Nestled in the historic port of Leith, Edinburgh, a new chapter in whisky-making is unfolding. The Port of Leith Distillery, a visionary project blending tradition with innovation, is poised to capture the essence of this vibrant maritime hub and revive its storied whisky heritage. With a focus on craftsmanship, sustainability, and an immersive visitor experience, this distillery promises to captivate whisky enthusiasts and ignite a renaissance in the world of Scotch whisky. Join us as we delve into the fascinating story of the Port of Leith Distillery and explore the unique flavours and experiences it has to offer.
Located on the edge of the harbour in the historic Port of Leith, the distillery is set in the heart of Edinburgh's vibrant whisky heritage. With The Royal Yacht Britannia and The Ocean Terminal nearby, the site offers a picturesque setting. From the top floor bar, you can enjoy a breathtaking panoramic view of Leith, Edinburgh, and Fife. Leith has served as Scotland's gateway to the world for centuries, housing bonded warehouses where whisky was aged, blended, and bottled. The Port of Leith Distillery takes great pride in being part of the revival of distilling in this storied centre.
The vision for the distillery was not simply to construct a traditional facility, but rather to create a contemporary landmark that embodies the values of curiosity, innovation, and accessibility. With an annual production goal of 400,000 litres of pure alcohol, they also designed the space to accommodate a shop, a bar, and to welcome thousands of visitors. Furthermore, they have integrated a laboratory for analysis and experimentation in collaboration with Heriot Watt University, offices for the dedicated staff, and versatile spaces for exhibitions and public events.
Central to the design is a vertical production process, starting from grain milling and mashing at the top and descending through fermentation to distillation at the bottom. Surrounding this core, they have crafted an immersive experience for the guests, providing them with an up-close encounter with the whisky-making journey.
Encased within a striking, contemporary structure along Leith's waterfront, the distillery will serve as a prominent landmark, catching the eye of cruise ships entering the port and establishing itself as an iconic addition to Edinburgh's architectural landscape.
The Construction Process
No one has ever witnessed the construction of a vertical distillery quite like this.
To further complicate matters, they are building the distillery right next to a harbour wall - a significant engineering feat that presented their engineers with numerous challenges.
Designing the building and reaching the construction phase in 2020 took several years. However, the progress was hindered by the impact of COVID-19, resulting in delays. Nonetheless, the completion of the substructure and foundations in early 2021 was a major milestone, representing the most intricate and high-risk aspect of the building process.
Now, they are marvelling at the sight of the steel structure emerging from the ground. As they continue to build upward, key pieces of production equipment, such as the mash tun and washbacks, are being installed within the structure, allowing for future adjustments if necessary.
There is still a long way to go. The steel structure was finished throughout 2021, with the cladding being completed in 2022. Subsequently, the installation of pipework, intumescent paint application for fire protection, and decoration will commence.
Anticipated to be operational in the late summer of 2023, the completion of the building remains on the horizon.
Watch: Construction Update - January 2023
The Production Process
The allure of a remarkable whisky lies in its ability to encompass a multitude of flavours, creating a tapestry of complexity.
While a novice may detect a couple of distinct notes in a whisky, such as cereal and vanilla, a truly exceptional whisky exhibits extraordinary complexity, boasting a symphony of aromas and flavours within a single spirit.
The Port of Leith Distilleries aspiration is to craft an exquisitely intricate and harmonious spirit, a composition of delightful and enchanting flavours. To achieve this, they meticulously scrutinise every aspect of the Scotch Whisky production process, understanding the unique contribution each element makes and constantly challenging themselves to improve.
This pursuit has no definitive endpoint, and as a result, their whisky will never remain stagnant—it will perpetually evolve. Each year's production will reflect the artisans who crafted it, the evolving environment of its origin, and the temporal factors, including the climate, challenges, and discoveries of its time. As a result, their whisky will be a living testament to the continuous journey of exploration and refinement.
In 2016, a research program was launched focused on exploring the untapped potential of yeast and fermentation in Scotch Whisky production, a realm yet to be extensively explored in the public domain.
Fortuitously, the team secured funding for this research initiative through the Knowledge Transfer Partnership scheme administered by Innovate UK. This enabled the team to benefit from the expertise and experience of the ICBD (including the esteemed Dr. Annie Hill) and facilitated the recruitment of their inaugural team member, Victoria Muir-Taylor, who joined the team in 2018 to oversee the program's execution.
Approaching the project with an open mind and an outcome-driven mindset, they harboured a particular hope of uncovering the essence of fruit. Among the diverse array of flavours that can be discovered within a Scotch Whisky, it is the influence of yeast and fermentation that imbues the spirit with its primary fruit characteristics, whether it be the crispness of apple, the ripeness of apricot, or the lusciousness of red fruits. These flavours have the ability to take centre stage and captivate the palate, even in a whisky that has spent a decade maturing within a cask, evoking remarkable, vibrant fruit profiles.
Nestled amidst the Lammermuir Hills, just a few miles outside of Edinburgh, Upper Bolton Farm boasts a longstanding tradition of barley cultivation, now overseen by brothers James and Andrew Clark.
Typically, for a small-scale distillery like the Port of Leith, partnering with a single farm can pose challenges. However, the Clark brothers have made forward-thinking investments in modern storage facilities that maintain the harvested grain at optimal temperature and humidity. This enables us to procure batches of barley throughout the year, forging a fruitful collaboration.
The introduction to James and Andrew came through Crisp Malt, who will efficiently collect the grain from Upper Bolton Farm and transport it to their maltings located in Alloa, west of Edinburgh. From there, the malted barley will make its way to the distillery in Leith, completing one of the shortest farm-to-still journeys among UK distilleries. This significantly reduces the carbon footprint associated with transportation and minimises the overall food miles of the barley sourcing process.
Leith, the site of the distillery construction, has a storied history as Scotland's gateway to the world. It served as a bustling hub where European wines and spirits arrived in barrels to be bottled at the local Leith Glass Works.
Distinguished by its Royal Warrant for spirit bonding, Leith housed numerous warehouses along its shores, where vast quantities of Scotch Whisky were matured, blended, and bottled throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This unique environment, where whisky and wine merchants mingled, gave rise to the prevalent practice of maturing whiskies in sherry and port casks, which originated within Leith's bonded warehouses.
Driven by their desire to craft a whisky that truly reflects its place of origin, they recognized that maturing spirit in casks previously used for wines would anchor the whisky in the rich local heritage of the Port of Leith. These casks, once home to sherry wines, port wines, red wines, white wines, and sweet wines imported into Leith for centuries, not only encapsulate the essence of the harbour's legacy but also harmonise perfectly with the style of whisky they aim to create. The result will be a delicate yet profoundly complex spirit, adorned with captivating layers of flavour.
Watch: New Make Tasting
Head of Whisky
Port of Leith, the UK's pioneering vertical whisky distillery situated in the historic port of Leith in Edinburgh, has announced the appointment of Vaibhav Sood as its head of whisky. Sood brings valuable expertise from his previous role as operations manager at The Lakes Distillery, an English whisky producer. Set to open later in 2023, the nine-storey distillery represents a £13 million (US$16.53 million) investment.
Reflecting on his new role, Sood expressed his excitement about immersing himself in the unique distillation process of Port of Leith and leading the whisky-making endeavours. He emphasised the privilege of working with a dedicated and forward-thinking team, as they strive to introduce their world-class single malt to whisky enthusiasts worldwide.
Co-founder of Port of Leith Distillery, Paddy Fletcher, hailed Sood's appointment as a significant milestone for the distillery. Fletcher highlighted Sood's immediate contributions in optimising production processes, leading the wood management program, and spearheading the recruitment efforts for the whisky operations team. With Sood's involvement, the distillery is poised to create an exceptional new wave whisky that will captivate whisky lovers.
Projected Visitor Numbers and Job Creation
In its inaugural year of operation, the distillery is anticipated to draw in 25,000 visitors, with expectations of a steady rise to 160,000 annual visitors by 2025. These figures demonstrate the increasing allure of whisky tourism and the desirability of Port of Leith as a sought-after destination for whisky aficionados. Moreover, the establishment of the distillery will contribute to the creation of 50 new jobs within the upcoming year. This job growth serves as a substantial economic stimulus to the local community, underscoring the positive influence of the distillery on the area.
In conclusion, the Port of Leith Distillery stands as a testament to the rich heritage of whisky production in the Port of Leith, Edinburgh. With its innovative approach, commitment to sustainability, and dedication to showcasing the local character, the distillery represents a significant milestone in the revitalization of the whisky-making tradition in the area.
From its strategic location in the historic port to its vertical production process and use of locally sourced ingredients, the distillery exemplifies the fusion of tradition and modernity. The incorporation of wine casks for maturation, echoing Leith's historical role as a hub for wine and spirits, adds a distinctive touch to their whisky.
Furthermore, the Port of Leith Distillery serves as a beacon for whisky enthusiasts and tourists, offering a captivating experience that combines education, tastings, and a glimpse into the whisky-making process. The anticipated growth in visitor numbers underscores the appeal of the distillery as a must-visit destination for whisky aficionados.
With the appointment of experts like Vaibhav Sood and the collaboration with Upper Bolton Farm, the distillery exhibits a commitment to excellence in production, ensuring that each bottle reflects the passion, craftsmanship, and distinct character of the Port of Leith.
As the Port of Leith Distillery continues to shape the whisky landscape, it embodies the spirit of exploration and innovation, inviting whisky lovers to embark on a captivating journey through history, flavours, and the art of whisky-making. With every sip, one can savour the essence of Leith and celebrate the enduring legacy of Scotch whisky.
Photo Credit: Port of Leith Website
Learn more at the Port of Leith website: https://www.leithdistillery.com/