The Macallan Distillery stands on slopes forming the north west side of the valley of the River Spey. The views to the south and east are superb, taking in a broad sweep of mountains. Nearer at hand, the site looks south across the Spey towards the east end of Aberlour, and east across a bend in the same river to Craigellachie.
The Macallan is accessed from the B9102 down a private road that passes vast bonded warehouses set back on the skyline to your right, while the distillery comes more clearly into view further down the valley side. The visitor car park is signposted on your left, and from here it is a short walk downhill to the attractive visitor centre. Disabled parking is available adjacent to the visitor centre itself.
Around a dozen Speyside distilleries do tours, and if you've never been to a distillery before and simply want to get an idea of what goes on, and perhaps whether this is a process likely to interest you, we would suggest that you go to another distillery for your tour: The Macallan is not the place for casual visitors. If, on the other hand, you've have come to Scotland because you love The Macallan, or if you've been to a few distilleries before and want an experience that takes you deeper into the process and the product, then this is most definitely the place for you. Note that booking is essential for all tours: see the contact info on the right.
The Macallan sets out to give its visitors an experience to remember, with a "standard" tour that last longer than elsewhere, and more effort put into exhibits designed to explore in detail aspects of the production of Scotch whisky that are often touched on in much less depth elsewhere. The visitor centre offers a friendly welcome and a well stocked shop offering some very classy items plus, of course, many expressions of The Macallan.
From the visitor centre your tour guide takes you down into the distillery itself, passing some very appropriate topiary en route. The tour starts in the second production house, recommissioned to meet rising demand in 2008 after having stood silent since the 1970s. You enter via the "Masters of Spirit" exhibition. Superbly laid out, this allows your guide to tell you all you need to know about the components of Scotch whisky. An especially nice touch is the hand operated malt mill, which brings this part of the process down to a very human scale. The exhibition concludes with a set of glassware that allows the distillation process to be explained. Some of the exhibits are as much art as education, and the area has as a centrepiece an impressive art installation made from distillery pipework.
The production house combines the three main stages of production into one building. You can find out more about Making Malt Whisky from our series of feature pages showing the stages in the process. From the exhibition area you first pass the stainless steel, copper domed, mash tun, before moving on to view six of the most beautifully presented wooden washbacks you are likely to see anywhere. You then move through to the still house, which comes complete with six stills. Three pairs of two, you might expect: well, actually, two triplets of three. One of the distinguishing features of the process at The Macallan is that the wash stills are very large compared with the spirit stills, and the stills therefore operate in groups of three, with a single wash still feeding two spirit stills.
Before leaving the still house there are more elements of the exhibition to view, including one that allows you to smell the new spirit produced by the stills, plus another art installation. There is a strong sense that when the second production house was reopened in 2008 it was in its entirety designed to be a showcase for the distiller's art. It does this very well indeed, and most of those on the tour will know only too well that there are few distillery production areas elsewhere that live up to the exhibition standards of presentation and cleanliness found here. Yet what you are visiting makes a very real contribution to the output of the distillery. Another still house nearby is home to 15 stills (five sets of three), and the main tun room has stainless steel rather than wooden washbacks.
The tour then moves on to an upper floor in one of the traditional dunnage warehouses on the site. This is home to the "Masters of Wood" exhibition. One of the defining features of The Macallan is that distillery bottlings have traditionally always been of whisky aged in sherry casks. In more recent years some bottlings in the Fine Oak series have been partly aged in bourbon casks, but the essential character of The Macallan is tied up with sherry aging in a way that is perhaps unmatched across the industry. Which, of course, left The Macallan vulnerable to vagaries in the supply of sherry casks. Their response has been to manufacture their own casks from Spanish oak, and rent them out to Spanish sherry producers to use for storing their product, before bringing them empty to Scotland to fill with The Macallan.
The "Masters of Wood" exhibition looks at the production of casks, and their influence on the whisky maturing inside them, all in great detail. You emerge knowing much more than you did at the beginning of the exhibition, and topics such as the effect of the wood, and the previous use of the cask, on the colour of the whisky is covered. There is also a very impressive area given over to the different smells that form components of whisky, again done in a way that allows visitors to experience directly what is being discussed. The tour then moves downstairs to a viewing area in the warehouse itself.
Development started on this part of the side of the valley of the River Spey in 1700 when Easter Elchies House was built for Captain John Grant. In 1824, Alexander Reid, a local farmer, obtained one of the first licences to distil whisky legally. He then leased eight acres of land from the Earl of Seafield to the west of Easter Elchies House, on which he established The Macallan Distillery. The name is said to have come from an ancient church that stood nearby, and may possibly derive from the Gaelic for "the farm of St Fillan".
By the 1960s there were six stills in operation here, a number which increased to 12 in 1965; 18 in 1974 and 21 in 1975. The name of The Macallan has become a worldwide brand which commands premium prices for its many rare and vintage bottlings. After several changes of ownership over the years, the distillery is today owned by The Edrington Group. Easter Elchies House had fallen into disrepair by the 1960s, but was restored in the 1980s. Further restoration in 2005 means it can now provide accommodation and serve as an education centre associated with the distillery.