Edinburgh Distilleries: New Stills in an Old Town
Edinburgh was once a town of illicit stills. By night, the streets would be reekie with the wafts of secretive distillation venting from under the earth, as rickety homemade stills burbled and clanked away in urban basements. We’re long past the days of distillation being an illicit, moonlit activity, but Edinburgh has also lost a huge part of its legitimate distilling legacy.
Until last year, the North British grain distillery was the last whisky producing entity in the city, periodically blanketing Edinburgh’s old and new towns in a comforting, weetabix-y aroma of malted barley. Glen Sciennes, the last representative of the 20th century malt distilleries closed its doors in 1925.
History inevitably cycles, and a good idea remains a good idea no matter which century it’s implemented. And if there’s one thing that we know for certain, it’s that making whisky is a very good idea. The first part of the 21st century has seen the making of plans for multiple reintroductions of wild single malt distilleries – The Port of Leith distillery has broken ground for their compact vertical distillery at the tip of the dock where the Royal Yacht Britannia resides. Crabbie’s new Leith distillery has only just started up production at the beginning of 2020 (or 2018 if their exploratory Chain Pier spirit is included). Just pipping them to the post (again, depending on Chain Pier pedantry) is the very new and very shiny Holyrood distillery which shelters at the edge of Holyrood Park in Southside Edinburgh’s leafy St Leonard’s district, which started distilling in late 2019.
These distilleries are at the sharp end of the wedge, at any rate – jointly spearheading Edinburgh’s resurgence as a malt whisky producing city. The Cask 88 team have been privileged to have a look around both Holyrood and Crabbie’s distilleries, and we look forward to seeing the Port of Leith when they’re ready to see us.
This week, let us take you around the Holyrood distillery and show you how they do things. Next week – Crabbie’s!
The Holyrood Distillery
The first room on the tour establishes that Holyrood are a young distillery, willing to present whisky through a very modern lens. The walls bear colourful banners that encourage guests to focus on their senses – of taste, of smell and the full motor-sensory feedback afforded by the trigeminal nerve. I’ll wager that the good old boys at the whisky bar, with their fine detail knowledge of Glengoyne’s Lyne arm angle and Mortlach’s 2.81 distillation, have never cast a thought to what their trigeminal nerves are doing as they sip their drams. More’s the pity, as Holyrood highlight how integral to the whisky experience this sensory apparatus is – the trigeminal response to whisky being not only the experience of taste and aroma, but also that reassuring warmth you feel as it goes down.
As with many young startup distilleries, Holyrood face the challenge of whisky generating no cashflow for at least three years after its distilled. This is one reason why you’ll see many new distilleries bringing out their own gin while they wait. Holyrood take their gin very seriously, and have an entire segment of the tour devoted to its production. I’ll not say more about it here, as whisky is more our jam, but be assured that the whole range of Holyrood gin is exactingly made and quite delicious. We very much recommend that you visit and explore for yourselves.
The Holyrood Whisky
So, on to Holyrood distillery’s whisky. If you look at the creation of new distilleries like the breeding of dogs, then Holyrood is both a scrappy mongrel and a bold attempt to breed in some new characteristics.
Old, established ‘Pure breed’ distilleries typically have a tight focus on what they are specialised to do. Wiry, web-footed island distilleries are usually hyper-focused on a peated style. Large, good-natured Speysiders tend to produce easygoing malt that cooperates well in blends, or goes down smoothly on its own.
Chocolate Malt and Brewer’s Yeast
Holyrood do not yet know what their speciality is. Their fermentations are long, 4 day affairs that are carried out in stainless steel washbacks. They can incorporate any combination of 4 different yeasts (2 from the distilling catalogue, 2 from the brewing catalogue), which allows for experimentation in the fruity/malty/nutty flavours that various yeast breeds can bring to the fermentation.
The mash bill that feeds these fermentations is especially experimental: taking a page from the beer brewer’s handbook, Holyrood don’t just use plain malted barley. They use a full range of six increasingly toasted forms of malt, allowing them a chance to introduce biscuity, caramel and/or toasted flavours to their wort.
There are vanishingly few malt whiskies in the world that use dark malts to carry the chocolatey, dense flavours of a good stout or porter into their whisky, but I think Holyrood are really on to something here. Innovations like this keep things fresh and interesting, while Holyrood are still firmly grounded in long-established whisky making wisdom. Whisky generates a lot of value from preserved traditions, but working with and building on such traditions prevents things from stagnating and generates a few interesting waves.
This would already be enough variety for most distilleries, but Holyrood also intend to produce both peated and unpeated varieties. Then, of course, there are the casks as well.
In all, they plan to regularly produce 4 variants of their base style and let customers figure out what their preferences are. Through the tour, visitors are encouraged to give their input as to what they personally enjoy in whisky – advice that the distillery team are constantly listening for. Holyrood whisky may be one of the most democratic spirits out there.
The stills where the magic happens are very tall, and very slender. Though Glenmorangie maintain the title for tallest stills in Scotland, being in the presence of Holyrood’s stills gives the impression of immense height. They achieve this by being a third the capacity (5000l & 3750l) of Glenmorangie’s – so all that neck really stands out. They bear aggressive heating, which concentrates the congeners that get forced up the swan neck, but also ensures that heavy and oily elements don’t make it out of the still.
One thing that Holyrood distillery haven’t lost too much sleep over is their water source. It’s good ol’ Edinburgh tap water. It’s not terribly glamorous, admittedly, but it’s of a very high quality and abundantly available. Arguments will no doubt twist and rage into the small hours as to how much the water influences the taste of the whisky, but Holyrood don’t have time to debate – they’re getting on with making their malts.
Respectful to, But Also Free From Tradition
This distillery has the advantage of being entirely new, free to create their own traditions from scratch – and if you get involved now, then it will be your tastes and opinions that shape what Holyrood whisky could become.
Next week, we’ll take you around Crabbie’s new distillery; a new chapter in a history that stretches back over 200 years.
For now, let me leave you with a few more highlights of the visit.