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.
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.”
About 60 miles to the north-west in Perthshire is Glenturret, Scotland’s oldest working distillery, dating back to 1763. In 2019, it was acquired by French glassmaker Lalique and the Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss. On this lovely old site, crystal chandeliers and blackened casks now abound, along with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Here, overlooking the river from where the water for the whisky comes, the revamped Glenturret – now housed in 70cl art deco Lalique glass bottles – is sprinkled all over the 15-course menu like the finest mist of Parisian parfum.
“There’s been so many pivots in Glenturret’s history that have kept it going,” says managing director John Laurie. Glenturret was the last remaining distillery in Scotland to manually mix its barley in hot water to wash the sugars out – a process known as mashing. “We loved protecting that tradition, but we used three times more natural gas,” he says, patting his newly installed mash tun as if it were a dog. “We changed it for the carbon footprint. Had we known the energy crisis was going to happen, we would have had all the more reason to do it.”
Is this a new golden age for whisky? “Oh, definitely,” says Laurie. “Since relaunching, we’ve exported the brand into 11 markets around the world. We release new whiskies every year, and sell out every year.” In the bar, he points to an ostentatious decanter, backlit like a starlet. “It’s Lalique crystal with 33-year-old Glenturret in it,” he says. “We sell it for £10,000 a bottle. We’ve just launched in Singapore and have had the most amazing orders coming in because of the weak pound.”
Meanwhile, distilleries continue to pop up, or reopen, all over the land. In the past six years alone, 20 have opened, bringing Scotland’s total to 141. Whisky exports grew by nearly 20% in 2021.
During the “whisky loch” of 1983, overproduction led to a glut of single malt and dozens of distilleries were mothballed. Many are now reopening. “An industry professional recently said we were heading into the next whisky loch,” says Laurie, “and we’re in dangerous territory because of overproduction and energy prices. He mentioned all the distilleries opening in China and India; the sense that our major markets are making their own whisky.” Laurie disagrees. “There are 122 distilleries in Japan and it’s still one of our strongest markets. You can’t replace single malt scotch. It’s the gold standard and it can only be made in Scotland.” For whisky broker Blair Bowman, “everyone’s just riding this wave and you’ve got to enjoy it while it lasts. The whisky industry, historically, is cyclical and has had a series of booms and busts.” But ultimately, he adds, “all these challenges are just a tiny blip in the life of a cask that’s patiently sitting in the Highlands.”
There is, perhaps, no greater symbol of whisky’s bounce-back than Johnnie Walker Princes Street – not a distillery but an “experience” housed across eight floors of a magnificent art deco building on Scotland’s main shopping street. In 2018, Diageo – scotch’s biggest player – invested a whopping £185m in its whisky distilleries, which will number 30 when Port Ellen on Islay reopens later this year. The vast majority was poured into this building which, since opening in September 2021, has welcomed 350,000 people from 112 countries through its doors. On the “immersive journey of flavour” tour I join, my group includes tourists from China, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada and Singapore.
Elsewhere, the boom is expressing itself in less obviously dramatic ways. At InchDairnie, built on a greenfield site in Glenrothes, Fife, the focus is on exploring raw materials, fermentation and method, as opposed to the maturing part of whisky-making. “Futuristic” is the word that comes up whenever anyone mentions InchDairnie to me. One distiller refers to it as “a bunch of rocket scientists”.
“We respect the traditions, but will not be held back by them,” says managing director Ian Palmer, who has worked in the industry for four decades. “We’re a modern distillery with no heritage. That gives us huge freedom.” InchDairnie’s first release next year, he says, will be a groundbreaking five-year-old rye whisky “that’s true to Scottish traditions. And we’re buying a hydrogen-ready boiler that will run on natural gas, but as soon as hydrogen becomes available we’ll make the switch.”
Back at Port of Leith, we descend so that Stirling can show me the production floors where the whisky will “trickle down the building”, eventually reaching the stills. Looking outside, he gestures down the East Lothian coast. In the foreground is Leith’s thriving Shore, where its history as the capital of the Scottish whisky industry is written in the bonded warehouses repurposed as flats and creative businesses. This is where the vast majority of Scotland’s whisky – brands like Vat 69, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Hankey Bannister, Glenmorangie and Highland Queen – was blended, bottled, matured and shipped to the world. “We’re trying to buy some of those old bottlings produced here to sell at the distillery,” he says. “We’re forward-looking but we absolutely love the heritage. It’s why we’re here.”