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Port of Leith: A distillery in the sky

Will making Scotch whisky in a vertical distillery affect the taste of the spirit? Peter Ranscombe visits Port of Leith in Edinburgh to find out.

Almost 10 years ago to the day, wine merchant Ian Stirling and finance guru Paddy Fletcher had an idea. Sitting in Milroy’s whisky bar in London’s Soho, the pair of Edinburgh natives hatched a plan to build a Scotch distillery that would ‘demystify’ the spirit, revealing hidden parts of the production process to whisky fans.

As Stirling leads the way up the stairs at Port of Leith Distillery, that dream is now within sight. The finishing touches are being made to the building and spirit is about to begin flowing through the stills ahead of its opening in September.

‘This is one of my top four favourite views in the distillery,’ laughs Stirling as we reach the top of the nine-storey tower that represents the UK’s first vertical distillery. He points out a window that – even on an overcast summer’s day – offers a unique view of Leith docks. Once the beating heart of Scotland’s wine and whisky industries, the docks are now Edinburgh’s main harbour, forming the gateway to the North Sea.

On the opposite side of the room, a double-height window in the bar affords views up the Firth of Forth towards the famous Forth Bridge and the hills beyond. Meanwhile a third window provides a vista of Edinburgh, complete with Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags, its extinct volcano and cliff in Holyrood Park. Moored next to the distillery is the Royal Yacht Britannia, which served as the British royal family’s floating palace from 1953 until it was decommissioned and docked in Leith in 1997.

Tourism built-in from the start

Paddy Fletcher (left) and Ian Stirling

Britannia anchored the redevelopment of Edinburgh’s docklands, bringing up to 400,000 visitors a year into Leith and spawning the Ocean Terminal shopping centre next door. That footfall was a key part of Stirling and Fletcher’s plan to return to their hometown and build a distillery.

Their aim was to open the first single malt distillery in Scotland’s capital for a century, joining the ranks of the city’s North British grain whisky distillery and a handful of gin makers. Losing out on land a stone’s throw from their current site next to Britannia to a housebuilder meant that Holyrood Distillery and Crabbie beat them to the whisky revival punch. But the pair remained undaunted.

Securing a tiny patch of land between Ocean Terminal and the harbour wall meant that the only way was up for their designs. And so the UK’s first vertical distillery began to take shape. Piles for the foundations had to be carefully positioned so as not to affect the harbour, while extra fireproofing on the steel beams added to the cost.

Yet the result is a structure that mixes practicality with ‘industrial chic’ and could double-up as a trendy art gallery. Tourism has remained at the heart of the design, from the bar’s stunning views to the layout for visitors to safely navigate the production floors.

‘Boutique’ – but not ‘craft’

Vaibhav Sood

Building vertically created other headaches too. The mash tun and washbacks – which are used to ferment the strong beer that becomes the base for whisky – along with the copper stills had to be winched into position during the construction process, rather than being fitted at the end.

The result is a production hall spread over several floors, as opposed to sitting in neighbouring rooms in a run-of-the-mill ground-based distillery. Its 500,000-litre production capacity puts it squarely in Scotland’s vibrant ‘craft’ distilling category.

‘I would describe us as “boutique” or “artisanal”, but not “craft”,’ points out Vaibhav Sood, who joined the distillery in July as its first head of whisky. ‘The word “craft” sounds like you’re making something new every day, whereas we’re aiming for consistency.’

While having a vertical distillery means some small parts of the production process can be gravity fed, Port of Leith still has pumps to ensure consistency in pressure and flow at key stages. In that way, the vertical design of the distillery is unlikely to influence the flavour of its spirit.

A vertical drop of whisky

Instead, Stirling and Fletcher’s focus on the under-appreciated parts of the production process are likely to have a bigger impact on the taste. They harnessed Heriot-Watt University’s world-renowned brewing and distilling expertise to test 24 yeasts for the fermentation process, to help make a ‘complex and robust’ spirit that will hold its own and retain its character while it ages.

My impromptu tour ends in the still room, with another stunning view along the Firth of Forth. Sood steps away to answer questions from the engineers who are commissioning the production equipment, and Stirling’s mind turns to maturation.

He drew on his past life in the wine trade to forge links with Sherry producer Bodegas Barón and Port maker Martha’s to source casks in which to mature his whiskies and began bottling their oloroso and tawny under the ‘Port of Leith’ label. A Champagne – ‘La Garde Écossaise’ – also joined the line-up.

‘We wanted to work with individual producers, rather than brokers,’ Stirling adds. ‘They’ve become our friends over the years, and they think of this as “their” distillery too.’

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