In Mount Emei, or Emeishan, Neri&Hu was given the challenge of designing a distillery and brand home for China's first whisky, an opportunity to create a timeless architecture that speaks to the core values of a visionary new brand as well as the material and cultural heritage that it aspires to sustain. The primary inspiration for the design scheme begins with the site itself, carefully chosen for its unique conditions. Surrounded on three sides by the winding Liu Creek, and with a direct vista to the peak of Emei less than five kilometers away, the topography of the land is in some areas gradually stepped with agricultural terraces, in others dramatic and breath-taking with steep rock cliff faces dropping down to the water's edge. This creates very interesting pathways, routes and a constantly changing relationship with both mountain and stream. The visitor journey blends together panoramas of the mountain and perspectives of the river into the distillery experience, so that whisky-making and the landscape is woven into one holistic narrative.
From the conception of the project, Neri&Hu's objective was to strike a harmonious balance between the architecture and the landscape, between industry and visitor experience, between mountain and water. The project embodies the essentially Chinese concept of the dichotomy of two elements that exist in opposition yet complement each other. The architecture offers a balanced duality, with the industrial buildings as a modern interpretation of vernacular Chinese architecture and the visitor buildings as elemental geometries grounded in the terrain.
Three long buildings housing the whisky production facilities are situated at the north side of the site; parallel in formation, they are tucked into the natural gentle slope of the land with gradually descending rooflines. In a reinterpretation of vernacular architecture, reclaimed clay tiles give a humble texture to the pitched roofs that rest upon a modern concrete post and beam structure. The infill of rock walls are built up by the very boulders extracted from the ground during site leveling, so that the overall palette of materials is in complete harmony with the environment. The strategic placement of the main industrial buildings to the edges of the site leaves a clearing at the center so that there is little to obstruct one's enjoyment of the natural surroundings.
Within this clearing, the Tasting Experience building is partially submerged into the ground; five subterranean tasting rooms surround a domed courtyard. The upper part of the dome reveals itself out of the ground slightly, its shape rising and coming to a soft crest, mirroring the profile of Emeishan. Three concentric brick rings are perched atop the dome, with stepped layers alluding to the rippling of water. This sculptural landform becomes an iconic presence that not only can be seen from every part of the journey, but is also accessible itself and acts as a viewing platform from which visitors can enjoy a 360-panoramic vista of the site and surroundings.
The final building in the visitor sequence is a Restaurant and Bar, cantilevered on two sides, one corner hovers over the river bank and offers guests inside yet another different perspective of the impressive nature around. With dining space organized along the building's perimeter, the core is actually a void space, solid walls form a square courtyard that is oriented to frame the Emei peak. Stairs on either side lead one up to a leisurely rooftop viewing platform, while another staircase intersects with a water feature to guide visitors downwards.
Alongside a deep appreciation for site's natural resources, the project is also an embodiment of the refined sense of artistry embedded in whisky-making and blending, which is in dialogue with Chinese traditional craftsmanship and appreciation of materials. The material combinations used throughout architecture, landscape, and interiors are consistent; a variety of concrete, cement, and stone mixtures form the base material palette, finding resonance in the strong mineral presence of the site; accent materials are drawn from the materials used in whisky craft, from the striking copper distillation pots to the aged oak casks. The result is a fine-tuned balance of rustic and refined, hard and soft, cool and warm, natural and crafted.