Pro-industry is a strange term these days when referring to whisky. Essentially, if we enjoy drinking whisky, reading about it – writing about it, even – we should all describe ourselves as pro-industry. The problem is that the term has become synonymous with pro-bullshit marketing or pro-questionable innovation. Sometimes, it takes a newcomer, with fresh ideas and concepts, to make you recognise the defence mechanisms of a complacent industry and see them for what they really are.
As Ian Stirling, one of the founders of the Port of Leith Distillery points out, when you’re dealing with established brands which have been around for twenty to thirty years, companies are not that interested in dramatically changing the character of the whisky. Head to any ‘then and now’ comparison tasting and you’ll notice how the incremental differences over the decades have accumulated. However, Ian is right; it’s not usually a conscious decision. Which is where newcomers have the advantage; the ability to, consciously, bring more diversity and, hence, excitement to Scotch whisky and the Port of Leith Distillery founders aim to make the most of that potential. Over a beer, in the fabulous Teuchters in Leith, I met with Ian recently to find out more…
The founders of the Port of Leith Distillery, Ian Stirling and Patrick Fletcher, are hoping to break ground in the autumn of this year with the possibility of the distillery opening in the Spring of 2020. For anyone thinking that’s quick; well, it hasn’t been. Far from it. The process has been and continues to be, long and complex and you clearly need the patience of a saint. Plans were developed and when that site fell through, new plans were needed for a whole different site. Investors came and disappeared. New investors were found. Approximately thirty consultants needed to be hired due to the complexity of the new site. Negotiations needed to take place between the landowners, the nearby Royal Yacht Britannia, the port authority and Edinburgh Council. And, from my own experience, any conversation with that last one always requires a stiff drink afterwards.
As Ian pointed out, the building itself is a complex piece of engineering. Although they didn’t set out to build a vertical distillery; given that this site was not their first choice, it did preclude a certain style of distillery construction. So, in the words of Yazz, the only way is up. Viewing images of the proposed building certainly lends itself to drawing parallels between this and Mackmyra. However, Ian and Paddy were always looking to build something that would be considered an exciting piece of architecture; something modern and diverse to illustrate the essence of what the company is aiming to be. The building is, in a sense, a part of their marketing.
Ten years ago, when the idea of building their own distillery was just a dream for the duo, exciting things were happening in North America and Asia but not so much here in Scotland. Ian puts this down to the huge barrier that is the minimum three year maturation period. Waiting at least three years before you can sell your product is a difficult financial obstacle to overcome. Of course, many distilleries have travelled along the gin path in order to generate some revenue. The distillery as a visitor attraction is also an obvious revenue stream and the Port of Leith Distillery aims to take advantage of both of these opportunities.
The site of the distillery itself will be right next to the Royal Yacht Britannia, which is in the top three of paid-for visitor attractions in Edinburgh. For both Ian and Paddy, coming from and growing up in Edinburgh, it always felt like a missed opportunity to not have a whisky distillery in the capital. As Ian explained, they never set out to build a visitor centre; they have created a distillery which visitors will be able to walk around and access but it will be, primarily, a working distillery. Starting from scratch and having carte blanche to design the distillery the way they want, the team have incorporated the vertical nature of the distillery when looking at it from a visitor’s perspective. For example, the tastings will take place in the laboratory and visitors will always be in the working parts of the building.
The yet to be released gin, named The Antidote, links back to the days when Leith was a thriving port. It’s a spirit with a story to tell. With its citrus flavours, The Antidote is a reference to the limes used by sailors to beat scurvy. Now, I’m not really one who cares too much for packaging; for me, it’s all about the quality of the liquid inside. However, even this non-gin drinker appreciates just how crowded the gin market is and, without the boxes or the tubes that whisky’s normally packaged in, bottles of new brands of gin need to stand out on the shelves. Having seen a prototype of the bottle for The Antidote, I think they’ll achieve this. The bottle itself will also have its own story to tell; look at old maps of Leith and you’ll see the glasshouses marked on Salamander Street. Leith had an extremely important glass manufacturing industry in the 1800s and the design of this bottle will also tap into this.
The Port of Leith team has also taken a refreshingly unusual approach with its first release and that comes in the form of Sherry. Ian’s background is in wine sales and, as he considers sherry to have such a critical role in whisky creation with its influence on so many of the whiskies he loves, as well as a love of sherry itself, he felt it was time to take this new approach. Finding the right producer, which was based entirely on the quality of the sherry, was a little tricky at first. Ian also wanted to work with a company which was roughly the same size as his own so that the relationship would be balanced. He wanted someone with a modern outlook, not bogged down in tradition, and hence the partnership with Bodegas Baron was started. The casks seasoned by their Oloroso sherry will be shipped to Scotland so that they can fill them with the first Port of Leith new make spirit.
“Stepping stone products are vitally important to new distilleries if they’re going to survive; it’s what’s needed to get them through the early years”, Ian explained. Although fully intending to tackle the UK market, the focus is international in order to forge a distribution network for when the first Port of Leith whisky is ready to be released. Coming from a wine background, Ian pointed out that it’s difficult to make money from sherry. However, building a good relationship with Bodegas Baron also enables the team to ensure the quality of the casks they’ll be using on a long-term basis. A savvy move indeed; just ask anyone at Malt about the quality of third (or fourth) fill casks being used in the industry at the moment. Well, only if you have a few hours to spare…
One thing that might not get Mark rubbing his thighs is that the focus for this new distillery isn’t on barley. That’s not to say that it isn’t important to Ian. At this point, he can’t say specifically which strain(s) of barley they’ll be using. However, what they’re not aiming for at the Port of Leith Distillery is ensuring the biggest yield that they possibly can. For some distilleries, the focus is on barley but for Ian and the team, it’s fermentation.
Ian views the potential in terms of yeasts that can be used in fermentation as an untapped area. Having secured Scottish government funding for the Knowledge Transfer Partnership – a two-year research programme – with Heriot-Watt University, a whole range of different fermentations using different yeasts will take place, effectively creating a library of distillates which they could then bring to the distillery. Ian considers fermentation to be the biggest part of the production and yet is surprised at how little it is mentioned. What they learn during this research, they’d like to share with other producers so that others can take it in their own direction. It all goes back to their desire to see more diversity in Scotch whisky.
The Port of Leith distillery intends to make a Lowland style whisky. These days it can be argued that the regional categories for defining Scotch whisky in terms of flavour, whilst not exactly entirely redundant, are a little outdated. So when asked what that means exactly, Ian explained that with the research into fermentation and yeast he’d like to see the really ‘vibrant primary fruit flavours’ carried forward into the whisky. The ‘traditional’ Lowland style has the potential to carry the flavours through and, by using the sherry casks in the right way so that their influence doesn’t dominate the whisky but adds to its complexity, Ian is looking to create a whisky with a fruity flavour profile: ‘a real zing of peach and apricot’.
As for the casks and the maturation process, the long-term plan is for the Port of Leith Distillery to be able to state that its whisky has been distilled and matured in Leith. Until suitable warehousing in Leith can be found, Ian wasn’t at liberty to say where the whisky will be matured. Most of us are aware that it makes sense, for insurance purposes, not to keep all of your stock in just one place. As much as I’m a proud citizen of the Republic of Leith, a stroll along Great Junction Street, looking at some of the characters who regularly fall out of the Tam O’Shanter, makes me question whether fire or any natural disaster would be the biggest risks. One of the options being talked about amongst the team is to have a floating warehouse in front of the distillery. Linking to the Port of Leith Distillery’s unique location, the idea is that the movement of the water will gently rock the spirit in the cask so that the immediate environment plays its part in the maturation process. I’ll wager that there’ll be a group of Leithers somewhere taking wild water swimming lessons as you read this…
As previously mentioned, Ian’s background is in the wine industry and one thing he finds quite different when dealing with whisky producers is that sometimes it’s very tricky to get beyond the brand message; something that everyone here at Malt can relate to. The Port of Leith Distillery wants to be open to the interests of consumers – those enthusiasts who always want to know more – and other producers who’d like to learn from what they do. Although timescales are what Ian describes as ‘moving targets’, the ideals of openness, innovation and quality come across as cornerstones of the business.
It’s admittedly difficult to keep track of all of the new distilleries either currently being built, or in the pipeline, but Ian maintains that this is an exciting time for Scotch whisky. Or at least it could be, I think. Those new distilleries like the Port of Leith, willing to embrace innovation and diversity, where the aim is to create a small, quality-focused operation and where the emphasis is on being distinctive without compromising the quality of the end product, should be applauded. In an ever more imminent post-Brexit industry, those Scotch whisky producers who release end products, simply to fit around some tenuous brand marketing, need to up their game.