Why Holyrood Distillery is the talk of the town

Why Holyrood Distillery is the talk of the town

Edinburgh’s first whisky distillery to open in recent times is drawing inspiration from the city’s brewing heritage, from malts to yeasts, to create one of the country’s most innovative spirit ranges

Distillery Focus 12 Dec 2023 | Interviews | By Jason Thomson

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When hunting for distilleries in Scotland there are often clear signs that one is close by. It could be a pagoda on a roof, a red-brick chimney poking over the brow of a hill, the blackened wall of a warehouse, or the sweet aroma of hot mash in the air, but there is almost always a signal. They rarely sneak up on you.


Holyrood Distillery is different. Located in Edinburgh’s Southside, quite literally in the shadow of Auld Reekie’s impressive Salisbury Crags, it blends so well into the urban environment you could easily miss it. This is partly because, unlike many of the new distilleries cropping up in Scotland, it isn’t based in a purpose-built structure. Instead, the innovative distillery is housed in a Category B listed building that at one point was part of St Leonard’s Station, the terminus of the Innocent Railway, Edinburgh’s first passenger rail line. It might be fairer to say that the flats and offices that have grown up around the building have been made to blend in with it, as per Edinburgh’s stringent planning rules.


“It’s a really interesting building,” distillery co-founder Rob Carpenter says. Affectionately known as the ‘Engine Shed’ for decades among Edinburgh locals, Rob clarifies that the building probably never housed a train. “It was never that building on the site that housed the steam engine,” he says, “because the original railway was horse drawn, before steam locomotives.” The building was much more likely to have been used to store hay for the hard-working horses.


Before founding a distillery, Rob worked as an in-house corporate and commercial lawyer in Canada. The business and legal experience he brought from this job to the Holyrood project is something that is often lacking in a passion-led venture like a distillery. That isn’t to say that Rob does not have a longstanding love for whisky. He and his wife Kelly founded the Canadian chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 2011. But eventually, he decided to push forward with his idea for a new distillery. “If I am ever going to do this, where would I do it?” he thought. While Rob did consider a project in Canada, his love for Scotland and Edinburgh won out. He shares that Edinburgh’s lack of a single malt distillery “kind of made no sense to me, given the rise of whisky tourism.” First announced at the end of 2015, Holyrood Distillery opened its doors to the public in July 2019.

Holyrood Arrival single malt Scotch whisky. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

While everything was looking good for Holyrood at this time – with the actual build going extremely well by new whisky distillery standards – they were about to face a huge roadblock. Whisky tourism is an essential part of many distilleries these days, but for one based in one of the UK’s most visited cities and that was still working to establish its brand, it was vital. “We were set up to really harness and take advantage where we are,” Debs Newman, Holyrood’s general manager, explains. “As soon as Covid happened, all of that went out the window.”


Debs has years of experience in the tourism sector, including time with venues such as the London Eye and Edinburgh Castle. She was also part of the senior team that launched the V&A in Dundee before joining Holyrood in 2019. Debs describes the lockdowns enforced due to the Covid-19 pandemic as a “rollercoaster” for everyone and explains that adapting to the constantly changing regulations was a real challenge for the distillery. At the time, Holyrood did have gins on the market and some presence in Edinburgh, but the fact that it “hadn’t got them online yet” limited its reach during the pandemic, Rob says. The team also had to halt production for the first six months of lockdown. Rob acknowledges that many distilleries were able to keep making spirit during this time, but Holyrood’s location and hands-on production methods made it harder to ensure the safety of staff. The team wasn’t idle, though; they used the time to look at their new brand and what they were hoping to do with their distillery and visitor centre. Debs says that one of the biggest things they wanted to communicate was their connection to the city and how they were “inspired by Edinburgh”. Their aim was to create a “feeling of authenticity” around what they were doing.

Seeing to the washbacks at Holyrood Distillery. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

That inspiration and authenticity is what stands out when visiting Holyrood now. At the start of the distillery tour, one of the first things that the guide shares (while guests sip on a cocktail made from Holyrood’s new-make spirit) is some of Edinburgh’s long history, especially focusing on its position as a brewing powerhouse. The distillery itself is one of understated contrast. The styling and aesthetic feel contemporary, but the historical canvas of the stone railway building is not hidden, giving the impression of greater age. The way that old and new are intertwined creates a fully immersive experience. At the heart of it all is Holyrood’s team, who feature prominently around the distillery. Not only will you see them hard at work, but Polaroid pictures of the team – both working and socialising– are displayed on walls, beams, and screens around the building. “Saying it works like a family is such a cliché,” Debs says with a wry laugh. “It’s a dysfunctional family. That’s probably the more accurate way of putting it!” Rob shares that while the team is full of enthusiasm, they’re also keen to learn and aren’t led by their egos. “I love that kind of culture around it,” he says.


Calum Rae, Holyrood’s distillery manager, notes that his team aren’t just from the traditional academic brewing and distilling backgrounds. Many of them have learned their craft while working at other distilleries or joining in junior roles. “I have a former landscape gardener and Taekwondo instructor. I’ve got a former bartender, a mediaeval history student, and a chemistry student,” he says. The thing that brings them all together is their passion for what Holyrood is doing – and Holyrood is very much doing things its own way.


“The idea with David [Robertson, co-founder of Holyrood and former master distiller at The Macallan] and I, right from the beginning, was to do things differently, and that never changed,” Rob states. Calum, who joined Holyrood in 2021 as a senior distiller and quickly rose through the ranks, explains the scale at which Holyrood was experimenting. The team made 99 different recipes last year, and while he thinks that number will come down in the future, their ethos of experimentation and trying new things will continue. “We’re never going to stand still.”

Distillery manager Calum Rae helps empty a bag of malt. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

While the distillery’s work with different yeasts (sherry, Tequila, and Champagne yeasts have all been used with varying degrees of success) and all manner of barley varieties might be a choice, some of its experimentation has been necessitated by its urban location. Due to being in a largely residential area, Holyrood has very strict operating times – 8am to 8pm, Monday to Friday. Although a hindrance in some respects, Holyrood’s team saw an opportunity and have used these limited hours to help shape the spirit. Calum points out that on first sight someone might assume Holyrood is aiming to consistently make light spirit due to its very tall, slender stills.


This is the case some of the time, but not always. On busy production days the team will run the stills quite hot and “hit them quite hard”, not only to ensure they make their quota but to make something different at the same time. “What it means is, we’re kind of working with the stills, but also against them, to try and get a little bit more of that oily character, and that more robust spirit coming through.”


Calum seems to love the freedom he has at Holyrood and is thankful to the founders for encouraging it. However, he does explain that while experimentation is a central tenet at Holyrood, it’s not without method. “We’re very stringently recording what we’re doing and building this huge databank to then inform what we do going forward.”

Taking a sample from one of the washbacks. Credit: Holyrood Distillery

Holyrood is taking a big step forward this month with the release of its first single malt whisky, Arrival. “Arrival is some of the earliest liquid made here at Holyrood,” says Calum. Ironically, Arrival is somewhat ‘traditional’ by Holyrood’s standards (using 10 per cent distilling malt and some “classic” yeasts), but Calum says that the team wanted to use their first release “to show off what we can do” in terms of maturation. The spirit was initially
filled into first-fill bourbon casks before being split and re-racked into Pedro Ximénez and oloroso sherry casks and a number of rum barriques. It was then brought back together and bottled at 46.1% ABV.


The entire Holyrood team is, understandably, buzzing. Calum sees Arrival as setting down a marker for Holyrood which shows that, while the distillery will always experiment, “when we’re doing the same as everyone else, we can still make a really tasty liquid.”


Don’t get used to Holyrood following the crowd, though. “We don’t have a house style, and we don’t intend to,” Rob states, “and that’s going to be an interesting story to get across.” So, no matter what we see next from Holyrood, it will almost certainly be something done differently. 

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