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Designing & Distilleries

Write-up of the virtual event by #DesignPopUp held on 02/12/21

Project Image: Port Ellen Distillery Client: Diageo PLC. Project Lead, Structure & Services: Blyth & Blyth

Architecture: Michael Laird Architects.

Brand Experience Design: Contagious / Heart & Feints

‘Designing & Distilleries’ looked at the key stages of refurbishing existing sites and building new projects from the ground up for the distillery sector.

Featuring Stuart Milne, Creative Director of Contagious, and Stuart Falconer, Project Director of Michael Laird Architects, the session discussed how distilleries are transforming into visitor attractions and the challenges and opportunities it presents architects and designers.

Distilleries as visitor destinations

Distilleries are no longer the mere industrial plants of the past, solely operational and away from the public eye. Today they are increasingly led by design, blending function, aesthetics and heritage — inviting the customer in at every step of the distillery process. For Stuart Falconer, whose projects at Michael Laird Architects include working with giant Diageo on their £185m investment in the Scottish whisky industry, there’s a growing importance of the visitor when designing for the drinks sector.

“Previously, distilleries were functional beasts and containers of an industrial process,” he explained, “in my mind it’s changed and opened up for people to come in and look out. They’re more transparent, more inclusive.”

Hendrick's Gin Palace, Michael Laird Architects

Visitors are increasingly drawn to distilleries for their grandeur, history and spectacular views, serving as a growing part of the tourism sector. At Contagious, 90% of Jason Milne’s projects are in the drinks industry, with a quarter based in the United States. Working on everything from brand strategy to packaging, Jason cited examples of distilleries that have honoured function alongside design excellence.

He included The Macallan in Speyside, Scotland, whose tours are called ‘experiences’ and retail spaces viewed more like galleries. He credited other brands for elevating the visitor experience, such as Scotland’s oldest working distillery, Glenturret in Crieff, whose fine-dining restaurant is run by French luxury brand Lalique.

The Macallan Distillery in Speyside, Scotland

The Macallan Distillery, Scotland

What to consider first

From the start, both speakers were keen to talk about being open and collaborative with the client and staff at the distillery.

“Not everyone needs to understand the plan or technicalities; it’s about having an input and awareness, with everyone buying into the vision on day one,” Stuart explained. Jason concurred, “The best brands in the world are the ones that are the same all the way through.”

The green credentials are another critical element to factor in at the early stages of a building. Stuart explained how sustainable thinking has to be applied to all parts of the design process, adding, “we don’t have a choice anymore”. Leave it late, and it can be an expensive error. He advised: “This is the time to ask lots of ‘hows’: how the space is ventilated, how the water is reused, how can the heat created by the distillery process be passed onto other buildings on the site.”

Rather than view such questions as placing limits on design, Jason argued that they encourage imaginative thinking. For example, he mentioned Pernod Ricard’s Absolut Vodka distillery in Sweden, recognised as one of the most energy-efficient distilleries in the world. The plant is almost carbon neutral, using locally grown wheat and water from Absolut’s wells.

What I love about these projects is that they are unique to their site, often next to water for obvious reasons, and with very strong connections to their cultural and historical environments.”

- Stuart Falconer

Clynelish Distillery by Michael Laird Architects

Restoration & new-build imagination

Stuart posed a question: how do we make existing distilleries — often old and purely functional — work better, and what do you do when you build one from scratch?

He believed that there were challenges and opportunities on both sides. Starting with the historic sites, he explained, “It’s not just about where the building is but its connection to the local place.” Stuart revealed how Michael Laird ran community consultations on the Isle of Islay when restoring the Port Ellen distillery. “It was fascinating to hear some of the stories of people who had worked there for 50 years. It’s absolutely critical we understand the history behind the brand.”

Port Ellen Distillery, re-use analysis

Jason agreed, saying any distillery, old or new, should connect to their environment. So when Contagious worked on the new home for Angel’s Envy at the Louisville Distilling Company in Kentucky, US, it prioritised its heritage when devising the visitor experience. Contagious commissioned artists to paint a portrait of Angel’s Envy founder and brand creator onto the reception wall, alongside production diagrams directly onto distillery equipment. “Even the new distilleries aren’t blank canvases,” confirmed Stuart. “The benefit of new buildings is that there’s a lot more glass; there are views in and views out.”

Additionally, for Jason, starting from scratch offers the potential for greater flights of fancy, adding Contagious “always strives to do something different”. He presented the company’s work for the Great Jones Distilling Co. in New York, Manhattan’s only active whisky-making operation. What’s unique, he said, was how the team introduced memorable elements, such as an experiential art piece, which takes visitors to the 1930s building by surprise.