The Macallan Distillery, UK

Speyside, in the North East of Scotland, is known the world over for its beautiful scenery and high quality whiskies, with a number of distilleries in the region.

One such distillery, The Macallan, has recently opened a new production facility and visitor experience, on the stunning Easter Elchies estate, the historic location where they have been distilling single malt whisky since 1824.

Designed by architects Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP), with lighting design by Speirs + Major, the new building is nestled seamlessly into the beautiful surrounding countryside, blending into the landscape while offering visitors the opportunity to immerse themselves in the intricate processes that go into making the world-renowned whisky.

The new distillery features a series of production ‘cells’ arranged in a linear format, with an open-plan layout that enables a view of all the stages of the production process at once. These cells are reflected from above in the form of the gently undulating timber ceiling, while from the exterior, the site’s roof appears as grass-covered peaks that rise and fall within the estate grounds, signalling to approaching visitors the activities housed below. Set into the naturally sloping contours of the site, the design makes direct reference to ancient Scottish earthworks.

Speirs + Major collaborated closely with the client, Edrington, and RSHP to use light to shape an atmospheric experience of the site and the new building, working also with Atelier Brückner to integrate light into the experience of each of the displays in the exhibition and gallery area.

“The lighting has a profound influence on the experience of the site and the new distillery,” explained Mark Major, Principal of Speirs + Major. “The site itself is characterised by its beauty – the rolling hills, long summer nights, and the purity of the water.

“Our lighting design draws from these dynamic qualities, crafting a balance of light and darkness that transforms perceptions of scale and space, building a sense of revelation – of both the architecture and the whisky making process – into the visitor journey.”

“From the client’s perspective, the brief was for the building to be the best distillery experience in the world,” added Clementine Fletcher-Smith, Associate Partner at Speirs + Major. “RSHP wanted the lighting to be fully integrated into the project, to help to express the relationship between the architecture, the landscape, the historical Easter Elchies house (the spiritual home of the Macallan) and the whisky.

“From the dramatic first glimpse of the illuminated undulating roofline and the mirrored reflection of trees and path lights, to the carefully orchestrated layering and depth within the interior, light is designed to celebrate the scale and form of the architecture, while evoking a sense of wonder in the alchemy within the pipes and distilling equipment.”

The varying qualities of light and the pay of light on different materials reflects the tonal qualities found in the landscape and the whisky. A sweeping brand wall made of hundreds of illuminated and controlled bottles of whisky forms an animated tapestry of light, glass and liquid, marking an impressive entrance to the visitor experience.

Behind this, the glass cabinets of the ‘Jewel Box’ are set against black polished surfaces, each individually controlled to highlight some of the most precious bottles and collaborations from the Macallan range.

Looking through to the production area, coloured light provides visual cues that help to tell the story of the whisky, with a cool blue used for the stainless steel cold process equipment, and amber red hues for the hot copper stills. The peaks within the timber roof glow softly with warm white light, echoing the heat from below and accentuating the form.

Exhibits are arranged in a special area, and form a part of the tour. From backlit text, to shafts of ‘sunlight’ appearing through timber shutters, to an illuminated floating drop of liquid, the lighting is meticulously crafted to that in each case light becomes an integral part of the display.

Lighting control was a key aspect for the designers from Speirs + Major, both in terms of enhancing the sense of revelation they sought, and also in supporting the telling of the whisky making story. A dynamic lighting scheme offers two modes, the first of which is an automated set of scenes for the lighting in the production area, designed to sequence throughout the day, creating a dramatic backdrop for the visitor centre bar.

The second is a theatrical control system that supports the distillery in running visitor tours of the plant, lead by a guide, who uses a tablet computer to cue various programmed scenes.

At the beginning of each tour, the interior is either solely day-lit, encouraging visitors to look out to the landscaping outside, or if it is dark, light is restricted to the interior route lighting to create a sense of suspense while walking the full length of an otherwise dark process unit. As the tour commences, the wash backs are lit up, followed by the stills, gradually building the story. Scenes range from a strong focus on a single entity through to a full revelation of the space.

This journey culminates in the ‘Cave Privée’, a unique circular whisky store, where programmable dynamic light combines with black polished surfaces to create stunning, immersive kaleidoscopic effects. In this area, the day-to-day architectural lighting was designed by Speirs + Major, along with numerous event lighting scenes, while the dynamic light show that completes the tour was created by Jason Bruges.

In parallel to creating this highly engaging and experiential lighting scheme, there was an equally pressing requirement of the brief; to provide lighting suitable for the technical demands of lighting a fully operational distillery.

“We had to ensure that good quality working light was provided for the building to successfully operate as a working production facility,” explained Fletcher-Smith. “The challenge was to do this in such a way that we could still support an unforgettable visitor experience.

“Alongside the dynamic lighting, there is a layer of robust functional lighting that allows the production team to do their jobs. By zoning and using lighting control, we made it possible to carefully direct the operational light to only the required specific areas at a given time, so that the rest of the distillery was free to be lit in a dramatic manner when required.”

Extensive investigations were also carried out regarding the role of daylighting within the building, helping the design team to determine the level of impact that they could create using artificial light when natural light is present, as well as when conditions are dark outside – the timing of which varies dramatically throughout the year in this part of the world.

“We studied different skylight and glazing options with RSHP to find the right balance between preserving the views and connection to the landscape and benefitting from the natural light when available, whilst also ensuring that we could create the desired effects,” Fletcher-Smith continued.

Speirs + Major has a long history of working with architects at RSHP, collaborating on projects as varied as the Millennium Dome and Terminal 5 at Heathrow Airport in London, and the Barangaroo South Masterplan in Sydney, Australia, alongside the new extension to Geneva Airport, a project that is still ongoing.

“RSHP was very keen to keep all lighting equipment off the underside of the roof for both aesthetic and maintenance reasons,” Fletcher-Smith explained. “Their concept was for the soffit to appear to float above the ‘landscape’ of the distillery below.

“Throughout the process areas, we worked around this by developing special columns that coordinate with various pipes and flues, on which the luminaires could be fixed. In the visitor’s centre and exhibition areas it was agreed that lighting could be fixed to the roof in limited positions, as long as they were carefully coordinated with the design.”

Another important consideration for the lighting design team was the restriction of working within an ATEX-rated environment (a site with a risk of explosions), particularly in such close proximity to extremely hot equipment.

While the ATEX rating initially limited what lighting equipment Speirs + Major could actually use, the team worked with the whisky process contractors to review and refine the ATEX classifications within the process area, significantly reducing the areas with the most stringent restrictions, which in turn allowed for more flexibility in the luminaire specification.

As such, Speirs + Major utilised fixtures from the likes of Mike Stoane Lighting, acdc, LED Linear, Alto and Thorn throughout the site. “The scheme is lit entirely by LEDs,” Fletcher-Smith confirmed. “In response to the zoning, all of the dynamic light fittings – RGBW spotlights – are located above the mezzanine/visitor level in the production area.

“Below the mezzanine, ATEX compliant LED floodlights fitted with dichroic filters are used, along with ATEX compliant industrial luminaires to provide functional process lighting when required.”

The Macallan brand combines tradition and a commitment to quality while embracing innovative technology. The lighting design draws on this dialectic, generating a strong sense of narrative through the revelation of surfaces, textures and space.

Fletcher-Smith continued: “The Macallan’s passion for creating something really special allowed us to explore how light could be used to reveal the narrative of their product, as well as to enhance the architecture itself, has enabled the lighting to become an inherent part of the whisky experience.”

Mark Major added: “This was a truly wonderful project. It required our response to a highly complex brief including consideration for history, architecture, brand experience and theatrical storytelling, while also providing the required functional light for a working production facility, without compromise to any of these aspects.

“Fortunately we were blessed with a supportive and imaginative client who was open to ideas, and with highly collaborative design partners in RSHP and Atelier Brückner. This enabled us to fully integrate the light into the design, so that we could choreograph an experience that is truly unprecedented, while meeting all the other requirements of the brief.”