It’s been one hell of a rollercoaster ride over the last two years...
There have been highs, such as securing the stunning Engine Shed building at St Leonards (a 15 minute walk from the Royal Mile) raising funds, creating a team of hugely talented and passionate staff, getting the building and equipment designed, installed, commissioned and (finally) operating!
The team on opening day, back row: Ollie, Elizabeth, Jack, front row: Rob, David
But we’ve had our fair share of lows too, like significant planning challenges, delays in utility connections and obviously now with Covid-19 – closed, cold and a bit confused.
With things paused for the time being, I’d like to run you back through this amazing journey we’ve had so far, and explain just what it’s like to build a distillery from scratch, in the middle of the Scottish capital.
So, to try and explain the journey to this point, let’s go back to the start. A great place to begin any journey.
The plan centred around resurrecting malt whisky distilling in Edinburgh’s city centre for the first time since the Glen Sciennes distillery closed in 1925.
Not too far from where we are located, Sciennes distillery was the last of many that had operated in “Auld Reekie” over the passing decades during the industrial might of the capital.
Edinburgh has a rich brewing and distilling history that often goes unnoticed these days, it’s something we’ll come back to in future. It all focused around the “charmed circle” - an area with pristine wells of water below - and Holyrood would be the first since Glen Sciennes to sit in that area once again.
So, it seemed sensible to proceed.
The Engine Shed, as work was only just beginning on the demolition
We scouted, interviewed and appointed a team of professional advisors, architects, planning consultants, engineers, quantity surveyors, visitor attraction designers, branding designers, accountants, fire engineers, etc and kicked off the project with great enthusiasm!
Aiming to break ground late June 2018 with a 52 week build plan our first major crisis was our main contractor resigning the project at 1645 Friday afternoon before starting work at 0800 Monday morning. Bummer.
Work gets under way on the massive transformation
So, we quickly agreed to take on the demolition contract direct and using our professional teams quickly identified and interviewed a main contractor who could take on our project. We were delighted to find ISG who quickly got up to speed and got us back on track – big thanks due to them – you know who you are!
Decisions, decisions, decisions. Part of the steep learning for me was the constant need to make decisions to keep the project on track – time, cost and quality. Every single day we were buffeted by queries and questions and quickly learnt that taking a purist view was not feasible.
We had to be practical and pragmatic to keep us on track. No one has a “here’s one I made earlier” solution. We listened, learned, challenged and then took the call.
Our’s was a distinctly different distillery. We wanted the city centre site – but that came with big challenges – noise, odour, traffic, parking, space!
Our city centre location, but with a prime spot like this came unusual challenges...
We wanted a small and flexible distillery so we could experiment, innovate, create styles and flavours seldom, if ever seen today. We wanted to attract large numbers of visitors to help provide cash flow, shop sales and get our brand out there.
In many ways our model was to become a visitor attraction with a distillery rather than the other way around - an unusual take in the whisky industry.
We had to consider traffic flow as it arrived, moved through and exited the distillery. We modelled flow volumes, identified pinch points or bottlenecks and also thought hard how this would impact and conflict with our distilling team and how they could safely operate our novel equipment. Rob and I can now find our way round a spreadsheet a little better than before all of this!
And so, from July 2018 we were off and running, and the build was underway.
As we ended 2018 the project was broadly on track, close to budget and most major decisions had been thrashed out. We could now move to finding our raw materials, find our ideal team, train them and start planning for a summer 2019 opening date.
We always knew we wanted to be different. Not just by tweaking a temperature here or there. Not just by making the same spirit and using 2 or 3 different cask types. And not just doing gin and liqueurs in the short term – although commercially, we had to!
Our long term focus was to make imaginative, innovative and delicious single malt whiskies.
One of the ways we’d do this would be by varying our malt types and using inclusion rates of “speciality malts” never seen before in whisky distilling in Scotland. Being inspired by Bill Lumsden at Glenmorangie with his Signet creation we knew we could do more, much more.
The Signet Collection from Glenmorangie - a whisky of unprecedented style and taste. An inspiration to us in our flavour-focused journey. Image: Whiski Shop
We identified Crisp as our malting partner and started to review their wide range of malts – most used by craft brewers. We recruited a PhD at Heriot-Watt’s International Centre for Brewing & Distilling to do the research on the flavour impact it would have on our new make malt spirit and jointly funded this with Crisp. A 4-year programme to know more, much more.
Our distillery manager, Dr Jack Mayo, is a huge fan of understanding and trying novel yeasts so we added that to our mix too. We also designed a retort tank on our spirit still so we can play tunes with creating, capturing and concentrating even more flavours!
One of the condensers in place, this one aboe the wash still. Our retort tank is on the right, a key part of the flavour-making facility we have set up
But critical to all of this was designing a small, perfectly formed and flexible 1 tonne system distillery – 1 lauter tun, 6 fermenters and 2 statuesque tall copper pot stills with condensers – all of which was designed to deliver small batch, flavourful spirits.
This need, desire, and focus was fundamental in our 2019 custom made Cask Programme – more on this in future too!
We picked L H Stainless and Speyside Copperworks as our equipment supplier and installer. They’ve done some terrific work around the industry and were bright, flexible, skilled, cost effective and could deliver what we wanted and when.
Our stills make the journey down through Scotland
Allen associates provided the process engineering oversight and ensured what we specified (and got) met a tight set of criteria. Both parties worked really well to deliver what was needed!
Taking the roof off completely in order to drop in our equipment, small by industry standards, but there was no other way in!
The stills were delivered and installed around March 2019 through the roof after a large amount of structural steel was installed to secure and provide the building integrity we desired. Vessels were installed, pipework connections commenced. And we ran towards opening end June 2019 at a break neck pace...
What could possibly go wrong? Find out in the second part of my look back as we set up Edinburgh’s first city centre distillery for nearly a century...
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