Going with the flow

Going with the flow

Can the layout of a distillery have any significance? Let’s take a look

Production | 02 Oct 2020 | By Ian Wisniewski

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Some distilleries possess more beautiful exteriors than others, but every distillery has the same inner beauty: shimmering, gleaming equipment that produces new make spirit. How this equipment is laid out varies enormously among distilleries, which raises the question: is there an optimal layout, and what influence can this have?
“A logical layout will always promote efficiency, there’s no question, but every site has its own opportunities and challenges. With any new distillery the first question we ask is, how much alcohol do you want to produce annually? From there we work out the size of the mash tun and pot stills to achieve this,” says Richard Forsyth, chairman of Forsyths, which provides services including distillery planning, completion and maintenance.

Then it’s a case of positioning the equipment within the size and shape of the available space. Greenfield sites are less likely to impose space restrictions than urban addresses. Similarly, new builds usually offer more scope than adapting existing buildings. But these are of course generalisations, and whatever the space the same criteria still applies.

Richard says, “The only area to partition off is the malt intake and milling, as it produces dust which entails the risk of an explosion. Malt is conveyed mechanically from storage to the mill, and the resulting grist is conveyed mechanically to the mash
tun, so they should be as close to each other as possible. After mashing, it’s liquid all the way, pumped through pipes to the wash backs, stills and filling store.”

With pipework such a significant conduit, there are clear parameters.

“Pipework is expensive, but ultimately it’s not the length that matters but how it’s laid out. Pipes that turn quickly like a chicane or have a dead leg (dead end) can harbour bacteria, and lead to hygiene issues and infections,” says Brendan McCarron, Glenmorangie’s head of maturing whisky stocks.

Layout is (arguably) more significant in manually operated distilleries, where operators interact directly with the equipment, rather than automated distilleries, where interaction is more focused on a computer screen.

Stewart Buchanan, global brand ambassador, BenRiach Company, says, “Benriach’s production is basically all on one level and almost open plan, meaning one operator can happily go between each part of the production, milling, mashing, fermenting and distilling, and the timing of each process means the operator is never trying to do two things at once.”

Where production areas are on different levels an operator can clock up abundant mileage on stairs.

“Scapa’s old layout had different levels and required two operators. Refurbishment in 2004-5 brought the grist bins, mashing and fermentation onto one level, which can be operated by one man manually,” says Ewen Fraser, engineering manager at
Chivas Brothers.

Different levels can, however, be the only way of making a distillery viable.

“We wanted to produce 400,000 lpa (liters of pure alcohol) annually, and had to fit this into a new building on a site totalling one-third of an acre, which led to the concept of a vertical distillery,” says Paddy Fletcher, co-founder of Port of Leith Distillery (due for completion in 2021). “Milling is on the fourth floor, mash tuns on the third, wash backs on the second, with stills on the first and ground floor. All of the visitor experience space (bar, tasting rooms, shop etc.) then sits at the very top above the process floors.”
Adapting existing buildings can add distinctive features, but also significant constraints. Kingsbarns, for example, constructed a new distillery onto a Georgian sandstone farmstead and dovecote listed by Historic Environment Scotland as category ‘B.’

“This listing meant the new production building couldn’t be any taller than the historic buildings, which in turn determined the maximum height of the stills as five metres,” says Peter Holroyd, Kingsbarns Distillery manager.

Regulations that all distilleries must comply with are health and safety, which are also continually evolving.

“One reason for building a new Macallan distillery rather than adapting the existing one was a change in regulations which would make the existing configuration of plant and buildings difficult to comply with. For the new Macallan distillery we also had to devise a drainage system that would extinguish and remove any flammable liquid from the distillery within 20 seconds, and we had to demonstrate that this works,” says George McKenzie, head of engineering at Edrington Group.

So, what conclusions can we reach?

“Layout doesn’t influence production capacity, it just makes it easier to work,” says Stuart Urquhart, operations director at Gordon & MacPhail.

Brendan McCarron adds, “It’s important for the site to be well laid-out and designed from an operational point of view, and for maintaining equipment, otherwise it can compromise the distillery’s efficiency.”

Visitor Experience

It’s not only malt that arrives in large quantities at distilleries.

“Modern distilleries have tourism at the heart, but this wasn’t even a concept when older distilleries were being built so things such as accessibility and having everything on ground level or having lifts as well as stairs are now a key factor when considering the distillery layout,” says Stuart Urquhart.

A prime example is the layout of Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh, which was installed in a long, narrow building dating from 1839. Holyrood Distillery founder David Robertson says, “We wanted a city centre distillery and repurposed an existing three-storey building. We thought about the most logical flow for visitors, and formed traffic lanes on one side of the building on each storey, with lifts at either end. This also constrained the diameter of production vessels to no more than half the width of the building, the other half being a traffic lane for visitors, which means the building helped dictate production capacity.”
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