Whisky (and gin) galore!
We are living, it seems, through the third wave not just of coffee, but of whisky too. A generation ago, the Scottish Malt Whisky Society saved the industry and opened its doors for Leithers-in-the-know at the Vaults.
For the first time in a hundred years, new distilleries are opening in Edinburgh. This new wave emphasises on local sourcing, distillation experimentation and technical finesse in the pursuit of quality.
Holyrood Distillery stole a march on the city, converting the old Engine Shed bakery and tofu factory up at St Leonard’s. (This isn’t a spoof - they really did make tofu there, and it was delicious.) It takes time to make whisky, and in the distilling business then time is money. So like many entrants to the market, Holyrood has been selling gin until their whisky can be sold as such.
Their range are certainly amongst the best of the hundreds of new Scottish gins that I’ve tried. Height of Arrows is the main brand. It drinks excellently, with fresh notes and a clean, crisp taste. Distilled with extra juniper it is sold as Height of Arrows Bright; Height of Arrows Heavy uses roasted spices. Best of all is Funk, distilled with fermented juniper, like a traditional lemonade of the Balkans.
The fermentation adds complexity and depth to the post-tour cocktail: a First Class, with the gin, peach melba beer, and rooibos tea. A drink with whisky, nettle, plum and lemon is well made, but too sweet. That called an Arrival Highball, named after their first whisky (Arrival, not Highball).
We stumble up to St Leonard’s for the launch weekend, having heard that Auld Reekie residents get a free tour. Our guide is excellent and informed. Holyrood don’t intend to make a house whisky; each release will be made with different malts and yeasts. Arrival is an excellent whisky and remarkably smooth.
The marketing and packaging is clever, recalling the design of a traditional Edinburgh beer bottle. There is vanilla and apple pie on the nose, but not a hint of sweetness on the mouth. It tastes much older than 3 years; perhaps the darker malts help. There is complexity on the palate, with a mild oiliness and a strong finish. It is an utterly brilliant whisky, tasting far better than many brands that retail at the similar £68 price point.
For days now, I have been drinking this with cheese. It is a food whisky and a sipping whisky. I really hope they kept some barrels back to test this again with age; I suspect another decade in the barrel will produce a world-class drink. The team know their craft and have produced something exceptional. It is genuinely brilliant to have such a serious distillery in Edinburgh.
To have two such distilleries, however, is beyond luck. The vertical distillery next to Ocean Terminal is now open, owned by the people behind Lind & Lime gin.
I’ve been meaning to mention Lind & Lime for ages. It is, hands down, the best gin tour in the UK. The product is exceptional, which helps, and is just fun. There is no pretence on a tour of what is, however you dress it up, an industrial manufacturing unit on Coburg Street. But a double G&T on arrival helps, along with the chance to fill your own bottle, and interesting facts about the role of limes in combatting scurvy.
Now the vertical distillery has opened, the bar has been lifted again – quite literally. I am sure The Port of Leith Distillery is going to make a lot of money, even though they are planning not to release any whisky until 2031. It is right next to the Royal Yacht, yards from the tram stop, and has an ambitious restaurant-bar. The tour at £25 a head seemed steep, but in retrospect was fair.
Like Holyrood, the distillers here are serious about their craft, seemingly driven by a desire for experimentation and variation. In the world of high-end spirits, where the guiding light is consistency, these two distilleries are laying down the gauntlet to an ancient industry and saying, loudly, “watch us.”
After a stop in the shop, the tour starts on floor seven, and there are stunning views of Leith, Edinburgh, East Lothian and Fife. From the inside, the building is an architectural gem. There are windows onto the world outside, each throwing a stunning vista as you turn your gaze. The machinery – pipes, hoppers, tubes – all gleams.
Chrome levers stand proud, waiting to be pushed and pulled just as soon as distillation starts. A grain elevator – no bigger than a drainpipe – will twirl the barley up from the dockside below. The tour descends. As the inside rooms change function, the outside views shift with altering light and fresh glimpses of the sea.
The mash tuns on the fifth floor are so enormous they are suspended from their own reinforced steel beams; the building was designed and built around them. Most dramatic are two looming copper stills, nestled either side of a giant window with a view over the Forth. The light plays tricks on the copper and shows them to be darker than they are up close, making the sunlight bouncing off the water seem bluer.
This is a modern cathedral. A cynic might say these are twin altars to whisky and tourism – but the building design is so impressive, I don’t care. I am won over.
The team are almost ready to go into production; the boiler needs to be repaired first. Despite the fact not a drop of whisky has been produced, our guide, himself a jobbing actor, banters knowledgably with our group. We are six local friends joined by a curious Iranian engineering student who is probably groaning at being landed with us.
However, he proves very helpful in answering some of my obscure technical questions about the water source. Like everything in this distillery, much effort has gone into sourcing the water. Rather than turning on the taps, the team has bored a 120m aquifer under the Firth of Forth to hit a private water source. Laureate-strain barley comes from Upper Bolton farm in East Lothian. The maltings are in Alloa, just beyond the view of the top-floor window. This whisky has terroir.
The choice of yeasts is important, as the Holyrood distillery have discovered. The Port of Leith distillery intend to work with three: traditional distillers’ yeast, and rarer Norwegian and Belgian strains. Mixed in different quantities, they will form different recipes.
Seated in the tasting room, we are given two new-make spirits to try; both have identical ingredients save the strain of yeast used. There is a pronounced difference between them: one is citric and soft, the other harsher and more complex. For now, the samples are being made off-site in Glasgow, but will be the main-stay of the tasting room just as soon as production starts.
We are also given small glasses of a tawny port and an oloroso sherry, drawn from barrels shipped to Leith, which will in turn be re-used to age the whisky. These fortified wines are superb; just the thing for Christmas and available for a reasonable price. Finally, we are served a dram of Bruichladdich; the founders there have helped the founders here.
The 8th floor bar and restaurant is exceptional. The views seem to stretch even further, and the sun sets red in the sky. A dozen wines by the glass are thoughtfully chosen; Iberia is well represented at a fair price.
Small plates and sharing boards abound. Confit black salsify is coated with hazelnuts and served on roasted garlic hummus. A tartiflette is made with brie and haggis. The chicken liver parfait was very good indeed, proud atop a generous slice of brioche with pear agrodolce, that sweet and sour Italian condiment which screams ‘eat more of me’.
A sausage roll appears, well made with a pancetta and mushroom duxelle. “That’s a powerful sausage roll – almost venison-tasting,” someone comments. This kitchen has skill: an Arbroath smokie scotch egg held together very well and came with ‘NYC deli flavours’. Whatever they were, they were good. Roasted Jerusalem artichoke was set against a plate of fennel, charred citrus, goat curd and toasted buckwheat. This was all extremely enjoyable food, making for, along with the whisky, good times.
We are offered a final dram of table whisky; the name underselling what is another very good product. We stagger home, stopping at Mistral to meet a friend to tell them excitedly about another great bar in Leith. ■
In the world of high-end spirits these two are laying down the gauntlet saying loudly, watch us
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