We head up to historic Leith to meet Ian Stirling, one half of the Port of Leith Distillery team racing to become Edinburgh’s first single malt whisky distillery for over 100 years…

Could you go into business with your best friend? We’re not talking a simple start-up here: this is about giving up comfortable careers, moving back in with the ‘rents and putting it all on the line to realise a dream together. Could you make that leap? That’s precisely what Ian Stirling and Patrick Fletcher have done in their quest to establish the first single malt whisky distillery in Edinburgh for over 100 years. It’s thrilling – and it’s a vision that’s about to be realised.

Plans for the Port of Leith Distillery first emerged publicly in 2017. The pair, who hail from the city and have known each other since they were four years old, announced they were setting up shop [read: equal parts impressive and beautiful vertical distillery] close to the Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre and The Royal Yacht Britannia in Leith, Edinburgh’s increasingly revitalised port area. Planning permission has been granted and the wheels are in motion. There’s even a second satellite unit, The Stillhouse, prepped for making gin and to host a spirits-making research programme.

It’s a bold plan, and when I meet Stirling on a sunny late-March morning to learn about the venture, he seems to not quite believe it’s a feat that they are pulling off.

“It does really help when you’ve known your business partner that long!” Stirling says, when I ask how he’s finding the experience. “We have a very honest relationship; we’re horribly rude to each other about most things, so…!”

Setting up in The Stillhouse

We start off proceedings a stone’s throw from where the main Port of Leith site will be. We’re right by the sea and the maritime air gives an incredible sense of place. While the plans for the main site are grand, The Stillhouse – at least when it comes to first impressions – is unassuming. We’re in the corner of a fairly run-of-the-mill industrial estate. But step inside and you’re greeted by a beautiful still, and, strangely, a garden shed which serves as the Port of Leith office. In the weeks following the visit, HMRC grants the distillation license for The Stillhouse which means the team can start to make their own Antidote Gin (more on that later).

There’s so much potential in one industrial unit. Yet it’s just a miniscule hint at what’s to come from Project Port of Leith.

“It’s designed to be a distillery, an office, and a tourist attraction, tall, and right next to the water – it’s such a complex building,” Stirling tells me once we’ve settled for coffee in a nearby cafe. Conversation has turned to the Port of Leith Distillery proper. “At one stage we had about 25 people working on the design in terms of structural engineers, architects, fire engineers, process engineers… It’s been such a complex thing.”

All the £5 million financial backing has so far come from private investors, and it seems to be going well. “We hope to complete it in the spring,” Stirling says. “Then we would seek to start building in the summer, maybe early autumn. And from there it’s a 15-to-18-month build programme. So at this stage probably, realistically, we’ll be opening in 2020.”

Port of Leith Distillery Ian Stirling (R) and Patrick Fletcher

Back to the start…

So that’s us up to speed on the headline project so far. But how did it all start? What on earth convinced a successful chartered accountant [Fletcher] and wine merchant [Stirling] to pack it all in and build a distillery? Where did this level of whisky love even come from?

“It began with two poor graduates sharing a horrible flat!” Stirling laughs. The pair were at university and enjoyed whisky enough to buy whatever the supermarket had on offer and go to tastings at the likes of London bar Milroy’s.

“Paddy became a chartered accountant and he then worked for a house builder, and then for some tech start-ups, learning how to run companies, essentially,” he continues. “Meanwhile I went into wine and developed an ability to sell wines and spirits. People started asking me if we could get hold of some whisky and I just started thinking, ‘if I had whisky, I could sell it’. There was the realisation that we both had the skills required to get a business like this up and running.” Then there was interest from a keen investor, and it was game on.

Building a vertical distillery

With the plan in place it was time to hone the vision. And this is where the concept of vertical distilling comes in.

“We wanted to create a really modern, exciting building that reflects what we want to be as a whisky company,” he details.

“I think there’s a real danger and temptation when going into whisky to try and replicate what’s come before you, a chocolate box-type image that tourists or consumers around the world might come to expect. We’re not old, so don’t try to pretend to be old.” Once the pair found a property, they saw the opportunity to make something exciting. “The verticality [in super-basic terms, grain goes in at the top, whisky comes out at the bottom. It’s all stacked instead of being spread out] really was a product of the site! We had a very tight site. But it also lends itself to what we want to do in so many great ways…”

What Stirling and Fletcher fundamentally want to create is a distillery built from scratch around visitor needs as well as processing requirements. “So many distilleries in Scotland have had to stick a visitors’ centre onto an old building, whereas we could really think about the tourists and the architecture… We wanted them to get as close to the production process as possible.”

The vertical distillery in all its glory

A focus on fermentation

What the Port of Leith Distillery won’t be is a case of style over substance. Why? Because Stirling has a razor-sharp focus on fermentation in whisky-making. Despite not traditionally being the sexy, headline-grabbing part of production, fermentation has a significant impact on the flavour of an end-product. It makes for a compelling starting point.

“We see lots of people doing quite interesting things in terms of grain and the barley strains that they’re using,” he confirms. “We decided to focus on this a little bit further up the production line, on that fermentation aspect.”

One indication of their commitment in this area is the development of a Scottish government-approved research partnership with the renowned Heriot-Watt University.

“It’s called a Knowledge Transfer Partnership,” he says. “Basically it funds two years of research. We’re going to do a whole run of different fermentations with different yeasts, exploring the effect that they can have on our distilling. Not only the different yeasts, but also focusing on the different fermentation times, etc. We want to see what’s being used in the brewing sector, what’s being used in other sectors, so that we can bring a new distinctive character to our whisky.” He’s on the look-out for a graduate research associate through Heriot-Watt with the aim of combining know-how from the candidate’s Institute of Brewing and Distilling qualification and the Port of Leith Distillery’s research goals.

“The thing that really grabs me with whisky is that complexity, that magical thing. You get complexity in wine but I think with whisky it’s so much more… accessible for people. It’s so much easier to put a whisky in your mouth and go ‘oh my god I’m getting, like, caramel but I’m also getting vanilla and I’m getting…’. That is the real magic of it. And what really grabs me is when you have those fruit flavours that really sing through, like a really ripe peach or a really ripe apricot, as well as your dried fruit like raisins and then caramels. That’s something that really comes across in a lot of beers. That’s something that I really want to achieve with our distilling through experimentations with yeast etc. Taking the beautiful aspects that you find with beers and trying to preserve them as much as possible [through the distilling process].”

He’s also developed a passion for sherried whisky, and will even bottle Port of Leith sherry from its cask partner (not the sherry used for seasoning, he assures me. That would not taste great!).

“We’re looking at the moment at potentially using sherry casks exclusively,” he details. “Sherry plays such an important role in so many whiskies that I find it remarkable that not more is made about this. For example, who is the sherry producer? What is their sherry like? Because that’s influencing a cask that a whisky will potentially spend many, many years in. We’ve already spent quite a while talking to different producers in Spain and narrowing down the best partner for us.”

For Port of Leith, that partner is Bodegas Barón. “Discovering them was absolutely fantastic,” Stirling raves. “The sherry industry, a bit like whisky, has consolidated an awful lot in the last few decades and so much of it is owned by massive companies. Who are wonderful, they make incredible sherries, but ultimately they couldn’t really be an equal partner to us in terms of scale. We wanted someone of a certain size. Barón is not only making really fantastic sherry, but it’s also an equivalently-sized operation.” He adds that the company has a similar outlook: a younger generation trying to drive a category forward and bring some dynamism. “So we’ll have our casks made at a cooperage in Spain, and delivered to Barón where they’ll then be seasoned with their sherry!”

Port of Leith DistilleryThe Stillhouse and its still!

Finding an Antidote

What about the aforementioned gin production? The Stillhouse is now up and running, with an incredible Genio hybrid still in-situ. Its neck is adjustable so the team can play with how much copper influence the vapour will get during rectification. Who will be taking the reins when it comes to producing The Antidote Leith Gin, set for launch later this year?

“We were always interested in finding people who were technical and doing really cool things,” Stirling says on growing the team. “We tried Electric Gin; we loved it and we also loved the image of it.” Luckily for them, Electric Gin just happens to be made in Leith.

“We just got in touch with James [Porteous – who was making the gin] and just realised he was a like-minded guy and that there could be some synergy.” Over the course of a year or so it became apparent there could be partnership afoot. “It just made sense for him,” Stirling continues. “He was at capacity where he was producing. We needed a gin distiller. It’s serendipity basically. And it’s really nice to work with someone else who’s already in the area. It is that sort of lovely partnership that you get in the spirits industry.”

Why Leith?

The harbour district of Edinburgh didn’t just have the convenience of a distiller going for it – the area was always top of the list for Stirling and Fletcher. Leith has historically played a pivotal role in Scotland’s trade, and for whisky in particular, it’s had a starring role in a decades-long narrative.

Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, wine was the preserve of the upper classes – it was the thing to drink and whisky just didn’t get a look-in. Then the phylloxera* disaster blighted French vineyards, and the market fell apart.

“Suddenly all these Leith warehouses, and this whole industry that had grown up around wine, just collapsed,” Stirling explains. “In the meantime, whisky producers who had been slowly growing in the north of Scotland saw an opportunity to take up all that warehouse space and fill in the gap. So from point, Leith became an enormous centre for whisky warehousing, blending and to a certain extent producing and bottling as well.” He throws out an admittedly unverified stat that at one point in the 1960s, 90% of all Scotch whisky flowed through Leith.

But the Scotch heyday didn’t last long. “In the later part of the 20th century, as you see with so many other industries, you’ve just got this consolidation with companies buying up other companies. Whisky operations moved out to the countryside where everything’s a lot cheaper. And all the old bonded warehouses in Leith, as you’ve seen in London and elsewhere too, slowly got converted into flats and very little of it now remains.”

Distilling with a view

The whisky industry today

Luckily for us, Scotch whisky is back in boom time. Distilleries are springing up everywhere (Port of Leith Distillery being one of many in the plan or build phases) and for the first time in quite a while there’s a real sense of dynamism. One side effect has been for some to call on the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) to adjust the rules of what makes Scotch whisky Scotch whisky (think: made in Scotland, matured for a minimum three years in oak, etc). What does Stirling think of the growing numbers of voices calling for change?

“I think when you’re trying to break into the Scotch whisky world, the regulations around Scotch whisky are inevitably frustrating,” he says. “But you grow to accept them and coming from the wine world, I’ve got a great respect for appellation, or rules. That’s what has preserved the value and integrity of Scotch whisky.”

Despite this, he is open to a meaningful shift in certain areas. “The SWA does a very important job and it does it well. I think in terms of changing the rules, adaptation should always be explored and considered.”

Something he’d particularly like introduced is some sort of classification for spirit yet to ‘come of age’. “I would really like to see a stepping stone product in Scotch that people like us could use and that the industry could agree on as a category. We’ve seen Strathearn [try to] produce a new-make and call it ‘Uisge’. We really liked that idea, but the Scotch Whisky Association said ‘it’s the Gaelic word for whisky so we can’t allow it’. Fine, fair enough. But It would be really nice to have a word like that, that we can use collectively, as a sort of ‘young whisky’.”

Edinburgh’s first?

At the time of writing there are three distilleries in the running to become the first dedicated single malt whisky maker in Edinburgh for more than 100 years: Port of Leith (of course), Holyrood and Crabbie. Wouldn’t it be quite the coup to win that race?

“I think no doubt!” Stirling laughs. “I would be very surprised if everyone wouldn’t like to be the first one that opens. But fundamentally, I don’t think there’s any real sense of competition.” It’s a diplomatic response, but I do detect a hint of friendly rivalry.

“I’ve met the guys at Holyrood; they’re lovely and they’ve been at this as long as we have. And we’d love them to succeed and I know they’ll be very happy for us to succeed. Crabbie I know a lot less about. It’s a bigger company so they’re kind of on a different scale to us. But there’s plenty of room for more distilleries and actually, what Paddy and I would like to see are more distilleries.

“The most important thing for all of us in Scotland is that we maintain Scotch whisky as the premium whisky in the world, that’s really our combined role.”

A bird’s eye view of proceedings

Looking forward

It seems strange to talk about the future before the distillery build is even under way, but whisky is a patient person’s game. To succeed, you have to be in it for the long haul. With that in mind, what’s Stirling got planned? Will we see other spirits alongside whisky and gin (plus the sherry bottling) from the site?

“Absolutely,” Stirling says, with a certainty that almost took me off-guard. “We have pretty aggressive expansion plans.”

Port of Leith Distillery is just the start, he continues. “We have plans already in motion for a further two distilleries,” he says, adding the caveat that he can’t say much about them now. He will confirm he’s looking beyond Leith into wider Scotland, and that he would like to move into other drinks sectors, too.

But! There’s a project at hand, and that project is building a whisky distillery – possibly Edinburgh’s first for more than a century. Has the scale of it all actually dawned on him?

“Like it’s still all I dream about!” He says. “I think about it all the time. We’ve had some real highs and lows.” There are stories of flaky investors, losing and finding sites. But then they found the building. “It took 18 months to negotiate that site,” he continues. “Then we got a round of fundraising together from another group of investors. I mean it’s been such a long journey.”

And with so much going on, what’s been the highlight of the journey so far?

“I mean, we’re going to create jobs, ultimately, and that’s really exciting,” he says. “And I think I’m quite excited about what our building can do in Leith. We’re in a particular patch of Leith where there were all these grand plans in the late ‘90s and basically nothing kicked off. And now I’m quite excited that we’re going to be building what is quite a landmark bit of architecture. And also returning an industry – an important, historic industry – back to the area.”

He’s keen that the Port of Leith Distillery investment is felt beyond Leith, too. “If we had a goal it would be to help grow the new Scotch whisky sector in Scotland and become part of this rebirth and innovation that we’re beginning to see,” he says. “And as we’ve been helped by people before us, to help other people after us to grow and to make Scotland as exciting as other countries have become. Not just the place for the grand old distilleries but actually a place for innovation and excitement and diversity of styles.” And that feels like an exciting vision indeed.

*A pesky microscopic aphid insect that lives in vine roots and destroys them. This was a major infestation – think: like how nits spread at primary school. But these hideous things ruined whole vineyards. Cognac was affected, too.