GDR’s James Mullan visited The Macallan’s immersive New York pop-up to find out how the whisky brand is using technology to bring its US fans closer to its new Scottish distillery
To coincide with the opening of its stunning £140 million distillery in Scotland, whisky brand The Macallan has launched a technology-packed pop-up in the US that digitally transports Scotch fans to the new location 3,500 miles away. The immersive pop-up debuted in New York’s famous Grand Central station last week, with the pre-event PR activity selling it as an opportunity to experience the distillery through “4D” 360-video and virtual reality, before sampling the brand’s whisky.
Given that GDR’s US office is just a few blocks away (and that my Celtic blood requires that I never turn down the promise of free whisky), I took a stroll over to have a look for myself on the pop-up’s opening day.
Visitors share their name and phone number and receive a wristband and headphones for the main experience, which takes place inside a small cube (big enough for about 15-20 people) with floor-to-ceiling projections across each wall and on the ceiling itself.
The screens come to life with dynamic drone footage that takes visitors on a tour of the distillery’s impressive new facility, its cask cellars, and the iconic rolling hills that surround it – all narrated by a combination of the video’s own audio commentary (in a sultry Scottish lilt) and by insight supplied live by a theatrical Macallan ambassador inside the cube, who enthusiastically talks guests through the experience and adds historical details as the visuals change on the walls around them.
There are four different video experiences, two of which form the basis of each 15-minute 4D immersion – going behind the scenes at the distillery, meeting the master distiller, and seeing other key staff at work in every case. For those that want to explore all the videos available, there is also a dedicated space to view the experiences using fully immersive Samsung GearVR headsets on sofas in another part of the pop-up, where users can navigate the experiences themselves.
The real attraction, however, was the promise of the “immersive ‘4D’ experience” – the idea of which was to create a virtual reality-like experience that visitors can enjoy in groups without having to close themselves off from the world by putting on a clunky headset.
And it sort of worked. The main problem was that the cube itself wasn’t completely enclosed – large gaps at either end (which acted as the entrance and exit) may have been necessary for health and safety reasons but rather defeated the point of something supposed to be “immersive”. Instead, the video drew your attention outside to the station beyond, and thus the effect was lost. I understand that a private Macallan event in Brooklyn late in July did feature a fully-enclosed cube, and I’m sure that experience would have been far superior. Another disappointment was that the pre-event promise of “3D spatial audio, alongside wind and scent diffusion technology that matches the footage” certainly wasn’t obvious, if it existed at all.
Nevertheless, speaking as someone genuinely interested in whisky, the experience did serve to remind me of the heritage and craftsmanship of the brand – something that is presumably an important differentiator in the face of the younger competitor brands from the likes of Japan.
Having had my fill of the immersive experiences, it was time for a bit of whisky tasting. Tickets on my wristband could be exchanged for a dram of The Macallan, a bag of spiced nuts and a rather delicious hors d’oeuvre that consisted of a piece of thinly-cut bread with pate and a miniature egg on top.
As I was sampling these, there were also some nice design details to keep me entertained. Backlit display cases behind the main bar showed the full range of Macallan’s whiskies, while a display of 121 clear test tubes featuring different whiskies underlined the brand’s commitment to natural colours.
There were also some good social-media integrations, such as the selfie wall, where customers could take their own pictures, or have one taken by a professional photographer. When I left, a text message even nudged me to share my photos and videos on social media using @USMacallan and #MacallanDistillery.
One design aspect that was conspicuous by its absence, though, was the extremely unique exterior of the new distillery, which is not leveraged in any way outside the 360-video and VR experiences. It strikes me that this eye-catching asset, which the brand has invested heavily in, should be central to The Macallan visual identity across all touchpoints, so this seems a bit of an opportunity missed. The storytelling was also entirely focused on the brand itself, and its own heritage, rather than its consumers and the way it fits into their lives. I’d suggest this is also shortsighted, as it makes it harder to strike an emotional chord with visitors aside from the whisky aficionados that actually care about the production processes behind what they are drinking.
So, looking back at the experience as a whole, did I leave with the overwhelming feeling that I needed to rush out and buy a bottle of Macallan straight away? Honestly, no. But will I consider the brand next time I’m buying a bottle of whisky? Yes, I think I will. So, by that measure I have to say the pop-up, despite having room for improvement, was a success. The main experience took about 12-15 minutes – and, positioned among the captive audience of commuters and tourists, there’s definitely a good chance that many of the people who killed a bit of time while waiting for a train will now look out for the Scottish brand the next time they find themselves in the liquor aisle. Slàinte.