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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.

Angel’s Envy at the Louisville Distilling Company in Kentucky, USA

Honouring the drink-making process

Designing an architectural vision for active distilleries requires a careful balancing act: maintaining the integrity of the industrial process of making alcohol while being on show to the public. There are clear technical aspects to consider, such as respecting where the stills are. Both speakers emphasised how the design should never lose sight that many buildings were still manufacturing plants.

Functional Process plan for Port Ellen Distillery, given to MLA by the client

Stuart described how he had been given drawings as a brief from a distillery client, an unusual move for an architecture project. “It shows you how important design is to them; this can’t just be a nice looking project; it has to be functional.” Consequently, there’s an extra layer of technical complexity to the project. For designers and architects new to distilleries projects, Stuart attempted to simplify matters, comparing the process of distilling to that of designing using a linear and circular graph. “It’s fair to say I wasn’t hugely familiar with the distilling process,” he admitted, “but you soon realise it’s just a sequence of steps.”

Jason spoke about honouring the alcohol-making process in the finishing touches, too. For Angel’s Envy, Contagious used oak throughout the building, notably a felled oak tree, which serves as a tasting table, reminding the importance of wood to the whiskey palette.

“It’s a complete circle; everyone is working towards telling a story. So we create brand advocates, and there’s no better one than a bartender.”

- Jason Milne

Creating memorable visitor experiences

As an increasing number of distilleries open their doors to the public, one of the primary aims is to offer a unique visitor journey with emotional touchpoints. It should be, Jason recommended, a sensory experience. “If you can understand how you want your customer to feel, that’s a good starting point.” He ran through previous distillery projects by Contagious that used lighting, sound, smell, and touch to immerse the visitor in the environment and brand story successfully.

In building an effective tour, Jason continued, visitors leave with lasting memories of the brand. Underlining this point, he described a trip to The Devil’s Advocate bar in Edinburgh, where the bartender gave a speech about Glengoyne, explaining details such as how the whisky is produced using the slowest stills in the world. How was the bartender so well informed? “He’d been on the distillery tour,” Jason revealed. “It’s a complete circle, and everyone is working towards telling a story. We create brand advocates, and there’s no better one than a bartender.” Stuart agreed, “The brand journey is top of the list; I’ve written it on the wall to remind me.”

According to Jason, the public should ideally take photographs throughout their journey through the distillery. “At the Guinness Storehouse, the painted black gate is where everybody takes a picture. It’s not something they probably would have accounted for, but it’s now a key asset.”

The Macallan Distillery, Scotland

In conclusion: the future of designing distilleries

The conversation wrapped up with a discussion on how distilleries are adjusting to having visitors in their operational environment. Jason said it’s nothing new and that we are now in the “third generation of brand homes” accessible to the public. The trend of distilleries as visitor attractions will only continue, Stuart elaborated. He described the movement as buildings becoming ‘publicised’, concluding: “The challenge is how do you do this while maintaining the integrity of the industrial process.”

This virtual event took place on Thursday 02 December 2021 at 10.30am. You can catch up with the video recording.

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