With a number of sites being at various stages of opening and the announcements of progress on these flooding in I thought it would be good to talk to someone about what actually goes on when a distillery is being opened. What does their day consist of, who are they talking to and what are they actually doing? Ian Stirling of Port of Leith Distillery very kindly spent some of his time with me at the current site where he was able to fill me in on what is going on for his company as it looks to break ground on their site near the Royal Yacht Britannia in Edinburgh.
Ian and his business partner came up with the plan in their flat in London. With backgrounds drinks and finance it wasn’t such a step to begin to think and dream about how to get going on a site and plans for their own distillery in Edinburgh. Indeed it was a chance meeting with a client while Ian was in the wine business that seriously set the ball rolling.
“I was selling wine to a number of clients from the Far East and during a conversation with one of my contacts we were discussing what you’d like to be doing in the future. At this point I talked about the chance to set up a distillery but how getting things together on this wasn’t easy. In the course of that chat I had accidentally found my first investor.”
While that sounded like a great way to begin Ian went on the explain some of the difficulties. The next step was securing a site. No mean feat- somewhere with history and somewhere that is good for visitors, sufficient space, what about services to the site and room to grow and expand. Lots of things to consider and just at the point where Ian thought they had things in place his investor pulled out. No problem- back on the horse and now three early stage investors had expressed a strong interest in the project only for the site to be lost. This game of snakes and ladders set Port of Leith back to square one.
This is where you always need a bit of luck. Ian had been liaising on the project with the council in Edinburgh and they suggested having a conversation with Ocean terminal, the large cinema and shopping complex in Leith where the Royal Yacht Britannia is moored. Certainly an opportunity that would tick a number of boxes. Certainly a rich heritage in whisky and drinks that makes the Port of Leith an outstanding choice. When you couple this with the potential for visitors this was looking very promising.
Ian then spent the next 18 months negotiating a long lease with Ocean Terminal and also looking at the feasibility of the build. He went on to explain:
“While the site is in a fantastic place with lots of history and possibilities the actual parcel of land is not enormous. We had to think differently and so from the start we had our contractor involved to ensure that we the build was actually achievable and we can operate effectively- it’s really important that we can get an HGV turned around on our site and having the right people involved from the start allows us to make sure this and everything else can happen.”
As a result the Port of Leith Distillery will be gravity fed. The grain will make it’s way to around 5 storeys up of the building via elevators and then milling and mashing will occur. It will then drop to wash backs a floor down and then onto stills on the ground floor level. The innovation doesn’t stop there as a floating bonded maturation area is being looked at in the harbour area although this does involve some fairly complex engineering work when it come to harbour walls.
A really significant milestone in the birth of the distillery was gaining planning permission from the City of Edinburgh Council. This maybe a little surprisingly was a fairly quick piece of work taking around 3-4 months. However prior to the application being submitted there has clearly been a large amount of work undertaken with council officials, planners, architects and others. Ian reckoned he’d had around 30 people involved at various stages of the process.
Now it’s on to looking at products and development. There is a plan for gin and maybe, a bit more surprisingly, a sherry. However links with Jerez stem back to Ian’s wine days and may also mean a good source of barrels for the future. Plans for the brand of Port of Leith are well underway as is packaging and packaging development. Ian was kind enough to share his exquisite looking gin bottle with me- on pain of death of revealing too much about it. What I did find genuinely impressive was the 3D printed version of it that he had and how this really let you see how the bottle looked and could be handled.
The gin plans have moved forward and a still is in place in the current site in Leith. Ian has also secured funding for a joint project with Heriot-Watt University and allow them to very much hit the ground running from a production point of view. At the same time fund raising is still ongoing and there is people to bring on board and construction planning to start looking at.
So based on Ian’s experience when somebody says to you but what do you actually do all day when you are setting up a distillery I think the short answer is everything!