Lofty ambitions

Something rather extraordinary is emerging on a tiny pocket of land on the outer reaches of Leith, where a mini skyscraper is taking shape on the edge of the harbour overlooking the Royal Yacht Britannia. The site is home to what will be Scotland’s first vertical single malt distillery, the vision of childhood pals Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher under the name of Port of Leith. Unfiltered editor Richard Goslan paid a visit


When we visit on a crisp April morning, the structure is standing proudly nine storeys high, with the exterior cladding going on and the first pieces of actual distilling equipment now in place. I’m standing on the top floor with operations manager Andy Colman, on what will soon be the bar mezzanine, a stunning viewpoint with 360-degree views across the Firth of Forth to Fife and back across the entire cityscape of Leith and Edinburgh. Once the walls go on, it will be worth a visit purely to soak up the views, never mind the whisky.

We shiver on the currently exposed top floor as Andy explains how the upper levels will be devoted to the pleasure of enjoying whisky, food and more, with a shop, bar and restaurant and different dining areas. There will also be lab space for analysis and experimentation being carried out in association with students from the International Centre for Brewing and Distilling (ICBD) at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University, as well as flexible floor space for exhibitions or public events.

Work your way down and you start to get into the initial phases of where the whisky will actually be made. The ‘production areas’ start on the fourth floor, with the distilling process taking advantage of gravity at every stage.

“This is where we’ll bring in all our raw ingredients, our malt and our water, where we have our hot and cold liquor tanks and our mill and our grist case,” says Andy as we reach the fourth floor. “From here there are very few pumps required for the process, because the mill or the grist case sits directly above the mash tun, so we drop the grist into the mash tun, and mash it on the floor below. The tops of the fermenters are on that floor as well. We fill the fermenters, and then from there the wash will drop down into the stills below. And then the spirit tanks sit directly below the stills, so again, there’s no need to pump.”

The 1.5 tonne mash tun and seven washbacks are already installed when we visit, while the cut-out spaces are ready and waiting for a pair of stills from the Speyside Copperworks in Elgin, capable of producing 400,000 litres of pure alcohol per year.

Fresh (almost) out of the wrapper equipment has now been installed

Port of Leith operations manager Andy Colman

For visitors, it’s going to mean not just incredible views from the upper levels, but a chance to get up close to the entire distillation process. “We want to show the raw nuts and bolts view of how we make our spirit, so our visitors will get to see everything we do,” says Andy.

“There’s no tucking things away out of sight, you get to come and you see everything as it’s happening. Even with the design, that will be reflected to expose all the workings of the distillery. It’s as far as you can imagine from your concept of what a ‘traditional’ distillery looks like.”
The spirit may well be unconventional as well. As founder Ian Stirling says, this landmark vertical distillery should reflect a decidedly modern approach to whisky making at Port of Leith.

The focus from the outset has been on a belief that the most complex part of making whisky wasn’t in the distilling, where you have fairly strict parameters, but in making the wash – the beer that is distilled into whisky.

“Deciding which yeasts you use, how long you ferment for, at what temperature, we were really struck that so little was said about these elements,” says Ian. “It seemed like a massive opportunity in the production process.”

The team at Port of Leith have already conducted extensive trials with different yeast types and fermentation periods, in search of a distinctively fruity flavour profile. They have also been working with a specific farm, Upper Bolton near Haddington, which is less than 20 miles from the distillery. The farm is growing laureate barley for the first distillations to take place, with the possibility of introducing new or heritage varieties for further experimentation in the future.

Port of Leith founder Ian Stirling

“For me, the wonder of whisky has always been the amount of complexity you can have in just one drink, but it’s balance and all the different elements working in harmony that I’m after,” says Ian. “There shouldn’t be peat or a sherry cask overpowering everything. If we had a really ripe peach, or ripe apricot, singing through that whisky, that would be something I'd like to achieve. I'd like to bring that forward and have it more apparent in what we produce. There are so many elements to play with, but by nailing that fermentation and carrying it through the distillate, I think we can achieve something pretty special.”

Production is now on track to start by the end of 2022, and there’s no doubt that something special is on its way. “It’s been nine years since we first set out with the ambition to build this distillery and despite the many trials and tribulations, it’s been an incredibly fun journey,” says Ian. “We’ve gathered a fantastic group of passionate, engaged investors, and built a really strong team around us. It’s been more complicated and more challenging than we could ever have imagined, but now that we’ve done all the work, all the research and all the planning…we’re just itching to get producing.”