From Edinburgh to the world

Scotland doesn’t just send whisky across the planet. For more than 100 years, Heriot-Watt University in the nation’s capital has been exporting expertise in how to distil it. Tom Bruce-Gardyne found out more about the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling and tracked down some of the course’s students and graduates

North British distillery

Being told that you’re over the statutory odour limit sounds embarrassing, but it’s what happened to Edinburgh’s North British grain distillery about 20 years ago, when the environment agency deemed the beery fumes from its wash were excessive.

ABOVE: Matt Pauley

Fans from the neighbouring Hearts Football Club disagreed and forced the agency to back down, after a successful petition to keep the smell. It’s one of the stories Assistant Professor Matt Pauley likes to tell his students at the International Centre for Brewing & Distilling (ICBD) at Heriot-Watt University.

That malty aroma has been part of the city for centuries and still greets anyone arriving at Waverley Station when the wind’s in the right direction.

In 1900, when Edinburgh boasted some 40 breweries and five distilleries, the air would have been drenched in beer and whisky whatever the weather.

ICBD’s glass stills


To educate the city’s brewers and distillers, Heriot-Watt, then on Chambers Street in the Old Town, opened its Department of Brewing and Biological Sciences in 1903.

By the mid-20th century however, Edinburgh’s rich brewing and distilling heritage was beginning to disappear, and today all but the North British and Caley brewery have been bulldozed into history.

Heriot-Watt decamped to the bypass and later began to broaden the appeal of its ICBD course to make it truly international.

By the time Abhishek Banik did his MSc there in 2006 he says: “Out of the 16 in my class, only two were from the UK.”

With students coming from Canada, Japan and all points in between, he says: “It was literally a global classroom [where] culture was very important. The food that every one of us was exposed to was different, so the flavour descriptors in any conversation were so varied – it was amazing.”

Having progressed to a PhD and a thesis on the angels’ share’s impact on the environment (yet to be submitted), Abhishek is now Copper Rivet’s distiller in Kent where he has just launched the distillery’s Masthouse whisky. Jan Hodel from Germany completed his MA at the ICBD in 2017 (while doing shifts behind the bar at The Vaults) and now works for West Cork Distillers in Ireland. Like Abhishek, he talks of the international nature of the course and that whole “knowledge transfer of sharing time with students from completely different countries.”

Abhishek Banik

Dr Bill Lumsden


Matt Pauley tells graduates: “If you’re ever somewhere in the world and find yourself in trouble, head to the local brewery and say ‘Heriot-Watt’, and someone will know someone who’s been there. It’s a tiny village.”

ABOVE: Sir Geoff Palmer OBE

He could have added “or the neighbourhood craft distillery”, though when Glenmorangie’s whisky-maker Dr Bill Lumsden was finishing his PhD in 1986, trainee distillers were thin on the ground.

He talks of being “taken under the wing of the legendary Professor Sir Geoff Palmer OBE” who was instrumental in bringing distilling more into the curriculum.

Some students come thinking they will be distillers and change track, like Brewdog’s co-founder Martin Dickie, while others flip the other way.

Kirsty Black, now distiller at Arbikie whose spirits include a pioneering ‘Highland Rye’ whisky and a carbon positive pea gin called Nàdar, was going to be a brewer until she discovered ICBD’s pilot distillery. “It was a real eye-opener that you could put any brown, muddy liquid in a still and it would come out clear, having captured all these interesting flavours,” she told me.

Arbikie’s Kirsty Black

Natalie Beentjes


Having learnt the basic theory, the pilot distillery helps to bring it alive as Matt Pauley explains: “When we talk about reflux I can say ‘it’s happening right there’, because the stills are half-glass, you can see what’s happening.” To explore the effect of wood on whisky, his first-year students are each given a bell-jar to fill with spirit and seal with oak. “The day of their last exams is very jolly, as we crack it open and do a comparison with the new-make,” he says.

Offering students the prospect of their own whisky in the final year is one way to spur them on, though you would imagine the drop-out rate is pretty low. Natalie Beentjes a second-year student who also works part-time at The Vaults, is clearly looking forward to gaining some real hands-on experience in her final two years from using the pilot distillery and pilot brewery.

Lauren Riggleman has fond memories of the “tiny, little stills” at Heriot-Watt, which are dwarfed by the 27-foot column still she now runs at her family’s Silverback distillery in Virginia. As for coming all the way to Heriot-Watt, she says: “If you’re going to learn how to make whisky, what better place to learn than Scotland.”

In the States she enjoys “more wriggle room” in terms of whiskey-making and what’s allowed, but that also comes from being boutique. “I think what’s really neat about craft distilling and focussing on flavour is that you can try new things,” she says. “It’s not just ‘I work at Diageo and have to get this yield every single time’. There’s a little more room to be creative.”

Lauren Riggleman at Silverback distillery

Jan Hodel


Heriot-Watt has become something of a nursery for the whole craft movement in brewing and distilling, and through the research done by its students is helping to drive innovation in whisky. Among recent examples Matt mentions a Glenmorangie student “who was looking at mashing and fermentation, and we’ve got a PhD student from the Holyrood distillery who’s looking at different roasting levels in barley.

So, we are pushing things forward, and obviously as the research goes on to be peer-reviewed and published, it then becomes a standard bearer for science.”

As well as Holyrood, there have been ICBD collaborations with Lindores Abbey, the Port of Leith distillery and Crisp Malt. However, the quest for knowledge is unending, as Matt explains: “The brilliant thing about research is that it squarely presents you with not only what you know, but also what you don’t know. As they say, good research always asks more questions than it answers.”

He goes on to mention wood – a subject studied in forensic detail and yet “we don’t really know all the things that go on inside a cask, and that gives it that element of alchemy, interest and mystery that keeps the whole thing fresh.”