Last Autumn I wrote about my trip to Holyrood Distillery following my lucky win of a “custom cask” through a Whisky Shop competition.
I found that the distillery focused on developing flavour in all areas of the whisky making process; fermentation, distillation and maturation. Whisky was being distilled in small batches, producing a range of new-makes, made using differing varieties of yeast and sometimes including speciality malts. The possibilities in terms of a “custom cask” were endless, so my previous article concluded with me facing a difficult decision over which type of new make should be distilled, and which kind of cask to mature it in.
It seemed pointless asking for a whisky that was similar to a peated Islay, or sherried Speyside malt, when there are many high-quality examples from a range of distilleries available to purchase at any time. I wanted a whisky that would be unique to me, and fitting for Holyrood, situated as it is in the creative hotspot and cultural melting pot that is the City of Edinburgh. So, in the end I chose a spirit that included 80% Spring barley and 20% chocolate malt in the mash bill, with two types of wine yeast used during fermentation, which when distilled was filled into a ruby port barrique.
I had hoped a follow-up article would give some detail on the distillation and cask filling process. I was looking forward to experiencing the sights, smells and sounds that such a trip to the distillery and warehouse would bring. I had anticipated touching the cask that would hold my spirit, tasting the new make, even sticking my nose in the barrel. Sadly, Covid restrictions prevented a journey so far from home and instead I was sent a short video of the cask being filled and a photo.
Therefore, I decided to reach and arrange an interview that would shed light on the challenges faced by a fledgling distillery in the midst of a pandemic, provide some more information on the distillation process at Holyrood, and give an opportunity for us to hear of their plans for the future. Over the winter there has been a great deal of change at the distillery. There’s a new Managing Director, Nick Ravenhall (formerly Managing Director of Atom Brands), and a new Distillery Manager, Marc Watson (formerly of John Crabbie Co. and Eden Mill). Whilst the distillery founders remain (David Roberston, formerly of Macallan and Whyte & Mackay, and Canadian SMWS directors, Rob and Kelly Carpenter), there has understandably been a change in emphasis and direction in recent months.
Nick and Marc took the time to meet online to bring us up to date with developments, and they’ve also sent a new make sample and a sample from my own cask for me to taste:
Malt: It must have been quite a difficult time for the distillery, facing lockdown in your first year of whisky production. Can you tell us a bit about how the last year has impacted upon Holyrood and about your new role?
Nick: The business model at Holyrood was built around a busy visitor centre, and revenue from tourists, so Covid has brought a big challenge to the distillery. I started on January 1st and have been brought in to bring a new mindset, where Holyrood can look to trade itself out of the situation it’s in, assuming that we are without most tourists for the next two years.
As soon as I came into the distillery, I knew that I wanted to get Marc on board, because he is one of the few people who could really understand this all from an operational perspective. He has a unique background in the industry. I don’t know of many other operators who have had an apprenticeship like he’s had in whisky, who can say that they’ve done small scale production at Eden Mill, or large scale at Bonnington, and also gone off out to Shetland to do some work out there. This is the kind of outlook we need at Holyrood right now, so I’m happy he’s come to join us.
The lockdowns haven’t been entirely negative for us, because before we were trying to do way too many things, so it’s meant we’ve had to re-focus, and it’s bought an opportunity to change our mindset. Our gin still had only been switched on five times, and the distillery wasn’t operating at full capacity, so there’s clearly places where we can make immediate steps to bring more income to the business in positive ways, starting with the release of our HolyXXXX gin in April.
David and Rob are still here. David is clearly in Marc’s world as a distiller, and he’s supporting Marc, giving input on liquid creation. It’s actually good to have the tension between their mindsets, with David’s traditional whisky making background, and Marc coming from a craft, start-up kind of model.
Malt: Marc, you’ve very recently come over from Bonnington, which is quite different to the small batch production at Holyrood, can you tell us a bit about the differences between the two?
Marc: Yes, Bonnington’s output is half a million litres a year, using two recipes, producing two new makes. The one that is made 90% of the time is the Yardhead flavour profile, and the other is the peated model. At Holyrood, when I came into the distillery Nick gave me the production sheet for the year, and it already had 19 recipes on it! It felt a little bit like home, because it was a bit like that at Eden Mill, where we had 14 mash bills at one point. So when I saw this, I was just excited. Holyrood has this great mix of a heritage building, with a contemporary approach, and it’s exciting.
Malt: I was surprised when I visited Holyrood by how many different mash bills were on the go. Does that bring you challenges in production, is it more arduous?
Marc: Yes and no at the same time. The arduous thing about it is making sure that it’s all amazing, which is the bit that we spend the most time over, and it’s the most worthwhile bit. But, it means we have to take a lot of care, with the feints, with the treatment of different yeasts, the choice of malt, and the volume of speciality malt. With my background in a similar setting, and with the data from the last year of production, it allows us to really plan for the year ahead, making sure there’s a good rhythm, so when we use different mash bills it doesn’t feel as arduous.
Malt: I’d have thought that running the ‘custom cask’ programme has led to some curveballs and some interesting mash bills too.
Marc: Yes it has, and it’s meant that we have a really great variety in new make spirits. As I’ve come into the distillery, I’ve been able to take a look at all of them, and we’ve been categorising them, as we kept samples for our clients and for ourselves. There’s this great sea of 10cl bottles, but now we are able to see what elements from this we can use going forwards.
Malt: When I visited for the ‘custom cask’ programme, there were three different types of regular new make being produced, sweet, fruity and peaty. Is that still the case?
Nick: No, this is one of the things that we’ve changed. We felt that there is a need for Holyrood to make whisky that tells its own story. With the three types of new make, it was almost as if Holyrood was trying to create whisky with an approach to flavour that was too influenced by what had been produced elsewhere, and it’s not our role to make whisky to try and educate people about flavour. We’ve got this brilliant distillery, that is massively flexible. We don’t have a trading history, so we are not tied into the industrial single-malt model. We don’t have a hundred years of heritage that means we have to keep making the same new make every day.
So, we’ve really unshackled ourselves from that kind of thinking. There’s no point us making a peaty spirit, just because some people like peaty, it’s more important for us to examine things that just haven’t been examined. For example, we’re running champagne yeast trials, Bordeaux yeast trials, and Burgundy yeast trials, working in partnership with Berry Brothers and Rudd. It seemed an obvious thing for us to do, to explore wine yeasts with them, and have a look at it, because we are not beholden to laying down a singular recipe.
In the full context of it, looking at Edinburgh as a city, and our unique brewing heritage, we feel that we can really bring something different to the conversation, and bring something different to Scotch. We also want to be a part of making Edinburgh become a legitimate Scotch whisky destination, and if we are to do that, then we need to do something that calls people who care about whisky to come to our distillery. This means that we need to be doing something more than just presenting something that has been aged in sherry, like you can get anywhere else. We have to do something that is new, but also relevant, if that makes sense?
Malt: Yes, I think it does. Part of this reflected in why I chose the ‘custom cask’ that I did, including speciality malt, and matured in a port cask. For me, often whisky really has a connection to a sense of place, so it didn’t make any sense to ask you to make a whisky that reminded me of Skye, Islay, or the rugged west Highlands.
Nick: There’s a lot of ways that we can be connected to a place, and I’m going to make you and Marc laugh and throw together two words, and they are “mind terroir.” I think that the land affects what we do, and here it gave us great brewing that is part of our DNA in Edinburgh. One of the challenges I’ve thrown to Marc, and to his production team, is to make a really great drinking dram, even at three years old that has an Edinburgh DNA. That’s not just because financially that would be great, but if we pull apart the model of industrial malt whisky, then there’s no reason why we can’t. We can question a lot, so for example, Marc’s got great ideas about filling strength, and is asking why it’s at 63.5% across so much of the industry? So we can experiment with different filling strengths.
I have a view that through using fermentation and speciality malts to bring flavour forward, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t strive for the goal that it is good to drink at three years and try to upset the applecart a little bit. Can we get people to see that there is something beyond age statement in Scotch? I know we have a lot of non-age statement whiskies out there, but often they aren’t driven from the point of saying “let’s make a killer NAS whisky,” they’re driven from a place where there are stock shortages, and it has to be done because the age profile cannot be consistent. It’s quite a different mindset to say that we are going to try and do this as a thing.
Malt: You’ve recently launched a new cask programme, with a ‘Made by Edinburgh’ mash bill recipe, can you tell is a bit about that? Is it going to be the primary new make produced going forward?
Marc: We were looking to put together a new recipe, for this cask programme and ‘Made by Edinburgh’ is the result. The recipe is inspired by the local brewing heritage, using Lothian Spring Barley, crystal malt, a small portion of chocolate malt, and fermented with Edinburgh Brewer’s Yeast.
We started to talk to Lothian farmers, and to malt suppliers, and they asked if we wanted it be the base malt going forwards, and the answer was of course we want that. We’re not talking “terroir” here, it’s broader than that, more “mind terroir” as Nick said. We want to make something that is ours, but that gives us the scope to ask, “what’s next?” What’s next for Holyrood, and what’s next for whisky?
We’ve got so much data from the past year that no other distillery has, on speciality malts, on yeasts. This has led into the ‘Made by Edinburgh’ programme, which will then lead into the development of our base malt, whilst still keeping the experimental side going. Each conversation pushes us on to the next conversation. We’re very open and honest about how we’ve got where we are, and it’s really refreshing to be a part of, because we’re always going to be asking “what’s next?”
Nick: We’re trying to make sure that we continue doing as much experimentation as we can, some of that is through work with partners, such as Berry Brothers, as I mentioned earlier. There’s an ongoing piece of specialty malt research with a PhD student at Herriot Watt University. Also, more collaboration is planned with independent bottlers. We’re doing some work with Christian Dully, out in Switzerland, who is interested in super-long fermentation times. So, we’re going to do a week of fermentation with him, going 140hrs plus, and we’re going to use floor malted Maris Otter barley as we wanted to explore that concept. It all means it’s not easy to answer questions about what we’re going to use in the future, and what will be core range, because it’s all quite variable at the moment. The hope is that all of these experiments and pieces of research will give us data and learning that will guide us in the future.
Malt: I think it’s exciting that you’re asking those questions. It’s not the kind of thing you see coming from many of the more established distilleries.
Nick: Yes, it’s a completely different mindset. The established distilleries have a job to do. When they change their production, and the whisky changes as a result, then there is controversy, an uproar, and a lot of customer pushback. I remember in the 90’s when Bowmore changed significantly, I was with them at the time, and we really suffered for it.
Sometimes, we are very quick to discredit the large scale and industrial model, and we’re quick to criticise it, because there isn’t a huge amount of innovation. But that’s because distillery character, and the attachment of fans to that distillery character, means that it’s a very emotional area. Whereas, we are in a different position, because no-one knows who we are, and we don’t have set characteristics, so we can experiment freely. It means we’re not limited to one distillery character, and we don’t want to be.
Marc: Nick and I are very aligned in that, in that this allows us to be unburdened. To really be able to ask, “what’s next?” you have to be unburdened. So, for us to be tied to one character, or style, or cut point, heritage malt, or non-heritage malt, flavour profile, or whatever else we might consider, doesn’t make sense. To be unburdened from that, gives us the chance to refine the spirit in any way that we want to develop it and refine it. We’re already playing with speciality malt and wine yeasts, and we’re not driven by getting the highest yield. The important thing is developing our flavour profile and getting it where we want it to go.
Working at Bonnington’s we were planning ahead 17 years into the future, yet here, when I sat down with Nick, we were looking 3 years down the line, wanting to develop something that is as good as any other older release. We can do it if we set out the flavour profile for it to be good at a young age. We’re looking at how to get some of the flavours that are associated with older whiskies into the new make, through yeast and barley, so that it is already there, and you are not as dependent on the cask.
Malt: This seems quite different to some of the other new distilleries, where flavour seems often to be led by the casks, for example, with the prominent use of STR casks to impart flavour quickly.
Nick: It is quite fascinating watching the new distilleries and seeing how they all take different approaches to developing flavour in their whisky. There are some great examples out there of distilleries that achieve this in the new make, like Chichibu. It does this day in, day out, and when I tried their new makes back in 2008 I was absolutely floored by their approach in how they were putting their new make together. We can draw a lot of inspiration from how the new world distillers are forced to tackle whisky production. New world producers that are doing well consistently ask themselves ‘how do we differentiate ourselves from Scotland?’ Of course, some are just making poor facsimiles of Scotch, but the best, aren’t.
As a small distiller in Scotland, we have also got to ask the same question. There’s a lot of great, fantastic, iconic distilleries, who have shown the world how whisky can be made, and it’s not our job to copy them, but it is our job to add to that conversation. There’s no point us making something that has already been made before, unless it was something that was made before and people moved away from it, and we want to re-examine it. I love the way that Marc describes it as unburdened, because it lets us embrace different elements, explore them, and not feel bounded or held back.
Malt: In the recipe for my ‘custom cask’ we’ve got 80% Spring barley, 20% chocolate malt, and 2 wine yeasts used in fermentation. If Spring Barley is to be your base malt type, can you tell us a bit more about it?
Marc: Spring barley is the regular malt we’re getting in at the moment, it’s the one that going forward we’ll have a little bit more to do with as our base malt, and hopefully we’ll be able to work towards knowing exactly where the malt is coming from. For us it’s important as part of making an Edinburgh malt.
Malt: Turning to the yeast, I know I’ve got two kinds of wine yeasts (i-yeast BC10 Bayanus, a bit of an all-rounder in wine production, and i-Yeast Grand Zin, used in wines such as Zinfandel) used in my new make, what would you expect them to give in terms of flavour?
Marc: The wine yeasts used impart a lot of fruitiness, so tropical notes, and a whole heap of red currants are contributed to the flavour too.
Malt: What sort of different flavours do you get from wine yeasts then? You mentioned using Champagne yeasts earlier, how do they affect the spirit?
Marc: It’s incredible. We’ve done back-to-back, Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. The difference with all three of them is quite interesting. When you open the bag of yeast, you can smell the difference immediately, also when you pitch the yeast, and after twelve hours of fermentation when you come in the next morning, all of a sudden there’s this burst of different flavour. Yesterday it was the first wash run of the Burgundy yeast, and Peter and Elliot were taking samples, and for some reason they were talking about cheap prosecco. Then they handed me the glass, and it was so effervescent, just like a rosé prosecco, and it was just incredible. Then today, coming off the still, you just notice this difference, especially when compared to say the champagne yeast. In blind tastings, with the champagne yeast, there’s even more effervescence. There’s a fizziness to it that I just can’t explain, a lightness to it, white grape, and black pepperiness that comes through.
Then the interesting part is what we do with this input from the yeast, and it comes back to how we can build the foundations of what we want to do going forward. So, if we know we want to build that kind of flavour profile, we know it can be found in champagne mashes. Burgundy brings a different flavour profile, it’s got all these red fruits, and a hint of bitterness. So when we go to build a whisky in three years time we’ve got all these building blocks to work with, and a lot of variations available to us.
Malt: That all sounds very interesting, and I’m looking forward to trying the results of the experimentation! It’s not just the ingredients and fermentation that affect the spirit and its flavour, but also the shape of the stills, and at Holyrood the stills are very tall, with long lyne arms. How does this come through in the spirit?
Marc: It was very interesting coming to Holyrood, because at Bonnington we had gone for an older style of spirit still, that was squat and fat, to get deeper cuts and more weight to the spirit. We even went without a ‘boil ball’ to reduce the amount of reflux. At Holyrood, there are hugely tall stills, with a “boil ball,” and a water-cooled purifier, all in pursuit of a light and pure spirit. Coming in, I was wondering if the spirit would almost be too light! I look for three things in a spirit, the flavour of course, but also the texture and the length of it.
However, the weight of the spirit that comes off these stills is massive, it’s oily, it’s robust, and it makes it really malleable. For me, that’s the key to it. I was worried it wouldn’t be as malleable due to the height of the stills, and the slightly descending lyne arms, plus the purifier. Yet, the spirit is really malleable that comes off the stills. We cut really high for some of the wine yeast spirits and can cut low to get into some of the more weighty characteristics, and that flexibility is definitely there. It’s developing amazingly, but also remember we’re only into year two, so the character of the still has a long way to go, but the flexibility allows us to experiment more, play a bit more, and play different tunes with the stills.
Malt: Finally, I’ve obviously been quite lucky in winning a Holyrood “custom cask,” and this year the ‘Made in Edinburgh’ cask programme has been launched. However, for most people this is out of reach in terms of cost. I saw the other day that you’ve started a partnership with “Cask Share.” Can you tell us about this? Is this something that will allow those with more limited budgets to buy into some Holyrood spirit?
Nick: Exactly. Through the pandemic there has been a lot of activity in the purchasing of casks by whisky investment funds, and whisky has been treated as an asset, with the cost of casks tripling in some cases. The value of whisky previously has always been determined by the quality of the liquid produced for blending, or in the case of single malts, the quality of what is in the bottle. That’s a well understood way of valuing something, but when whisky casks are tripling in value, as they are being treated as an asset class in a pandemic, it makes even the idea of buying a single cask really difficult. Not only does the pricing go up, but as a producer ourselves it makes us really nervous about where and how your casks get sold. So, even on our “Made by Edinburgh” cask agreements we have a number of conditions regarding the reselling of casks, ensuring we have first right of refusal, so we can at least have some due diligence over the pricing of the casks.
What’s great about partnering with Cask Share is that their model steps around all of that. We work with them, and say how much a bottle will cost, which protects the customer from what is happening in the market and means that for a pretty fair price you can pick up a bottle of something that in the future is going to be very special. It’s a wonderful way of making sure that whisky remains accessible.
Cask Share not only make it easier for people to buy into a share of a cask, but they also make it easier for us as a new and small distiller to get our liquid out into the world. Our ‘Made by Edinburgh’ cask programme is exciting, but really, it’s only getting in front of a certain type of person who can afford a cask. So, I like the idea of being able to sell some of the stuff we are making to people who can only afford a bottle, and they are letting us do that, and that’s really cool.
It also means that when we do these experimentations, rather than wondering what we should do with these random single casks, we can look to put it out through Cask Share. If you’re a whisky geek interested in different yeasts, you might have to wait a few years as it matures, but you can buy a bottle for the future at today’s prices. It’s a nice way of being able to be closer to what we hope our fan base will be, which is people who really care about whisky.
Malt: That sounds like a pretty good concept. With regards whisky being treated as an asset in such a way, do you think it’s at all sustainable?
Nick: No, of course it’s not. It’s going to lead to it becoming harder and harder to buy casks on the secondary market. There’s no value for a brand to see their casks selling for five times the value that they sold them for originally. It skews the perception of their product. As a brand manager, from a marketing perspective, I’d be worrying about that. Also, it just makes things harder for you when you are trying to place a value on your liquid, so I’d imagine it would just mean that the availability of liquid will be even more restricted in terms of who it is made available to in the future. In the end the value will stop growing, the bubble will burst as those who are just there as investors will sell off their assets, and it will lead to a re-adjustment of cask prices. In the meantime, we’re doing the best we can as a producer to prevent our stock being used in such a way by investors, and to nip it in the bud.
Malt: Well, I can only wish you every success in that. We’ve covered a wide range of subjects, and it sounds like there are exciting times ahead for the distillery. Thanks a lot for your time and openness, and all the best with your ongoing experimentation. Now I’m looking forward to trying the new make and cask sample you’ve kindly sent:
The new make for my custom cask was distilled in late November and filled into a ruby port barrique on December 4th2020.
Holyrood New Make Sprit – 80% Spring Barley 20% Chocolate Malt, with wine yeasts
On the nose: Brought to mind the smell of crushed blackberries whilst out picking late summer. Also, some hints of cocoa, lemon zest, red fruit gums, some floral notes I can’t quite define, and cracked black pepper.
In the mouth: Chocolate icing, red berries, mango, light syrupy notes (like from tinned peaches), cinnamon whirls, a bit of citrus, more black pepper and a hint of chilli on the finish.
Holyrood Chocolate Malt – Five Months Old – Port Cask
Colour: A pale rose pink.
On the nose: This has only kissed a cask, so there’s a lot of similar notes to the above, with some interesting developments. There’s now rose water thrown into the mix, and the berry notes are stronger with a greater richness to them. Floral notes remain, almost lavender like, and there’s a hint of char alongside the spice.
In the mouth: That rose water from the nose is now full on Turkish Delight. There’s chocolate bourbon biscuits, summer fruits, a bit of earthiness (perhaps the start of the tannins coming in) and the light syrup from before is starting to turn golden. At the finish the flavour lifts, as the more tropical fruity notes come in alongside the pepper.
This is definitely the most pleasantly flavoursome new make I’ve come across (as a comparison Waterford was equally as strongly flavoured, but a lot more chalky and farmyard-y!). It’s interesting to see how just a few months in a cask is starting to have an effect. In some ways the new make, and young spirit, bring to mind more of a flavoured gin than a whisky as we normally know it. The expected yeast influences are present in the spirit produced, and the chocolate malt adds exactly what you’d anticipate, chocolate and bit of richness. It is hard for me to envisage how this will turn out in a few years’ time, but it’s definitely a good start to the journey, and I’m excited to see how it fares as it matures.
 Atom Brands includes That Boutique-y Whisky Co. (Rum and Gin too), Ableforth’s Bathtub Gin and Rumbullion!, as well as Drinks by the Dram. These are all brands that have emerged alongside the online retailer Master of Malt in the Atom portfolio.
Images courtesy of Holyrood Distillery.