Scotch whisky is an industry steeped in tradition. So when historic single malt brand The Macallan built its space-age, glass-fronted, architecturally-lauded distillery in 2018, it certainly shook up Speyside.
The £140m structure is barely visible from the road – with a grass roof that blends in with the hills – but on approach the building has an undoubtable wow factor that will impress even the most seasoned whisky tourists. The Macallan’s substantial investment in its visitor experience forms part of a wider spend across Scotch whisky tourism.
The recently opened eight-floor Johnnie Walker experience in Edinburgh comes alongside a spate of distillery renovations across Scotland, fuelled by an increased interest in the provenance of our food and drink. And although domestic tourism is currently driving most of the demand for whisky tours, the international market is beginning to pick up once more. On our Macallan Mastery Experience tour, one of the participants was an avid whisky collector from the USA who had flown in from Denver specifically to do a week-long tour of Speyside.
The Mastery Experience is one of several visitor experiences offered at The Macallan, involving a two-hour, five-course lunch in the glitzy Elchies Brasserie, where each locally-sourced dish is served with a carefully selected wine pairing. Participants are then offered a dram of The Macallan’s Double Cask 12 Years Old before embarking on a guided tour of the history of the brand and the processes that give the Macallan its signature taste. Niamh, our knowledgeable guide, was happy to answer questions as she took us round the production area and copper stills (which are famously short in the Macallan’s case).
Those who’ve done distillery tours previously might think they already know the basics of whisky manufacturing, but the Macallan have installed a few high-tech tricks to bring the process to life and make it more interesting to visitors. Of particular interest was an audiovisual, immersive explanation of how the oak casks used to flavour The Macallan are built, as well as how they impact on the colour and taste of the final product. From there we were taken to The Macallan Bar, which boasts panoramic views of the surrounding hills of Speyside, for a tasting.
Some of The Macallan’s finest and rarest whiskies were available to sample, including The Macallan Sherry Oak 25 Years Old, an intensely rich single malt whisky which exemplifies the brand’s signature taste. Niamh then escorted us to the in-house boutique, where some exclusive bottles were available to purchase, before we were chauffeur driven courtesy of The Macallan to the Dowans Hotel in nearby Aberlour, our home for the evening. The Dowans, first built in 1888, has urdergone an extensive renovation at the hands of the Murray family, who bought it in 2012.
Highlights of the 16 rooms – which are each named after a Speyside distillery – include luxurious soft furnishings and high-spec, immaculate bathrooms. After checking in we went straight down to the in-house restaurant, the ‘57’, to try some of the locally sourced food on offer (the restaurant is named after the fact that the Dowans sits on the 57th parallel north of the earth’s equator). We went for battered monkfish cheeks with chunky chips and peas and a boneless chicken breast complete with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and all the trimmings (it was a Sunday, after all).
I washed my meal down with one of the many signature cocktails offered at the hotel, with a selection of beers from local breweries also on offer. And if you hadn’t had your fill of whisky from the distillery tour, the Dowans also boasts its very own whisky bar ‘The Still’, with a collection of more than 500 bottles to choose from. Most are displayed in sensational style within their very own glass whisky wall, providing the perfect backdrop to cosy up and hunker down with a dram. The next morning we enjoyed a fine Scottish breakfast in the hotel and got ready to enjoy a day of exploring Speyside… until we looked outside.
The rain was absolutely relentless and it scuppered our intended itinerary of a long walk in the countryside. Fortunately, the friendly staff at the Dowans were on hand to recommend a selection of less weather-reliant attractions that we could visit on the way back to Glasgow. We were taken with the suggestion of a stop at the Highland Wildlife Park in Kincraig. It’s a short diversion off the A9, but well worth it for the chance to see some incredible wildlife up close: snow leopards, polar bears, Siberian tigers, Macaque monkeys, grey wolves and red pandas, to name but a few.
The park is owned by the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland, who place animal conservation at the heart of their operation– a great comfort to visitors who might be uncomfortable with the concept of animals in captivity. All the animals are cold weather adapted, or native, so it was a real treat to observe animals that you might not see elsewhere. Our particular favourites were the magnificent snow leopards and the mischievous-looking arctic fox, who alternated between eyeing up the passing visitors and snoozing serenely while curled up in a ball.
Our trip to Speyside really was full of surprises– and we were only there for 48 hours. There’s far more to this wonderful region that’s still waiting to be explored, and, of course, plenty more whisky to be drunk…
The Macallan Mastery Experience is priced at £250 per guest. For further information, visit www.themacallan.com, or to book an experience contact [email protected] Rooms at the Dowans Hotel in Aberlour can be booked via www.dowanshotel.com