Although Edinburgh had been at the heart of whisky’s initial rise to prominence, for the past hundred years no single malt whisky has been produced in the city. That Glaswegians have been able to boast their own single malt in the meantime is particularly galling: this was clearly a wrong that needed to be righted.
And righted it shall soon be. Having started production in 2019, the Holyrood Distillery is set to release an Edinburgh single malt whisky this year. Their spirit will come of age in September 2022 and will likely reach shops in October or November. In the meantime, residents of Scotland’s capital can tide themselves over either by trying Holyrood’s gin or by visiting the distillery to take a tour, as I did.
Situated at the base of Arthur’s Seat, the Holyrood Distillery is just far enough off the beaten track that it hasn’t yet become a tourist trap. It was set up in the old St Leonards Railway shed, a listed building tucked away behind the local Police station. Our guide did not comment as to this additional security, however. A standard gin and whisky tour costs £16 and could be upgraded to include a flight of either gins or whiskies for a further £10.
The Holyrood Distillery tour starts in a comfortable lounge, one of few allowances made for visitors: this remains more a working distillery than a tourist attraction. We frequently moved aside for employees as we moved about the site. Because of this, the lounge offered an appropriate venue for an introduction to the history of Edinburgh whisky in general, and of Holyrood in specific. This was accompanied by our first drink: a grain spirit concoction of Holyrood’s own devising, which seemed to sit somewhere between new-make spirit and gin. Classification aside, it went down well with the offered ice and tonic.
Moving into the Spirits Lab, the tour changed focus to Holyrood’s gin, which has been used to build the distillery’s reputation and establish an early source of profits. After all, a batch of gin can be created in two days, to whisky’s three years. The Spirits Lab was the centre of this creation, containing the main gin still and a small hob-top still for experimentation. It is worth noting that Holyrood gin is established on an ethos of simplicity done well, with only one botanical (juniper) and two additional ingredients (sea salt and beeswax). This compares to some other gin distillers who have used over 40 ingredients!
Having sampled some gin, we moved downstairs to the still house, where mash tuns, washbacks, and stills are lined up against one wall. The listed status of the Holyrood Distillery presented a particular challenge here: the tall, narrow rooms have influenced the layout of the stills. To ensure that their spirit receives the maximum copper contact in this limited space, Holyrood has opted for impressively tall stills, with necks reaching some 7 metres high. This is a surprising height for fairly small stills: the wash still holds only 5000 litres and the spirit still just 3750 litres. The confined space also resulted in a fantastic combination of heat and aromas, very pleasant on a damp April afternoon.
While Holyrood’s approach to gin is based around simplicity, its approach to whisky is the complete opposite. Tapping into the local brewing heritage, Holyrood has spent the last three years experimenting with barley varieties: the use of crystal malt and chocolate malt, more commonly seen in the darkest of beers, stood out to me. This matches Holyrood’s approach to yeast, with distillers’ yeast, sake yeast, wine yeast, and sherry yeast all featuring. We were given a sample of the resulting new make spirit to try. The outcome is light and floral, with a little bitterness that supposedly comes from the use of chocolate malt.
We won’t see a finished Holyrood whisky for a few months yet, and the distillery isn’t offering any clues about their launch expression. However, it will be a batch release, as Holyrood does not intend to produce a core range. There are several options for cask maturation: Holyrood has whisky maturing in wood from sherry, ruby port, ex-bourbon from Jim Bean, and rum casks. The latter of these results from a partnership with a Guyana-based rum producer, the other part of this being a soon-to-be-released Holyrood rum.
I’m excited to see Holyrood’s whisky, not just because it will mark the reintroduction of single malt whisky production to Edinburgh. I’m expecting some interesting small-batch releases based around experimenting with malt and yeast varieties. The Guyana rum link suggests that there may be some cask finish releases at some stage as well. I am slightly concerned that Holyrood may be trying to produce too complex a spirit too quickly. However, if the team’s expertise in gin production is matched by its knowledge of whisky, there will be little to worry about. We shall soon find out!