Architectural Manifestation of Shan-Shui

Breaking away from the traditional associations with the function it was assigned for, The Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery in Sichuan, China, designed by the Chinese architecture firm Neri&Hu, creates an immersive, inspirational and serene environment. By Naomi Mathew

An aerial view of the distillery.

The opening of The Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery in 2021 at the base of Mount Emei, makes Pernod Ricard the first international spirits group to open a fully operational malt whisky distillery in China. Designed by Chinese architectural firm Neri&Hu, the distillery provides various immersive experience tours and will become home to a permanent art programme beginning with an installation by celebrated Chinese artist Zhan Wang.

Mount Emei, one of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996 due to its impressive history. The first Buddhist temple in China was built in the 1st century A.D. on the summit of Mount Emei. The addition of multiple other temples soon after turned the site into one of Buddhism’s holiest site. Today, located at the base of this holy mountain in the Emeishan City of Sichuan Province is The Chuan Malt Whisky Distillery. This site has a rich history in itself. Through the centuries the land was once an impressive monastery, the place of several historic battles, and a stopping point along many pilgrimage and trade routes. While there are no longer any built remnants of the past on-site, its very emptiness is powerfully suggestive of all its fabled memories.

The magnificent site of the distillery beside Mount Emei.

Three years ago, Neri&Hu won the design competition and took up the challenge of designing a distillery on this revered ground. 叠川THE CHUAN  distillery sought to break away from the traditional associations with whisky, creating an immersive, inspirational and serene environment starting with its name. The character 叠 (dié) means ‘rich and layered’, which pays tribute to the anticipated complex layered notes of the distilled whisky while also honouring the iconic Lingyan Temple close to the site. The second character,  川 (chuān), borrowed from ‘Sichuan’, the province in which the site is located, recognizes and respects the purity of the region’s natural resources.

The architects took this as an opportunity to create timeless architecture that speaks to the core values of the visionary new brand with the material and cultural heritage it aspires to sustain. With the majestic peak of Mount Emei forming a backdrop for the space, the design aims to balance contrasting ideas of strength and fluidity through a constant reference to the natural world. This design concept exemplifies the Chinese notion of duality that provides balance and harmony in the universe.

A winding stream circumvents the site on three sides, providing a gentle yet impressive site boundary. Shan (mountains) represent the sky and the home of the immortals, an image of strength and permanence while Shui (water), soft and flowing, represents fluidity and transformation. Together these opposing yet complementary forces contribute to the perpetuation of the great cosmic flow of nature. In the midst of this serene setting and in the spirit of this philosophy, the building proposal conceives a gesture whose very strength lies in its humbleness and simplicity, by its profound respect for nature. The architecture itself manifests this balanced duality in many ways, with the industrial buildings as a modern interpretation of vernacular Chinese architecture, and the visitor buildings as elemental geometries grounded in the terrain, explain the architects.

The three pitched roofed buildings of production areas are set parallel to each other with gradually descending rooflines.

At the entrance, heading towards the lobby, a reflecting pool sets the tone with its calming sensibility. Water from Mount Emei is considered the source of life and heart of the whisky production. This practical and symbolic importance of water has been translated into architecture by integrating various water features throughout the distillery site making water a constant guiding companion for the visitors as they navigate the property.

The VIP Cellar.

The whisky production areas, contained within three long buildings at the north end of the site, parallel to each other, are tucked into the natural gentle slope of the land, with gradually descending rooflines. In an interpretation of Chinese vernacular architecture, reclaimed clay tiles are used on the pitched roofs that give it a humble texture. These rest on a modern concrete post-and-beam structure. The infill of rock walls is made from the very boulders extracted from the ground during site levelling, so that the cycle of destruction and recreation may continue within the site. The visitor’s lounge is located within these production areas, inspired by the traditional tea houses of Sichuan. The Fermentation building houses 10 fermentation tanks and 1 mash tun while the Distillation building features two giant copper stills hand-crafted by renowned Scottish coppersmith Forsyths. Customised to create a rich and layered flavour of the final distillate, these stills sit impressively and harmoniously facing Mount Emei.

Inside the circular tasting building

In contrast to the vernacular inspirations of the industrial buildings, the two visitor experience buildings are built on fundamental geometries: the circle and the square, which in Chinese philosophy represent heaven and earth respectively.

The circular building, partially submerged in the ground, houses five subterranean tasting rooms, including a VIP cellar and a cocktail room. These rooms surround a central domed courtyard that contains a dramatic water feature – drawing attention to the importance of water in the distillation process – where water flowing from the open roof cascades onto a shallow copper bowl at the base. Above ground, three concentric brick rings supports the upper part of the dome marking the building’s presence. This sculptural landform subtly mirrors the silhouette of Mount Emei. Its iconic presence can be seen from every part of the site, while it also acts as a culminating destination from which the visitors can enjoy a full panoramic view. Constructed in board-formed concrete, the texture of the walls echoes the oak barrels in which the whisky is matured in.

The restaurant courtyard with the water feature

These rooms surround a central domed courtyard that contains a dramatic water feature – drawing attention to the importance of water in the distillation process – where water flowing from the open roof cascades onto a shallow copper bowl at the base.

The square building, with the restaurant and bar, is located in the lowest part of the area. Cantilevered on two sides with one corner hovering over the riverbank, it provides a spectacular panoramic view of the surrounding landscape. In the centre of the building, an open-air courtyard provides another view of the mountain from a completely different perspective. Here, a water feature in which water seemingly flows down from the mountain, down a flight of steps, into a pool reflecting the landscape, links the mountain and water with the whisky. The interior dining space is organised along the building perimeter taking advantage of the great views.

The circulation between the buildings is facilitated by an irregular stone pathway laid in the meadow which follows the orographic contours of the land. This leads the visitors to different sensorial experiences as they move from building to building. The presence of a continuous waterscape which includes various water elements and features provides a hint for direction and views of the landscape.


The project portrays a deep appreciation for the site’s culture, history and natural resources. It also embodies the refined sense of artistry embedded in whisky making and blending while utilising traditional Chinese craftsmanship and material knowledge. The base material palette of a variety of concrete, cement and stone mixtures resonates with the strong mineral presence of the site. Accent materials are inspired by those used in whisky craft such as from the copper distillation pots to the aged oak casks. The project manifests the Chinese concept of the dichotomy of two elements that exist in opposition yet is complementary in nature. It strikes a harmonious balance between architecture and landscape, between industrial production and visitor experience, between mountain and water.

Images by Chen Hao

Courtesy the architects, Neri&Hu