Port of Leith
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‘This is an exciting time!’ How Scotland’s whisky industry went from bust to boom
A glass of whisky on a mossy rock by a fast-flowing beck.
‘You can’t replace single malt scotch; it’s the gold standard.’ Photograph: Irina Naoumova/Alamy
New distilleries are popping up, while old ones are reopening and modernising; some vintages fetch £10,000 a bottle. It’s a new golden age for scotch
On the eighth floor of the Port of Leith distillery, the latest chapter of the boom-and-bust story of Scottish whisky is under construction. This week, lifts are being installed in what will soon be the UK’s only vertical whisky distillery. The copper stills were supposed to have arrived from Elgin but this is a team as accustomed to delays as whisky distillers are to waiting for their spirit to mature. “No one has built a building like this before,” says Port of Leith co-owner Ian Stirling.
Port of Leith distillery under construction.
If you’re looking for a symbol of the rise of the Scottish whisky industry, this bold black column soaring 40 metres into the skies over north Edinburgh’s historic port is it. It has taken four years and £13.5m to build the distillery, all of which has come from individual private investors. Meanwhile, Britain has left the EU (home to many of Scottish whisky’s biggest export destinations), and we’ve seen a pandemic, the worst cost-of-living crisis for a generation and an energy crisis that’s hitting the UK harder than anywhere in western Europe. And it takes huge amounts of energy to make whisky. Yet still the spirit flows. “As Britain’s economy stumbles,” ran a recent New York Times headline, “one sector is booming: whisky.”
“This is a really exciting time,” says Stirling. “We see ourselves as part of a new wave.” In 2012, when he and his flatmate (and now Port of Leith co-owner) Paddy Fletcher started “messing about with a little copper still” in their back garden, there hadn’t been a whisky distillery in Edinburgh for almost a century. Now Port of Leith is the third.
For the moment, like many new-wave distillers in Scotland, Port of Leith is making gin. So far, it has exported to 24 countries including Germany, China, the US, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. “But my goodness,” says Stirling, “everyone is dying for our whisky. Once Brexit happened, we couldn’t get our bottles into the country, then we couldn’t get them out. It was a total nightmare but, on balance, the weak pound is almost compensating for these losses. We had droves of Americans coming this summer.”