‘This is a great moment!’ How Scotland’s Whiskey Industry Went From Collapse to Boom | whiskey

aOn the eighth floor of a distillery in the port of Leith, the latest chapter in the boom-and-bust story of Scotch whiskey is under construction. This week, lifts are being installed at what will soon become the UK’s only vertical whiskey distillery. The brass stills should have arrived from Elgin, but this team is as used to delays as whiskey distillers waiting for their spirit to mature. “Nobody has ever built a building like this before,” says Port of Leith co-owner Ian Stirling.

Leith Port Distillery is under construction.

If you’re looking for a symbol of the rise of the Scotch whiskey industry, this bold black pillar rising 40 meters into the sky above Edinburgh’s historic North Harbour is it. It took four years and £13.5 million to build the distillery, all of which came from individual investors. Meanwhile, Britain has left the European Union (home to many of the largest export destinations for Scotch whiskey), and we have seen a pandemic, the worst cost-of-living crisis for a generation, and an energy crisis hitting the UK harder than anywhere else in it. Western Europe. It takes huge amounts of energy to make whiskey. Yet the spirit still flows. “As British Economy Stalls,” a New York Times headline recently reported, “One Sector Booming: Whiskey.”

“This is a really exciting time,” Stirling says. “We see ourselves as part of a new wave.” In 2012, when he and flatmate Paddy Fletcher (and now co-owner in Port of Leith) began “tinkering with a little copper” in their back garden, there hadn’t been a whiskey distillery in Edinburgh for nearly a century. Now the port of Leith is the third.

Right now, like many of Scotland’s new wave distillers, Port of Leith makes gin. So far, it has exported to 24 countries including Germany, China, the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Japan. But oh my gosh, everyone’s dying for whiskey,” says Stirling. “Once Brexit we couldn’t get our bottles into the country and then we couldn’t get them out. It was a total nightmare, but overall the weak pound almost makes up for this.” Losses. We’ve had loads of Americans coming this summer.”

An employee leans over one in a line of barrels waiting to be filled at the Glenturret distillery.
Barrels waiting to be filled at the Glenturret Distillery. Image: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Located about 60 miles to the northwest in Perthshire, Glenturret is the oldest working distillery in Scotland, dating back to 1763. In 2019, it was acquired by French glassmaker Lalique and Swiss entrepreneur Hansjörg Wyss. In this beautiful old location, crystal chandeliers and black barrels now abound, along with a Michelin-starred restaurant. Here, overlooking the river from where the whiskey water comes from, a rejuvenated Glenturret—now housed in 70cl Art Deco Lalique glass bottles—is sprayed throughout the 15-course menu like the finest Parisian mist. Perfume.

“There have been a lot of pivots in Glenturret’s history that have kept it going,” says Managing Director John Lowry. Glenturret was the last remaining distillery in Scotland to hand-blend the malt into hot water to wash out the sugars – a process known as mashing. “We loved protecting that tradition, but we used three times more natural gas,” he says, patting the newly installed masher as if it were a dog. We changed it for your carbon footprint. Had we known an energy crisis was going to happen, we would have had all the more reason to do so.”

Is this a new golden age for whiskey? “Oh, sure,” Lori says. “Since the re-launch, we have exported the brand to 11 markets around the world. We source new whiskeys every year, and we sell them every year.” At the bar, he points to an ostentatious decanter, backlit like a star. “It’s a Lalique Crystal with a 33-year-old Glenturite in it,” he says. We sell it for £10,000 a bottle. We just launched in Singapore and 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 last six years alone, 20 restaurants have opened, bringing Scotland’s total to 141. Whiskey exports will grow by almost 20% in 2021.

During the “Whiskey Loch” of 1983, overproduction led to a glut of single malts and dozens of distilleries gathered together. Many are reopening now. “One industry professional recently said we’re heading to the next whiskey lake, and we’re in dangerous territory because of overproduction and energy prices,” says Lowry. “He pointed out all the distilleries opening in China and India. Meaning our major markets are making their own whiskey.” Laurie disagrees. “There are 122 distilleries in Japan and it remains one of our strongest markets. You cannot substitute single malt Scotch. It is the gold standard and can only be made in Scotland.” For whiskey broker Blair Bowman, “Everyone is just riding this wave and you have to enjoy it for as long as it lasts. Historically, the whiskey industry has been cyclical and has had a series of booms and busts.” But ultimately, he adds, “All of these challenges are just a small glimpse into the life of a water barrel sitting patiently in the Highlands.”

One of the pubs on Johnnie Walker Princes Street - looks very nice and modern
One of the bars on Johnnie Walker Princess Street.

There is perhaps no greater symbol of whiskey throwback than Johnnie Walker Princess Street – not a distillery but an ‘experience’ set in eight floors of a magnificent Art Deco building on Scotland’s main shopping street. In 2018 Diageo – Scotch’s biggest player – invested £185m in its whiskey distillery, which will be number 30 when Port Ellen on Islay reopens later this year. The vast majority has been pumped into this building which, since its opening in September 2021, has welcomed 350,000 people from 112 countries through its doors. On the “Immersive Flavor Journey” tour that I joined, two groups included tourists from China, Japan, Holland, Canada and Singapore.

Elsewhere, prosperity is expressing itself in distinctly less dramatic ways. At InchDairnie, which is built on the Greenfield site in Glenrothes, Fife, the focus is on exploring the raw materials, fermentation and method, rather than the mature part of making the whiskey. “Future” is the word that appears when anyone mentions InchDairnie to me. One distiller refers to it as “a bunch of rocket scientists.”

Ian Palmer in front of a gleaming brass still holding a glass of whiskey
Ian Palmer at the ‘futuristic’ InchDairnie distillery.

“We respect tradition, but you won’t back down from it,” says managing director Ian Palmer, who has worked in the industry for four decades. “We are a modern distillery without heritage. This gives us a lot of freedom.” InchDairnie’s first release next year will be an innovative five-year-old rye whiskey, he says “and that’s true to the Scottish tradition.

Back in Port of Leith, we disembarked so Stirling could show me the production floors where the “whiskey flows down the block”, eventually arriving at the stills. Looking outside, he pointed to the east coast of Lothian. In the foreground is the thriving beach of Leith, its history as the capital of the Scottish whiskey industry being written in customs warehouses repurposed as flats and creative businesses. This is where the vast majority of Scotch whiskey – brands such as Vat 69, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Hankey Bannister, Glenmorangie and Highland Queen – has been blended, bottled, matured and shipped around the world. “We try to buy some of those old bottles produced here to sell at the distillery,” he says. “We’re forward-looking but we absolutely love heritage. That’s why we’re here.”

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