Last week we scaled new heights during a visit to the UK’s first vertical distillery, Port of Leith. Ahead of its opening for tours today, we were hosted by founders Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher as well as head of whisky Vaibhav Sood to see this unique blend of production space and visitor centre.
A boon for whisky tourism: the UK’s first vertical distillery
Stirling and Fletcher are lifelong friends who first conceived the idea over a dram in Milroy’s whisky bar in London (there’s more background in this excellent article here). Years later, and after a cool £12m worth of investment, the nine-storey distillery now stands proud and orange over Leith’s waterfront. The port district was formerly an epicentre of whisky production and Port of Leith represents part of a larger move alongside the likes of Holyrood to bring whisky back to the Scottish capital. But this is also the biggest tourist attraction to be built in Leith for decades, supporting 50 long-term local jobs and expecting 25,000 visitors in its first year, increasing to 160,000 by 2025.
The distillery is split 50/50. The bottom half is for production and the top is hospitality. You can do a full tour or head straight to the shop and/or bar. The bar will offer tasting boards so people can explore whisky but panoramic 360 views over the city and Scottish small plates will keep you occupied if, for some horrendous reason, whisky doesn’t. There’s also tasting rooms and space for meetings for corporate gatherings and event spaces. The distillery has already been flooded with requests for Christmas parties.
But we know most of you really want to know how Port of Leith will make whisky, so let’s talk through that now.
How Port of Leith whisky will be made
Port of Leith has the capacity to produce one million bottles of whisky per year and production is set to commence this week. It’s overseen by Sood, former operations manager at The Lakes Distillery, who says the plan is to create a rich and robust new make, but that experimentation will also sit at the heart of the operation. A vintage programme will help mark each new experiment with a series of whiskies that won’t be repeated. A good example of this outlook is a collaboration already undertaken with Edinburgh neighbours Heriot-Watt to test 24 different types of yeasts not often used in whisky, from brewing strains to wine and even sake.
“Looking into different yeast types and different fermentation styles would be a key area we want to explore more in detail. Experimentation creates inconsistencies and to make a good whisky, we want a consistent operation, hence these inconsistent experiments will be very well planned throughout our production schedule where we are able to push boundaries and investigate various avenues of whisky making. Yeast and fermentation styles are just a start to that journey,” Sood explains. “It’s not the equipment, but how it’s been set and how we will utilise it that will make us significantly different and unique, and, of course, the magnificent building”.
The distillery is predominately manually operated, about 85% Sood says. Everywhere are these distinctive, German-made orange levers that allow the distillers to monitor and make an impact on each step. Fletcher says it’s not just better for the theatre of a visitor centre distillery to have people constantly working, he feels like you’re going to get a better product if people are in tune with the whole operation.
The Port of Leith process
We start our distillery tour on the fourth floor by taking in a 7,500-litre process water tank, which supplies two 10,000-litre hot water tanks for mashing, fermentation, distillation etc. There are two water sources, the mains and a 20-metre borehole on site. They can use 100% from either or a mix. Sood explained that there will be a process of blending and creating a ratio that works best for them as water has an impact on the yeast’s ability to create primary flavours in fermentation. A 32-tonne silo stores the malted barley and is pulled through a chain and disc conveyor system that contains dust well so the system doesn’t allow for too much moisture or dust to collect. A standard four-roll mill (two mills on the top, two on the bottom), will grind to the ratio that Sood will set.
Onto the next floor, there’s a one-and-a-half tonne semi-lauter mash tun and seven stainless steel washbacks, two with glass windows for the benefit of visitors. The gross volume is 11,600 litres and the charge volume is 7,500 litres and they’re fitted with cooling jackets to provide total control over fermentation temperatures. Down another floor are a 6000 litre low wines and feints receiver and a 3,000 litre intermediate spirit receiver.
There’s also the two stills, an 8,550-litre pear-shaped wash still with a copper shell and tube condenser and slightly declining lyne arm and then a 5,500-litre spirit still with a bulbous neck and boil ball, also with a copper shell and tube condenser and slightly declining lyne arm. The founders wanted the wash still to be “big fat boy Bunna-style still” with little reflux and would keep as much character from the fermenters as possible. No point in generating all those esters to lose them during the first distillation. The boil ball on the spirit stills brings flexibility – run it slow to create delicate spirit with more reflux, run it faster and you’ll get a more full-bodied spirit.
Sood explains they don’t want to fight the distillery to take away the profile it creates. “It will be more about nudging it in the directions we want to go, it’s all about optimising it to the right direction”. There’s also all kinds of interesting questions the vertical shape raises in terms of how it will affect the profile of the spirit and few before Port of Leith could give any conclusive answer.
Maturation will take place in a warehouse in Glenrothes, at least for the time being. There is a desire for Edinburgh-based warehousing but space and price is at a premium. Bourbon casks are of course the standard as usual, but hundreds of sherry and Port casks are on order, which Fletcher says is a relief in this market. His supplier has outlined an apocalyptic vision of how the big brands with strict sherry policies are hoovering up every cask imaginable. The supply is dwindling, the extreme weather is making production difficult, and both demand and cost are high.
The site also boasts a gas-fed steam boiler which provides steam and an Adiabatic chiller cools down condenser water in a closed loop system. Two 30,000-litre effluent tanks allow Port of Leith to store and then take all draff and effluent offsite for anaerobic digestion for biogas production.
Drinking in the Port of Leith excitement
With production set to kick off this week, you obviously can’t get your hands on any whisky the distillery has made. You can taste whisky from brands Port of Leith has created such as Perpetuity, an evolving blend inspired by infinity bottles, as well as Table whisky, a single grain made up of North British whisky, two-thirds virgin oak matured and one-third sherry cask. We tasted the former here and the latter at the distillery for the first time, the virgin oak gives this really fresh character and heightens the rich, vanilla notes. It’s very drinkable, reasonably priced, and a good answer to the practice of table wine.
There’s also Port (a white and tawny) and sherry too, a manzanilla and oloroso. The wine is the same that was in the casks Port of Leith will soon fill whisky with, meaning the brand is offering people a chance to become familiar with these often underappreciated styles and get an idea of how they will impact the whisky.
Lind & Lime Gin, however, is the brand’s biggest success so far. It’s made at its own distillery around the corner, which is also open for tours. It was inspired by Dr. James Lind of Edinburgh, noted in medical circles for undertaking one of the first clinical trials to try and cure scurvy. He observed that citrus fruits were key, so Port of Leith celebrated one of Edinburgh’s great but forgotten sons by creating a lime-forward gin, which also features pink peppercorn alongside five classic botanicals. There’s a more in-depth look at these products in this feature.
It’s a good thing Lind & Lime did the business because the Port of Leith founders make no secret about the fact this project is years behind. It’s been an architectural challenge, one that has led to the creation of something original, but not without loss. Time, money, blood, sweat, and tears have gone into Port of Leith. It was never the intention at the outset to build a vertical distillery, it came out of the reality of committing to making whisky in Edinburgh, where there was little room for anything else.
Had they decided to build a shed in a field in the Highlands instead, they would already be making whisky. In the long run, we’ll know to what extent this gamble was worth it. I like their chances. Port of Leith stands out, not just in the Edinburgh skyline, but in an increasingly crowded market. Its singular design and city centre location make it an ambassador for the spirit that will attract tourists of all kinds, not just whisky lovers. Port of Leith is modern, it’s different, and its aim to encourage people to take a second look at Scotch whisky is one I think will resonate. I’ve been to a lot of distilleries. I’ve never been to one like this.