Building Ardgowan Distillery Part 2: Designing a destination

Building Ardgowan Distillery Part 2: Designing a destination

In an exclusive series for Whisky Magazine, Martin McAdam, CEO of Ardgowan Distillery, is sharing the story of its construction – from breaking ground to opening the doors. In the second instalment, Martin explains the process and parties involved in designing a 'destination distillery'

News 10 Feb 2024 | By Martin McAdam

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Our initial plans for Ardgowan Distillery were pretty simple. Our primary focus was on producing a great spirit and that could be accomplished in a ‘no-frills’ building. A local council officer referred to our initial design, rather disparagingly, as a “wrinkly tin shed” – he was right. Our idea was to invest the money into the spirit and the building itself would be only to protect the distilling equipment from the elements.

 

This all changed when our lead investor Roland Grain joined us. Roland had some very specific ideas, particularly in relation to the way that vineyards in his native Austria are both part of the landscape and a visitor destination.

 

With Inverclyde being an untapped area of whisky tourism, just an hour from Glasgow, we had always intended on there being a ‘destination’ aspect to Ardgowan Distillery. With Roland on board, we started work with an Austrian architect, Spitzbart and Partners, to help us shape a building that was not only practical but attractive to visitors and symbolic of the area’s rich history. Spitzbart had some very interesting ideas about the shape of the building and the way that it would fit into the landscape.

A misty morning at the Ardgowan Distillery site near Inverkip

The style of a Scotch whisky has traditionally been closely linked to the region in which it is produced. This led to the categorisation of Scotch according to five whisky-producing regions: Campbeltown, Highland, Islay, Lowland, and Speyside (sometimes with an unofficial sixth, Islands). These distinctions have slowly faded over time and now, in essence, any style of whisky can be produced in any region.

 

A Lowland distillery by definition, Ardgowan is really located at the nexus of the Highlands, the Lowlands, and the islands. And indeed, rather than the delicate, light whiskies that have come to be expected of the region, ours will be a robust new-make spirit which will stand up well to maturation in sherry casks. The spirit will have the benefit of a full-lauter mash tun which will support production of a clear wort to encourage ester formation during fermentation. It will also have the benefit of an extended fermentation to allow more complex esters to be formed.

 

The challenge for Spitzbart was to design a building that reflected all aspects of the landscape, the eventual whisky, and the welcoming nature of the local community. Their design solution resulted in what is now being called a ‘cathedral of whisky’. The building will rise from the south-west banks of the Kip Water, symbolising the resurrection of the original Ardgowan Distillery Company which was bombed during the war.

An architect's impression of the Ardgowan Distillery building, which is styled on a Scandinavian longhouse

The shape of the building is based on the concept of a Scandinavian longhouse – a place for the global whisky clan and a haven of hospitality and protection. The building runs perpendicular to the valley, looking back up the glen to the east and out west towards the sea. As well as the geographical location, we span across a variety of features usually associated with different whisky regions – effectively a Spey valley distillery beside the sea.

Spitzbart created a beautiful envelope for the building, but working with an overseas architect unfamiliar with the planning system, building and fire regulations, contractors, suppliers, and Scottish construction methodologies was challenging. We tried hard to make this work but as we strove to start construction it became clear that we needed local expertise. Parting ways with Spitzbart was a difficult decision for the team but the right one. We will always be grateful to the team at Spitzbart for their creativity and empathy with the local landscape.

 

Moving on, we engaged the services of a Scottish architectural firm, Hypostyle. Issues with fire safety, materials, suppliers, and contractors became a lot easier to navigate when there was a familiarity with local planning and building regulations and construction methodologies.

 

We had a building design. Now we needed a distillery to fit inside it…

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