Few days out can compare with a tour around a Scotch whisky distillery. The smell of the malted barley, the heat from the still and the flavours of a wee dram in the tasting room afterwards all combine to create a truly memorable tour. But Ken Grier wants to take all of those elements and push them on a stage further.
“It’s more than just a visitors’ centre – it’s a complete experience,” explains Grier, who is the brand director for The Macallan, the world’s best-selling single malt by value. Edrington – the company that owns The Macallan, along with its sister brands, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse and Highland Park – is investing £100m to build the world’s first named-architect designed distillery and visitors’ centre.
For the design of such a landmark building, the distiller has drafted in Graham Stirk, senior partner at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), the firm of architects behind such London landmarks as the Leadenhall Building or ‘cheese grater’, the Millennium Dome in Greenwich and Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport. His brief is to build the world’s most iconic distillery at the 300-acre estate on which The Macallan’s currently distillery sits, close to Easter Elchies House, a Jacobean mansion.
Construction is already underway, with Elgin-based builder Robertson expected to finish work on the site on the banks of the River Spey near Craigellachie in Moray in 2017. Fabrication firm Forsyths of Rothes will supply the stills and other distillation equipment for the enlarged distillery, while Grier expects to welcome his first visitors to the new home of The Macallan in early 2018.
Edrington has also hired Atelier Bruckner, a consultancy firm that’s worked with clients including the BMW Museum in Munich, to create the narrative structure for its visitors’ centre. The practice has already produced installations for brands, exhibitions, galleries, museums and trade fairs in cities such as Brussels, Copenhagen and Shanghai. “We get visitors from all over the world, from more than 100 countries, and so we really want a world-leading visitor facility,” says Grier. “The visitors’ centre will be the gateway to this new iconic home for The Macallan. We’ve always had this fantastic estate, which is on the River Spey and which has its own fishing beat. We want to build the ultimate experience for visitors.
“The building itself is absolutely gorgeous. It has an incredible floating grass roof. It fits beautifully into the landscape and will make a fantastic statement about how the brand looks in terms of luxury.
“My team is working with RSHP and Atelier Bruckner, and Graham Stirk has been heavily involved in the process. The vision for the visitors’ centre will blend into the vision for the whole building – we’re not just building a distillery and then grafting a visitor experience onto the side of it.”
Grier joined Highland Distillers in 1998, a year before the company was taken over by Edrington. He’s worked with The Macallan for the past 16 years, during which time the single malt has cemented its position as a luxury brand. Last year analysts at International Wine & Spirit Research declared The Macallan to be the world’s best-selling Scotch malt whisky by value. In 2014, a bottle of The Macallan M Imperiale six-litre Lalique decanter became the most expensive whisky to ever sell at auction when it changed hands in Hong Kong for US$628,000, smashing through a record previously held by The Macallan in Lalique Cire Perdue at US$460,000.
“It’s about the emotional attachment too,” Grier points out. “The Macallan is a brand that collectors keep and treasure and so they feel emotionally connected to the liquid. They’ve bought precious bottles and so it’s important that we create the right experience for them when they come to visit.
“We already received a reasonable number of visitors for our appointment-only tours. Once the new visitor experience opens, we expect to double visitor numbers within the first five years.
“The perfect whisky deserves the perfect distillery. Rather than just decide to extend our existing premises, we commissioned the world’s first named-architect designed distillery.
“It positions the brand as the ultimate luxury spirt and it provides a fantastic home for the brand that people can visit as they learn more about The Macallan. We care so much about the quality of our liquid that we’ve gone a step further than anyone else and built the perfect distillery for the perfect liquid.”
Grier highlights the role that whisky distillery visitors’ centres play in rural economies – not only do they create jobs on site but they also support employment in the wider area, with tourists staying in hotels, buying food in restaurants and cafes, and supporting shops and other small businesses. Figures from the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) trade body reveal that 1.5 million tourists visited whisky distilleries during 2014, up 6% year-on-year and a massive 15% higher than in 2010. Visitors spent a combined total of almost £50m at distilleries in 2014 on tours, refreshments and shopping, up from £27m in 2010. The average amount spent by each visitor in 2014 stood at £32.50.
The largest group of visitors came from other parts of the UK, followed by overseas guests from Germany, the United States and France, mirroring the importance of those destinations as export markets for Scotland’s national drink: the US remains the biggest consumer of Scotch, followed by France, with Germany coming in at number five. “Getting people recruited into the brand is about education and immersion,” explains Grier. “You can do some of that in their local market with brand ambassadors and through events, but ultimately the most powerful physical marketing asset we have is our home. It represents the brand, its values and its character, and it makes people feel close to the brand.
“People drink the drink – and it is all about liquid to lips – and they enjoy it and appreciate the quality and the cache. But it’s fantastic that people take the time and care to come to Speyside to experience the beautiful Scottish countryside and the great food. It’s humbling.
“They spend time with us, they take a tour of the distillery, and if they’re lucky then they’ll meet some of the key people involved. It’s a very important part of securing the foundation of the brand, getting into people’s hearts as well as them enjoying the liquid.”
As well as his work with The Macallan, Grier was also involved in the creation of The Famous Grouse Experience, the tourist attraction at Glenturret distillery – Scotland’s oldest whisky distillery, having been founded in 1775 – near Crieff in Perthshire. “I’m still very proud of that because we beat the BBC and won a Bafta for The Famous Grouse Experience,” laughs Grier. “What a night that was – it was slightly surreal.”
Last year Glenturret won the ‘Best Visitor Experience’ prize at the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions (ASVA) awards. Grier thinks there are lessons that can be learned from The Famous Grouse Experience and from Edrington’s Highland Park distillery on Orkney when it comes to planning the new Macallan facilities, as well as from the existing work being done at the site on Speyside.
Grier, who cut his teeth as a marketing manager with United Biscuits before a short spell as head of marketing in the UK for toy company Lego, is one of the Keepers of the Quaich, a society set up by members of the industry to promote whisky. He has also served for the past 11 years as a non-executive director of the Scotch Whisky Experience, the five-star visitor attraction on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh that welcomes more than 300,000 tourists each year to learn more about single malts, single grains and their blends.
“We are finding that, within the industry, whether it’s small distilleries like Edradour near Pitlochry or big distilleries like Glenfiddich at Dufftown, there’s a real interest in visiting distilleries,” he says. “Distilleries are a fantastic asset for Scotland. We’re driving traffic into rural areas and giving visitors the chance to learn more about whisky.
“It’s not just about having a tour either – you can give visitors the chance to purchase bottles that they might not be able to find elsewhere. There’s also the opportunity to create cafes or restaurants to serve food and drink at distilleries.”
As well as welcoming tourists from throughout the globe to The Macallan’s new visitor experience, Grier is also looking forward to inviting other members of the industry to see what Edrington is creating on the banks of the River Spey. “This is a beautifully-designed building with a grass roof that will blend into the landscape,” he says. “It’s high quality, which is good for Scotland in terms of promoting its food and drink.
“It gives us the chance to welcome other people from our industry, whether it’s our ambassadors or our trade customers. It’s something that speaks of craft and care, which is very much what Scotland’s about – there’s magic there.”