Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher are the minds behind the fantastic The Port of Leith Distillery, creators of the award-winning Lind & Lime gin - a nod to one of Leith's historical maritime figures and the Port of Leith's ties as one of Scotland's most important trading ports. Now, the duo are delving in to the water of life and set to create their own whisky in collaboration with Heriot-Watt University research facilities. Situated on the precipice of Leith harbour, the new distillery takes inspiration from Edinburgh's incredibly rich whisky heritage. In fact, the Port of Leith was once the epicentre of the industry.
Taste Magazine was able chat with with Founder and Co-CEO Ian Stirling at the construction site for their brand-new whisky distillery.
The waterside distillery will be the first vertical distillery of its kind in Scotland and as it sits right next to the Royal Yacht Britannia in the Port of Leith, the build marks an eagerly awaited return of whisky to its original home. Although the build was initially meant to be completed this summer, the opening has since been postponed until summer 2022.
In addition to producing the award-winning Lind and Lime Gin, they also produce a port, a sherry, and are excited to start whisky production. Ian Stirling dives into the history of whisky in Leith, the company’s aims, and discusses the partnership with Heriot-Watt University research department.
Why did you branch into whisky from gin?
The company really started as a whisky company. Paddy and I both grew up in Edinburgh and we ended up in London working together. We both developed a passion for whisky basically, and we had this big desire to build a whisky distillery. We saw an opportunity to build one in Edinburgh because there wasn’t one in the capital city at the time. That’s what set us on the journey; we were a couple of years in raising investment, and we found the site. Then we thought, well, now we’ve got that going, wouldn’t it be great to make a gin now? It was whisky first, and then gin. But of course, the gin in the meantime has become a far bigger thing than we ever thought it would. It’s been amazing. We were really reticent about doing a gin for a long time because anyone looking at the gin market would have thought there’s just so many brands out there. When we were trying to break into it, it was at the height of new brands emerging every week. In the end we thought, let’s just do one and have very low expectations, but at least it’ll get us producing. We’ll learn a lot, we can meet people through doing it, we can start to build a small distribution network. We spent a long time putting it together; the gin was a good 18 months/almost 2 years really from start to launch, and I think all that time we took in the end really paid off. We never could have dreamt that it would have kicked off in the way it did, which is just as well since the whisky distillery is taking a lot longer than we thought it would.
Why did you start to produce port and sherry?
We wanted to do those because as we looked at whisky as whisky fans, we thought there were lots of bits that were missing from the story. Port and sherry play an incredibly important role in whisky production in that the whisky industry has used sherry casks for a very long time, and yet people don’t really talk about the sherry itself, and whisky fans don’t really engage with sherry.
I come from a decade of working in the wine world and I thought these whisky fans should engage a lot more and what I would love is to have the sherry from the place where the casks are coming from, and give that to our customers. So we did. We thought that’s never going to make much money because we’re an Edinburgh whisky distillery selling gin [and port and sherry], that’s kind of a strange thing but it’ll be different. And actually again, the sherry was more popular than we thought it would be. What I used to do - I used to go out and look for wine makers and then bring their wines into the UK and in each instance we found an amazing sherry producer; a really small family owned enterprise that’s centuries old. And same with the port, we found an off the radar producer who was mainly selling their wine to bigger producers who was bottling them and we managed to get their port, which is utterly delicious. Then in the future we’re using their casks, so it came in as something for us to do in the meantime and also to fill in a bit of the story.
Leith historically was Scotland’s gateway to the world, and the whole reason we mature whisky in port and sherry casks is because of Leith. The casks arrived here and they would be emptied into bottles that would be made locally at the Leith glassworks, which we have at the base of our gin bottle. The whisky merchants would buy the empty sherry casks and use them to store their whisky, and in time they discovered that ‘oh people really like the whisky that we put in the sherry casks’, and that’s where the whole idea of maturing sherry casks came from. We thought that was quite an awesome story to tell, something special about Leith. I never knew what an incredible role Leith had played in the history of Scotland, particularly in its trading and industrial history, and its whisky history. It was only when I went away and spent my time in London, became engaged with whisky, and that’s really how I started to read more and more about Leith and the role it had played. I started to want to tell some of the stories about the products that we would eventually launch. Historically, right up until the beginning of steam, the only real way to travel significant distance was by water. As a result, Leith was the gateway to Scotland. What’s fascinated me is the way that you see Leith in its role as Scotland’s trade history and how it began to trade with other nations. The incredibly enterprising people that emerged from Leith and forged different types of histories and created the reputation of Scotland from abroad as a result.
Who designed the port and sherry labels?
We worked with a local company called Contagious who are fantastic. I wanted a label that told the story of Leith on the one side and be it sherry or port on the other, and how the two interacted. So in each label on the top right, you’ve got the sherry vineyards, then it comes down to Jerez where they were shipped from, and then on the other side you’ve got Leith and Edinburgh. You see that journey of where the wines came from. And on the port label, the Scottish side is the same, but you’ve got the Duoro Valley. The graphic designer who designed those at Contagious was Tyrone who has since come to join our company.
Tell me about your team.
You’ve got Paddy and I, and I guess the good thing is we are very old friends so we can say anything to each other. It saves a lot of time because we can just tell each other when ‘you’re being an idiot’. My background was all about sales, marketing and commercial and Paddy is a finance person, but we know the limits of our skills.
The first person we hired was a lady called Victoria Muir Taylor. We hired Victoria to become our researcher essentially, but she already had experience working for Glasgow distillery as a distiller and she’d worked for a brewer as well and she was just an outstanding researcher as well. Very soon after that, there was Andy Coleman, who’s also our main gin distiller and he’s been running that ever since; he came to us from Edinburgh Gin and before that, he was at Kingsbarns Distillery in Fife.
I think our next hire was Hannah Mitchell who we brought in to help us with sales and she began to take over the UK sales of Lind and Lime [gin] from me. Hannah had studied at Heriot Watt University for a degree in physics with a masters distilling and brewery; she’s a massively qualified person and incredibly clever; she’s able to run our sales plus run a million other things.
Then we brought in a guy called Ranuld who came in to do international sales for us and then we brought in another distiller recently called Sam Travers. He’s an incredibly talented distiller. We recently hired a graphic designer called Tyrone, who’s an incredible graphic designer; and then our latest hire was a guy called Ross whose helped in assistant production, but he’s sadly having to leave us because he’s moving to London.
Is it true that the shape of the still can affect flavour?
Yes, absolutely it can. It’s essentially to a large extent about copper contact. So shorter stout or stills, when you’re heating the wash or the spirits inside, the vapour has a lot less distance to travel before it reaches the top and gets condensed. So in that far shorter journey, it’s interacting with the copper less and as a result you’ll get a darker, in a sense, rougher, fuller bodied spirit. In a longer, taller still, the vapour is having to climb far higher and in that, it’s coming against and reacting with the copper a lot more. The copper strips out various aspects from the vapour, particularly something called sulphites, which will produce basically a lighter, more delicate spirit ultimately. So yeah, the shape of your stills is quite important.
What shape have you chosen and where are you getting them from?
So [we] have two stills. With our wash still, it’s quite a short stout still. But with the spirit still, it’s quite a long neck. We’re looking to make quite a delicate spirit. We, with all the work that we’re putting into our yeast, with the grain that we’re sourcing from a very specific farm in East Lothian; we want to create a delicate, complex spirit with very identifiable flavours in it. So we don’t want it too heavy, too overpowering.
We’re getting the stills made in Elgin and in fact they’re pretty much made. So it won’t be long before they’re coming down the road. It’s the Speyside Copper Works up in Elgin. It’s still a handmaking process and beautiful to behold
Where are you sourcing the ingredients?
There’s not many ingredients used to make whisky; there’s water, yeast and barley, essentially. So yeast is difficult to be local; you have to buy it at commercial levels. The water will be exceedingly local - we have a borehole going down about 150 metres under the ground. There’s actually aquifers underneath Edinburgh. So underneath here, there’s a shelf of rock and underneath there, there’s this pool of clear water which basically Edinburgh feeds from and we’ve tapped into that.
For the grain we had two considerations. We put sustainability front and centre of what we do, and you can see with the gin, it’s 100% organic ingredients, it’s 100% plastic free, 100% clean energy; so we did have a debate for a long time, ‘do we want to go organic or really local’ with the grain. Because we can’t do both.
The farm has to be organic and the malt has to be organic. Essentially there are no organic maltings in Scotland that we can use so it would have had to come from Norfolk. In the end, the road miles there would have been so extreme.
I thought, if we could find a local farm, I would prefer that because then we could have a great, close relationship so we eventually found a farm here in East Lothian. The food miles of our grain are going to be amongst the lowest of any distillery anywhere, because it’s going from East Lothian to Alloway for malting, then to our distillery, which is like a 90 mile round route which is very short in terms of free miles.
Why did you decide to team up with Heriot-Watt University?
So this does go back to Paddy and I being whisky fans. We decided one day we would buy ourselves a little still and just have some fun. Through that, we discovered a lot about whisky making and we discovered that by far the most complicated part of making whisky, wasn’t distilling, that’s quite simple in that there’s quite strict parameters, but before you distil a whisky, you have to make a beer.
As quite big whisky fans, we were amazed that no one ever spoke about that and we thought there’s has to be some real opportunities in this, and we discovered there were! We discovered the yeast that you use to ferment with, almost all the distilleries in Scotland use the same yeast, which is called distillers yeast; which is all about creating lots of alcohol and it’s not very focused on flavour. There’s also how long do you ferment for, what temperature do you ferment at and all these different aspects, so we thought, there’s something in that.
We began to engage with industry professionals including with Heriot-Watt University which has the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling so we’re very lucky that we have this centre of expertise right on our doorstep. They were really great and said ‘there’s a real opportunity to do some research here and discover new things’. There’s this thing called the Knowledge of Transfer Partnership where the Scottish Government gives you a bit of funding to do some research and you contribute towards it as well. You take opportunities where they arise and in what we wanted to do in terms of looking at yeast specifically and how yeast could improve the flavour of whisky and how we could find new and exciting flavours in whisky. You couldn’t get a better place to go and learn about this than Heriot-Watt which, I think, has the world’s only degree in brewing and distilling, alongside a range of expertise and facilities.
What’s the next step in the research with Heriot-Watt?
We ultimately trialled 24 different yeasts and then analysed those spirits that we’d made. We discovered really awesome flavours and characteristics, and it was just a really fantastic bit of research that we’d done and we’re continuing as well. From the 24 yeasts that we trialled, I’d say there were 7 that we were really interested in.
We produced all these tiny samples, we were using a really small still, and that gives you a spirit, but part of the research is upscaling. So Vicky this week has been taking two of those yeasts to another distillery producing really big batches of spirit to see how they behave in a large production volume. You need to see how these yeasts behave at a larger volume. Are they really commercial? Are we gonna be able to make whisky from this? The two we’re producing is what we call ‘New Make’. ‘New Make’ is just the spirit which comes off the still before it goes to the casks. Ideally what we’d like to try and do is some smaller scale trials again, trying different temperatures and fermentation speeds with those yeasts and see if we get better results at a higher temperature, lower temperature. There’s endless things you can trial.
How was taste testing all those samples for science?
Well, actually not fun at all. You have to do it very systematically. So Victoria first spent a very long time just training us up in how to analyse samples because normally in science you’re able to use a machine, but with whisky, you’re having to use the human senses and that is a very inexact instrument.
What you’re trying to do is train everyone to analyse spirit in the same way. With all the samples, we each had to analyse them many times, on separate occasions, so that Victoria could bring up lots of data [to] eventually see which ones were emerging as the preferred samples. You really have to concentrate and try and go ‘what am I getting from there’. I came from the wine world where you had to do a lot of tasting. That’s challenging enough with wine, but with spirits it’s even harder, because the strength of the aroma in spirits quite often just knocks out your senses.
When are you hoping to produce the first whisky?
It is a common misconception in whisky that age means better. Some age can mean better; it very much depends on the whisky and the cask and all sorts of different elements. I’ve tasted an 18-year-old that’s horrendous because it’s been completely overpowered by the cask and it’s almost like drinking varnish. I’ve tasted a 3-year-old whisky that’s just been sublime. I think there is a movement in the whisky world in general that actually great whisky can be produced and consumed at a younger age. We have a number of products that we plan to create but we will release a whisky at 3 years old. For our flagship whisky, we’re anticipating something that’s maybe 7 or 8 years-old, essentially, somewhere in that region.
How are you hoping to keep the profits up and coming while you’re waiting for the whisky to mature?
So originally it was all about tourism; you can see this site here you’ve got the Royal Yacht Britannia, which is one of Edinburgh’s major tourist attractions. Over 300,000 people come all down to Leith every year to visit that, or at least they did before Covid. Our idea was 'we’re a new start-up company, no one’s ever heard of us, but if we build a whisky distillery next to a place lots people already come to visit, then hopefully they will come to visit us', and that will help us with the revenues and hopefully that’ll get us through those years until we’ve got whisky to sell. International tourism could take a long time to recover, but in the meantime, domestic tourism should actually be very healthy. We’re very fortunate as well that in the meantime, we’ve created a gin brand that’s outperforming our expectations and so the revenues from that will also help support the whisky production.
What are you hoping from the very first bottle, flavour wise?
Well, I wouldn’t be able to pin exactly what it is, and that’s kind of the beauty of it. I do know in every aspect of the production process of whisky, we’re looking to do the best thing we possibly can.
We’re looking for grain from a single fantastic farmer, a single estate, and grain that’s grown beautifully and then malted well. Then we’re going to create a whisky using a yeast that has been thoroughly researched and trialled and is going to bring something very distinctive to the character. We’re going to produce it in an extraordinary distillery and then we’re going to be using the very best casks created so, I know that at every single point, we’re going into the extraordinary to achieve something.
What I want and what I think the real magic of whisky is, is complexity. That for me is the magic of any great drink, I used to love it in wine. With wine, I think you need a bit of training before you’re able to identify [flavours], but a novice can go to a whisky, taste it and be able to get at least two things, and they can go, ‘that’s quite sweet and I also maybe get some vanilla or toffee’. I just think that’s extraordinary that a single liquid can taste of two things; it can hit your palette in that way. Of course, a really amazing whisky can have a little bit of toffee, it can have a little bit of apricot. It could have maybe a bit of cherry. It could taste of five, six different things, and that I find truly extraordinary. And that’s the magic that I want to achieve with our whisky. I don’t know what those five or six things are yet, but that’s the beauty of it: we’ll find out.
What’s your top 3 favourite whiskies?
So I think a whisky and a distillery that has always massively inspired me is Bruichladdich. In fact we’ve been very fortunate, and the founders of Bruichladdich were very kind and helpful to us since right at the beginning of our journey. The Laddie, which is their benchmark whisky, for me is just beautiful. I love it. I’m a huge sucker for Laphroaig 10-year-old. I think it’s a beautiful whisky and it’s the one that if I’m abroad, that just brings me straight back home. I just love it, it makes me think of Scotland. I love a sherry bomb of Aberlour A’Bunadh. Those are Scotch whiskies that I would mention, [as a] taste of Scotland.
We cannot wait to taste their whisky over the coming years and you can keep up to date with construction of the distillery here.
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