Port of Leith: Distilling Scotch from top to bottom

Port of Leith: Distilling Scotch from top to bottom

The brand-new Port of Leith Distillery in Edinburgh is shaking up the world of Scotch whisky on numerous fronts, from distillery design and spirit production to community involvement

 

Pictured: Paddy Fletcher and Ian Stirling, co-founders of Port of Leith Distillery

Distillery Focus 19 Dec 2023 | Interviews | By Bethany Brown

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The words ‘passion’ and ‘enthusiasm’ are thrown around a lot in the origin stories of whisky makers, but it would be hard to find two people more passionate and enthusiastic about the craft than Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher, founders of the newly opened Port of Leith Distillery. The lifelong friends grew up in Edinburgh and moved to London in their 20s, Fletcher to pursue a career in finance and Stirling entering the wine trade. But they had brought one clear vestige of their Scotch upbringing with them. “All the while we were getting more and more into whisky,” Stirling says, “buying a bottle for the house and drinking it together, then going to tastings, and then eventually experimenting with whisky production in our back garden.” (Their neighbour guessed they were brewing beer, an explanation to which they readily confessed to avoid further questioning.)

 

In 2014, powered by their whisky-making ambitions, the duo founded Leith-based drinks producer and importer Muckle Brig. Under this banner are the Port of Leith Distillery; the Leith Export Co., which imports and bottles a range of wines including sherry, port, and Champagne; and the Lind & Lime Gin Distillery, the project they never meant to start but which has become a rip-roaring success (Lind & Lime moved into a dedicated premises in 2022 that combines distillery and gin school). “For the longest time we were like, ‘There’s so many gins, we won’t go near that – we’ll just be focused on whisky,’” Stirling recalls. “It’s really only because it became clear that the whisky thing was going to take so long that we thought, ‘Well, we need to get going with something.’”

 

Stirling and Fletcher were adamant about the location for their distillery from the start: it had to be Leith. Once a prosperous mercantile quarter of Edinburgh, facilitating the import and export by sea of considerable amounts of wine and whisky between the 17th and 19th centuries, the suburb found itself somewhat down at heel by the late 20th century, after maritime trade dried up and mid-century planning regimes saw historic buildings demolished and replaced by concrete edifices. This was followed by what Fletcher calls its “Trainspotting era”, in reference to Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel (and Danny Boyle’s infamous film adaptation) about heroin addiction.

 

However, Leith has seen a revival of fortunes in recent years, attracting a new crowd of businesses, residents, and visitors that are shifting its vibe from industrial to artistic. A Time Out survey in 2021 placed it among the world’s top five trendiest neighbourhoods. “It was emerging, a bit like Shoreditch in London, as this really cool, hip area with great food and a really strong identity and a neighbourhood culture,” Fletcher says. “For us, putting whisky back into the heart of that was really important.”

Looking down at the stills at Port of Leith Distillery

Stirling and Fletcher spent a significant amount of time scouring Leith for the right site. They suffered one false start; having found a site and an architect, their “big-ticket investor” dropped out of the project, and despite securing new investment they couldn’t hold onto the site. It was 2015, two years into their journey, and they were back to square one. Securing the final location – a waterside plot behind the soon-to-be-redeveloped Ocean Terminal shopping centre – took a further two years.

 

This time around they punted for seed investment, which would help them design the new facility, secure planning permission, and commission contractors, while also setting up their gin distillery to raise extra capital. Rather than being anyone’s meal ticket, it was a business developed and supported by enthusiasts. That’s quite possibly the only thing that would have kept it afloat, after the initial delay in getting the building project off the ground and then setbacks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic (primarily due to materials and staff shortages in the construction industry and restricted access to the site).

 

This is before even considering the ambitious nature of the building itself. The parcel of land on which the distillery sits is, to say the least, compact. Without room to spread their production operation out horizontally, as is traditional, the team had to build up. The result is a self-described vertical distillery, contained in an eight and a half-storey tower: the whole production operation is stacked vertically over the first four floors, while the top four and a half floors house Port of Leith’s visitor experience elements, including a bar (the half-floor being a mezzanine area), tasting rooms, and shop. The distillery cuts an impressive figure, poised on the banks of the Firth of Forth – air travellers can view it from above on their descent into Edinburgh Airport – and the vistas throughout, from the first-floor still room to the eighth-floor bar, are stunning.

 

“Paddy and I never set out to make a vertical distillery. That would be mad, and we wouldn’t encourage anyone else to do it,” Stirling says, sharing a small smile with Fletcher, “but because of the small site, we had to build up, and we ended up designing and building this incredible piece of architecture.”

The bar located on the top floors of the Port of Leith Distillery building

This doesn’t feel like an overstatement. Beyond its impressive silhouette, the distillery is a marvel of modern structural engineering. The centrepiece is an intricate steel structure, which forms the base of the floors that house the production equipment. Malt is brought in on the fourth storey, sent first to the mill (all grain is milled on-site) and then to the 1.5-tonne semi-lauter mash tun. From here, the wort is channelled down to the fermenters (seven have been installed, but only six are in regular use for now). These 7,500-litre stainless steel vessels are suspended – yes, suspended – between the third and second floors; each is held in place with four supporting brackets that are bolted down and hang off the primary steel structure. Port of Leith’s pair of stills, supplied by Speyside Copper Works, are on the first floor, set against a window several storeys high that overlooks the Firth (it will surely rank high on the list of Scotland’s most picturesque still-room views). Overall capacity is about 400,000lpa, but it will be some time before the distillery reaches this level of production.

 

For a new whisky distillery, the specifics of production and the personality of its spirit are usually big talking points. While there is something to say about this at Port of Leith – Fletcher points to distinct tropical fruit notes in the new make that they’d like to hold on to – both founders admit they’re not quite sure what Port of Leith’s spirit will grow into. They want to find a Port of Leith DNA, but they’re sanguine about how this happens and how long it takes.

 

“I think the true majesty of whisky is its power to convey complexity,” explains Stirling (he notes that a whisky tasting at Milroy’s of Soho was a watershed moment for him in this regard). “There are so many different levers that we’re looking at [at Port of Leith], and in that context, we said to ourselves, there’s no one final destination here for our whisky.”

 

Instead of producing “a single malt style that just remains the same”, the distillery is taking a leaf out of the wine-making book and plans to release vintages that can accommodate fluctuations, for example in the barley varietal, yeast(s), or wood regime. There won’t be wild swings in style – for example, they have ruled out the production of peated whisky – but there ought to be, as Stirling puts it, an “interesting and considered and beautiful evolution” between vintages. “That sort of vintage variation is intriguing and makes this a fascinating endeavour to be part of,” he says.

The Port of Leith Distillery operates a 'vertical distilling' model harnessing the force of gravity

“In some ways, having this 10-year process from garden to distillery has been incredibly useful for us in terms of our learning, our research, and adapting our approach to whisky production – to slowly and methodically unpick every element of the whisky production process and ask ourselves, ‘What opportunity is there here and how can we adapt it and improve?’. We are opening without all the answers, but we’ve set ourselves up to ask all the questions.”

 

A lot of these questions so far have revolved around yeast and fermentation. The study of microbial influences is something of a new frontier in Scotch whisky making, and it proved an irresistible exploratory opportunity for Stirling and Fletcher. After presenting their yeast-driven concept to Heriot-Watt University, to a very positive reception, they entered a knowledge transfer partnership with the university which progressed into a three-year research programme, supported by government funding. They hired a researcher, Victoria Muir-Taylor, and began yeast trials. In total Muir-Taylor conducted distilling trials with 24 yeast strains; some had previously been used in the production of beer, wine, sake, and rum, but none – as far as the team were aware – had been used in whisky production before. “And sure enough, this incredible array of flavour was produced by just changing the yeast in the production cycle,” Stirling explains. Fletcher says that he and Stirling chose the same one of the 24 yeasts as their favourite, “which is unheard of, as we don’t agree on anything, ever.” In the end, three yeast strains were chosen to move forward with in production. Two of these, a Norwegian strain and a Belgian ale yeast, were employed in commercial trials (for which they borrowed the production equipment at Glasgow Distilling Co.) and used to produce Port of Leith’s inaugural releases: new makes named Beta 1 and Beta 2 that went out exclusively to members of its Quality Control Division subscription club.

 

Another important factor for the the distillery is provenance and, tangentially, sustainability. Port of Leith sources its barley from a single farm near Edinburgh, Upper Bolton, and has the grain transported to Crisp Malt’s Alloa plant for malting. The round trip from field to maltings to distillery is about 90 miles. Having this single-farm arrangement also gives Port of Leith the opportunity to trial other crops in partnership with the farm team. Distillation has begun with Laureate barley, a workhorse of the distilling industry which Upper Bolton Farm was already growing, but other varietals could be brought into rotation.

 

With their aim being to create a light, delicate, but flavourful whisky, the maturation regime will include a certain amount of second- and third-fill bourbon casks, but wine casks will also feature heavily (a nod to Leith’s heritage, specifically as a major import hub for European wines). The company has existing partnerships with sherry producer Bodegas Baron and port producer Martha’s Estate, whose wines it imports and bottles under the Port of Leith Distillery label, and both are now supplying casks for its whisky maturation. (Stirling hints at plans to release an “unashamed sherry bomb”, mooting Guilty Pleasure as a name.)

Paddy Fletcher and Ian Stirling

The man in charge of production at Port of Leith is Vaibhav Sood. After training as a chemical engineer in India, he moved to Scotland and enrolled on Heriot-Watt’s brewing and distilling master’s course. He worked briefly in the brewing industry before landing a job at The Lakes Distillery in England, where he worked under its whisky maker, Macallan alumnus Dhavall Gandhi. Fletcher says, “[Sood] is really enthusiastic about making whisky and the product and the outcome, and his nose is amazing, his ability to impart flavours.” Stirling adds, “I think it’s that curiosity, and not overpowered by dogma, that he’s so excited about the exploration and the journey that we want to take… you want that expertise, you want that intelligence, but you also want that curiosity and open mindedness.”

 

As leader of the whisky team, Sood will oversee a crew of eight operators. They, like the gin-distilling team at Lind & Lime, will sit as a division within the overarching production team led by operations manager Andy Colman. There’s a clear structure, but it would be reductive to call it hierarchical. One thing that Stirling and Fletcher say they have no time for at Port of Leith is egotism. They say they’ve made clear to the team that the business is not about “a single personality” and stress it will not be founder led. “Right now, the story is a little bit about two friends who opened a distillery, but as time goes on, it is really about the collaborative team effort,” Stirling says. “We have been able to put a very talented team together and… the whisky that we are producing is the sum of all those parts, but in Vaibhav we have a very exciting conductor of that orchestra.”

Port of Leith is a new breed of distillery where the journey will take precedence over the destination – and it sounds like the team and their followers are in for quite a journey. 

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