Holyrood distiller Jack Mayo (left) and co-founder David Robertson (right).
Edinburgh boasts a compelling heritage as a centre for whisky blending, with the focus firmly on the Port of Leith, where many of Scotland’s leading distillers had blending and warehousing facilities. However, Edinburgh also played host to a number of malt distilleries over the years, including Glen Sciennes – where Edinburgh’s last malt whisky was distilled in 1925 – Bonnington, Canonmills, Dean, Lochrin, Sunbury, Yardheads and Abbeyhill.
Abbeyhill – also known as Croft-an-Righ (‘the croft of the king’) – was operating as a distillery before 1825, and closed around 1852. It was situated near to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, and the new Holyrood Distillery is located to the south of the Abbeyhill site, by Holyrood Park on St Leonard’s Lane. Holyrood is based in the characterful 180-years-old B-listed engine shed building that dates back to 1835, when it was constructed as part of the Edinburgh & Dalkeith Railway. It is a joint project between former Macallan master distiller and Rare Whisky 101 partner, David Robertson and Rob and Kelly Carpenter, founders of the Canadian branch of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
£5.8 million of funding has been provided by 60 private investors from around the world and £1.5 million from Scottish Enterprise’s investment arm – the Scottish Investment Bank.
At the time of writing, the first spirit is due to flow in the next few weeks, with commissioning of the distillery taking place during late June or early July, followed by its opening to the general public.
According to David Robertson, “All the kit was made by LH Stainless, which operates out of the former Towiemore Distillery on Speyside, and by its associate company Speyside Copper Works, which crafted the stills. They are very tall, partly because that suits the styles of spirit we want to make, and also because aesthetically it fits well with the building. At seven metres tall, we believe these are the tallest, smallest stills in the industry.”
The distillery boasts a capacity of 250,000lpa and Robertson adds, “We will be producing five styles of spirit: floral, matured in refill American and virgin oak casks; fruity, aged in American oak, ex-wine and ex-sherry casks; sweet, matured in American oak; spicy, aged in European oak ex-sherry oloroso, amontillado and Pedro Ximénez casks; and smoky, matured in European and American oak casks.
“We also have plans to experiment, test and learn on a ton of others styles: malt-driven, yeast-driven, spirit-driven and, of course, wood-driven. We will do whatever we think we can to drive a rich, differentiated flavour.”
A company spokesperson adds that, “Our visitor centre will be unique: a hands-on, sensory, educational experience that will enlighten and delight people as they explore the world of flavour while touring a working distillery.” It will include the opportunity to see gin distilled as well as whisky, as Holyrood is taking production of its gin range ‘in house.’
Holyrood is also offering an innovative cask programme, where participants can choose from a wide range of permutations relating to everything from yeast varieties through distilling ‘cut points’ to size and type of cask. The key selling point is that any one of the 100 people taking part actually gets to make the spirit – alongside head distiller Jack Mayo or David Robertson – and fill it to cask.
While Holyrood is set to be the first of the full-scale new Edinburgh distilleries to produce whisky, John Crabbie & Co has beaten them to the draw by filling casks of malt and grain whisky in late 2018 at its Chain Pier pilot plant in Granton, some three miles from the city centre, beside the Firth of Forth.
John Crabbie was a leading light in the Edinburgh whisky scene during the 19th century, acting as distiller, blender and bottler from his base in Leith, and also producing the eponymous Green Ginger Wine for which John Crabbie & Co. later became famous. Today, the brand is best known for its alcoholic ginger beer.
Having been owned in turn by The Distillers Company Ltd, LVMH and now Halewood International, John Crabbie & Co. is returning to its whisky roots, releasing a number of age-specific single malts sourced from third parties, and undertaking an ambitious distillery project in its old Leith heartland.
Managing director of John Crabbie & Co. is whisky industry veteran David Brown, who explains, “The pilot distillery in Granton gets us trained distillers when we come to open the new one, and we’re making gin and malt and grain whisky there, but only in small quantities.
“We have Holstein stills from Germany, and it has been great to have this pilot plant, as it enables us to do some of the development work in a controlled environment. For example, we have been able to conduct our yeast trials and also develop our cask strategy, which is so important for a new distillery. When the main distillery is up and running, we may close it, and use the premises for warehousing.”
Halewood is spending some £7m on bringing whisky-making back to Leith, and Brown says, “The site selected is as close as possible to the original Crabbie site at Yardheads in Great Junction St, next to what was Bonnington Distillery. Indeed, our new distillery will be named Bonnington.”
Liverpool-based Halewood International already has interests in Irish whiskey, but, as David Brown notes, “The senior management and family owners of Halewood felt that the time was right to bring Crabbie back to its roots in Edinburgh and in Scotch whisky, and the decision to build the distillery, in Leith was taken.”
Like Holyrood, the new Bonnington Distillery is being equipped by LH Stainless and Speyside Copper Works. “They are making the stills and many of the other vessels as well,” says Brown. “Our wash still is 10,000 litres and the spirit still 7,500 litres, which should give us an annual capacity of circa 500,000 litres of alcohol per year.
"They have worked with us on the still shape and design to ensure that the spirit we end up with is to the specification we have planned.
"I don’t want to give away too much about the style of whisky that we are aiming for at Leith, save to say that it won’t be a traditional ‘Lowland’ style.”
He adds that, “All the vessels are in place now, and we hope to be distilling in September. We will have a glass window between the production area of the distillery and the visitor centre, so people can safely take photos of the stills and we want an event space in there too.”
When it comes to the whisky itself, Brown says, “Our intention is to focus on single malts. John Crabbie was both an independent bottler and a producer, and we intend to follow in that tradition.”
Brown explains that he and David Robertson of Holyrood Distillery are old friends and former colleagues, and they have discussed the idea of swapping casks between their warehouses to reduce the risk of loss of entire production runs in the event of fire. “We’ve also got the idea of eventually creating an Edinburgh Whisky Trail, when all three full-scale distilleries are operating,” he adds.
The third of those three is Port of Leith Distillery, which is due to be constructed on a site close to The Royal Yacht Britannia, berthed at Ocean Terminal.
It is the work of wine merchant Ian Stirling and accountant Patrick Fletcher, childhood friends from Edinburgh, and will be Scotland’s first vertical distillery, with milling and mashing taking place on the top floor, leading down through fermentation to distilling, which takes place on the ground floor.
According to Ian Stirling, “We set out to build a modern distillery, a memorable piece of architecture.
"The site is small and not ideal for a distillery, hence our vertical design, but the location is great, next to The Royal Yacht Britannia. Tourism will be so important in the early years, until we have whisky to sell. There will be a restaurant and bar at the top of the distillery.”
It has taken seven years to reach the stage where construction can begin, but Stirling – who has a great passion for Leith’s distilling heritage and started proceedings by launching a Port of Leith Oloroso sherry – declares, “We hope to get onto the site in June and it’s an 18-months build, so we should be open before the end of 2020.
"We aim to eventually produce 400,000lpa per year as well as welcoming tens of thousands of visitors through the door.”
Meanwhile, Innovate UK is funding a two-year programme of research into yeast and fermentation practices, being undertaken for Port of Leith by Victoria Muir-Taylor, formerly of Edinburgh’s Stewart Brewing and Glasgow Distillery. “We will let other distillers have access to the research, it will be there for anyone to use,” notes Ian Stirling.
Just as John Crabbie & Co. is operating a pilot distillery at Granton, so Port of Leith has its Tower Street Stillhouse in Leith, where gin is currently being produced, and Stirling explains that, “It is also going to be hosting our whisky development programme.”
David Brown of Crabbie’s declares that, “We want to put Edinburgh firmly back on the Scotch whisky map.” With a dynamic revival in malt whisky distillation, plus the existing ‘five-star visitor attraction’ that is the Scotch Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile and the forthcoming, lavish, multi-million-pounds seven-floor Johnnie Walker visitor experience on Princes Street, that ambition seems certain to be satisfied.
The planned Port of Leith Distillery at Ocean Terminal.