Whisky permeates Scottish culture. It's long been an important part of our national identity and there are over a hundred working distilleries in Scotland; each producing their own distinct character of whisky born out of the fundamental ingredients of water, barley and yeast. Our colleague Douglas Walker has been to quite a few of them, under visits masquerading as research for his dissertation on the subject. We are currently experiencing a renaissance in Scottish whisky production unseen since the last major expansion in the late 19th century. Until recently, new distilleries were few and far between, with only a handful being built in the decade preceding 2015. This year, however, ten new distilleries are set to open their doors.
There are seven key stages to the whisky making process; each housed within its own space and each space carrying its own unique character and particular sensory experiences. The process begins with the malting of the barley, where the soaked grain is spread out over a raised warehouse floor until it begins to germinate, or 'malt', before being kiln dried, traditionally with peat, to halt the process. These raw, often whitewashed spaces can have an incredible daylight quality where small punched windows drive shafts of light into the otherwise dark and dusty plan. The dried malt is then ground into a coarse grist and mixed with hot water in the mash-tuns, the second stage in giving the whisky its own unique character, drawing the water from the landscape around the distillery. The sweet smell, heat and humidity are immediately noticeable upon entering. Threading past the mash-tuns and washbacks with the muffled noise of the rotor arms slowly rotating in the mash tun gives the impression of being in the heart of the machine.
Following fermentation, the prepared liquid, 'wash', is brought to the 'still room', and distilled multiple times through the large copper stills, themselves powerful objects and an iconic image of whisky making. The light playing off the copper still combined with the unmistakable smell of the new make spirit and the sudden wave of heat creates another dramatic experience.
The prepared spirit is put into oak casks and traditionally stored in dunnage warehouses- short buildings with an earthen floor and thick masonry walls. These are naturally ventilated with low light levels and very humid with a rich, musty smell. The wooden casks are porous, so over time breathe in air from the environment in which the casks are stored, effecting the taste of the whisky depending on the microclimate and the design of the warehouse.
Whisky distilleries have long occupied a significant place in the Scottish rural landscape, and in the national psyche. The last time there was a renaissance in their construction, the recognisable form of the Scottish distillery was created - of pagoda-topped masonry buildings, announcing their presence from afar. Prior to the invention of the pagoda ventilator, distilleries were non-descript, with a general appearance of masonry storehouses. Charles Doig's elaboration on the traditional roof-top malthouse ventilation became the recognisable symbol of the distillery, one which remains to this day.
Modern distilleries tend to fall into one of two categories - either a pastiche of traditional forms, topped with pagoda roofs; or slickly modern, maximising glass to increase visibility of the process. Where we locate distilleries is also changing - traditionally these were sited in rural areas or on the edge of small towns to draw upon the environmental characteristics of the local landscape. Many modern distilleries are being built in the centre of cities such as Glasgow and Edinburgh, offering exciting new opportunities for their designs but also challenging the conventional low-slung distillery model which is rendered uneconomical due to land value.
This 'second wave' of distillery building offers great potential to create a 'new' form for distilleries, one which both celebrates the process and is unique to this building type. Distilleries are unique in the way in which senses are animated by the process and spaces - in terms of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. They are also unique in the way in which production is inseparably bound to the building and landscape beyond, literally changing the character of the whisky that they produce. We need to be brave in our design of these new distilleries, for the potential of this building form is huge.