Zaha Hadid Architects and The Dalmore Transform Scotch Whisky Into High Art

Firm director Melodie Leung details a years-long collaboration with the distiller, which has culminated in a one-of-a-kind sculpture and 49-year-old Single Malt that Sotheby’s London is auctioning to benefit V&A Dundee.

'The Rare,' created by Zaha Hadid Architects director Melodie Leung and glass artisan Fiaz Elson.

Earlier this spring, design enthusiasts from as far-flung as Hong Kong to New York and London decamped to the Scottish countryside for a first look at Zaha Hadid Architects’ latest commission, with an introduction from firm director Melodie Leung. And while the debut wasn’t a work of the built environment, it did translate the firm’s signature parametricism into high art. Leung and Scotch Whisky distiller The Dalmore introduced The Rare: a one-of-a-kind bottle of 49-year-old Single Malt Scotch housed in a bespoke glass sculpture designed by Leung and created by master glass blower Fiaz Elson

The Rare evokes the image of a full-bodied dram of whisky being decadently swirled in a rocks glass made of fine crystal, and took Elson and her team more than 2,000 hours to create. “A highlight for me was meeting with Fiaz and her team and discovering their world of working with glass,” Leung says of the process and the “extraordinary levels of trust and communication” it required. Together, she says, they “[brought] the material to the limit of what is possible.” The piece cured for 12 weeks at Elson’s workshop the Glass Foundry, where it then took more than 500 hours to polish, and weighs in at 176 pounds. The finished piece made its debut at a celebratory gala in March at V&A Dundee and is currently up for auction at Sotheby’s London. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Scottish outpost of the V&A, which is known by its informal moniker of “Scotland’s Design Museum.”

The Rare is the crown jewel in the distillery’s second edition of its Luminary series. As part of the collaboration, Leung worked with The Dalmore’s master whisky makers Gregg Glass and Richard Paterson to craft The Collectible, a 16-year Single Malt finished in rare casks to evoke Leung’s most powerful “transatlantic memory” of roasted chestnuts on the streets of Hong Kong. Whisky enthusiasts around the world will delight in knowing that The Collectible’s 16,000-bottle run is already globally available for purchase. 

In the following interview, Leung shares how memory, movement, the legacy of Zaha Hadid Architects and music theory drove her creative and collaborative processes. 

Melodie Leung (center), Gregg Glass and Richard Paterson.

Tell us about the influences you brought to The Rare from outside of the traditional world of “design.”

Music is a longstanding part of my personal story. Music is in my name. It felt natural to Gregg and I that we could connect through our shared appreciation of this art form. I distinctly remember my first conversation with Richard began by speaking of the concept of harmony and very quickly the three of us found this deep connection that transcends our different material crafts through our understanding of rhythm, balance, tension, composition, and form. We equally found inspiration in the natural setting around the distillery and took the time to take in the landscape, the colors and scent of the plants and the movement of the water.  

With Gregg, we surprisingly had similar references and starting points as to how we explore and work through our creative process. In the same way that my team and I met with the glass artists for hours to find the right curvature, the right rhythm, and the intrigue that draws you around the curve, we used those same principles to inform the composition of the whisky. At first it seems mysterious and magical but I believe each of us has the ability to translate these experiences and memories across the senses and through different means of expression. 


One of the defining aspects of this collaboration is its philanthropic element. Why was giving back to this institution so important to you?

Museums tie together an evolution of history and show what its people can create. As an architect, creator, and design leader, it’s important to be able to layer a contribution into this collective endeavor. From the early days of Zaha Hadid Architects, we have held cultural projects and museums as invaluable custodians of shared histories that mark a time and place. They stand as communal and civic spaces that promote cultural understanding and pride for a place. 

As a steward of Zaha Hadid Architects and a practicing creative, what’s your deeper connection to V&A Dundee?

The work of Zaha Hadid Architects is held in archives of V&A South Kensington and in 2014 we created an installation in the central fountain of the courtyard. Throughout the project, we made many visits to V&A Dundee. Its exhibitions on Michael Clark and Tartan were the backdrop for Richard, Gregg, and me to discover each other’s artistic lens. Both shows were immersive and explored dance, design, art, fashion, and music. They were full of movement and humor, and recontextualized Scots’ creativity through a contemporary lens. 

V&A Dundee has now launched an exhibition, “Photo City,” to which Zaha Hadid Architects has contributed. This exhibition, which coincides with the launch of the Luminary and is co-sponsored by The Dalmore, explores the ways the development of cities and photography throughout the 19th and 20th centuries—and right up to today—have been intertwined. As an extension of this curatorial narrative, Zaha Hadid Architects’ metaverse project “Metrotopia” is included in the show as our proposal for a future-oriented virtual communication hub.

As for the building, I was immediately struck by its powerful connection with the water and how the refractions of the sun on the waves reflect through the interior and are visible through the windows. This relationship between the interior and exterior was a poignant parallel to the relationship of distillery warehouses to the water and the concept of movement in the sculpture.  

Tell us about your discovery process of The Dalmore’s world of Single Malt Scotch whiskies. How did different tasting profiles and developing your palate go on to impact this project?

Gregg described how the 49 Year Old was matured in American White Oak ex-Bourbon casks and finished in a blend of Port Colheita 1963, Apostoles sherry, select Bourbon and unique hybrid casks. The hybrid casks were crafted and hand-toasted by himself at The Dalmore, combining an original 1951 cask from the Mackenzie era and a cask body of Virgin Scottish oak from a wind-fell oak tree on the estate where the distillery’s founder, Sir Alexander Matheson, was born and raised.  

For me, this project was a chance to reach back to memories from my childhood through to now, to my travels across contrasting countries and cultures, and to trust how all of these experiences have expanded and shaped my worldview and simultaneously my palate. Translating this sensitivity into the whisky, the delicate variety of tropical notes were important . The depth of the dark chocolate and coffee notes, and of course the garnish of roasted chestnut, which lingers on the palate. Each lift of the glass reveals a different hierarchy of notes and this reflects the harmony and complexity that we wanted to achieve.  

I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to take part in this pursuit for beauty and proportion through both whisky and architecture. I truly believe each one of us has the ability to translate and create, to synthesize new and wonderful ways of communicating and collaborating. It’s important to do so in order to grow, to reach beyond our comfort zone, and to relate with infinite curiosity and a desire to push forward and experiment. 

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