speyside, which allows for heavier, more complex oils to make it into the spirit. This results in a richer finished whisky.

The new stills went into production in November last year. They were built by Forsyths of Rothes and are exact replicas of the previous stills.

The good news is, after six months of testing, the spirit they produce is said to be indistinguishable from the originals.

The bad news is the public will not be able to sample the fruits of all these labours until around 2030. The Macallan does not bottle its whisky until it is at least 12 years old.

Once it is fully up and running, the distillery will be capable of producing 15 million litres of whisky a year. The average bottle of whisky is 0.7l … I’ve leave you to do the maths!


Founded in 1824, Macallan is one of the most recognisable whisky brands in the world

The distillery lies in the 150-hectare Elchies Estate overlooking the River Spey

The brand has markets across the globe, from the USA and Europe to China, Australia and Vietnam

It is part of the Edrington Group, which also owns the Highland Park, Famous Grouse, Cutty Sark and Glenrothes whisky brands, Brugal rum and Snow Leopard vodka.

Earlier this month, two ultra-rare bottles of 60-year-old Macallan sold at auction for a combined total of $2.11 million

Macallan has even appeared in James Bond. In Skyfall a 50-year-old is said to be the super-spy's favourite

In real life, such a bottle could set you back upwards of £50,000