Holyrood distillery in the heart of Edinburgh has overcome the constraints of space in a building that’s almost 200 years old to create a multifaceted set-up with whisky knowledge and flavour flexibility at its heart, finds Richard Goslan
Creating a new distillery in an old building comes with its own particular challenges. But it also allows you to start from scratch in terms of putting the visitor experience first, and in determining what the focus of your distinctive approach should be.
That’s certainly the case with Holyrood distillery, located in the historic Engine Shed building in the heart of Edinburgh, which started running its stills in July 2019.
Everything about the set-up from the visitor’s point of view is about flavour and knowledge, with the first stop on a distillery tour taking you to the Nosing Room.
Before you even see a copper still, it’s been designed to put your olfactory senses to the test, and every stage of the tour is geared towards not only educating you about the process, but to helping you identify what kind of flavours you might be drawn towards more than others.
FOCUS ON FLAVOUR
The focus on flavour shouldn’t come as a surprise when you consider that Rob and Kelly Carpenter from The Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s branch in Canada are co-founders of Holyrood distillery, along with David Robertson who brings his experience from working with Diageo, The Macallan, Dalmore and Rare Whisky 101.
The last time I met Rob and Kelly at the distillery was in the middle of 2018, in an overgrown and neglected plot of land next to a beautiful but seriously dilapidated structure. What a pleasure to walk in now and find it having a new lease of life as a working distillery.
“The journey's been very interesting, and it's no small feat to pull all this together and get it up and running,” says Rob. “There have been lots of challenges in working with a long narrow building, so we had to fit all the equipment on one half and stack it so that we could fit other things underneath, it’s been a whole new way of building a distillery really.
“The still set up has also in part been driven by the constraints of the building [with a small body and very tall neck] but that also gives us a lot of flexibility in terms of being able to create flavour. We can run it pretty hard and push flavour over the lyne arm, or we can run it very slowly and get very light spirit with lots of reflux, but it’s serving us well because some of the new make spirit and some of the younger maturing spirit that we've been able to sample is fabulous, we're really happy with it.”
Pictured: Holyrood co-founders Rob and Kelly Carpenter outside the dilapidated site back in 2018
Flexibility is also key to the production process at Holyrood, in terms of the variety of different flavour styles being produced, from sweet, fruity, spicy and smoky. Much of that comes down to how Holyrood works not only with different raw ingredients, but different ways of running the equipment.
“All the way through, from the grain and yeast that we're using, we can change the parameters during the production,” says head distiller Jack Mayo. “The mashing and the fermentation can change as well, we can have very long fermentations of up to five days, and 120 hours of fermentation will give a very different spirit character, compared with a short fermentation of only two days.
“Then with our distillation as well, the way we drive our stills, whether we boil the spirit quickly, or whether we do it slowly and gently will give us a very different character. We can also vary how we take the cut points. It’s usually very small, with only around 15 per cent of the entire spirit going into the heart, but it also depends on whether we want something fruity, or something more oily and more robust, depending on the different cut points that we take. We can even do a triple distillation, which will give a more purified and concentrated and quiet a sweet character to the spirit.”
LEFT: Take a video tour of Holyrood
That flexibility is apparent in Holyrood’s ‘custom cask’ programme, which allows customers to tailor their whisky flavour to their individual tastes.
“This programme is all about creating, capturing and concentrating the flavour that you want in your spirit,” says David Robertson. “The critical thing is the raw material choices, and with malted barley we've used distillers malts, we've used peated malts for a smoky character or we can draw inspiration from the craft brewing industry and use speciality malts that might have been roasted, toasted, heated in a different way, and each of these choices can influence the flavour in your spirit.
“We can vary the length of time for fermentation, and also consider the wood that we want to mature the spirit in, and look at the different types of liquid that the cask has previously held.”
EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED
All of that flexibility and focus on different flavours means that we shouldn’t expect a standard profile from Holyrood in the future. As Rob Carpenter explains, there should be a variety of styles, whatever your preferred profile. “We're not what someone might call a typical Lowland distillery with a light fruity style,” he says.
“Most distilleries only produce one style, and they release that style at different age statements. We’re taking a completely different approach – like having multiple distilleries in one place.”
Co-founders: David Robertson, Rob and Kelly Carpenter
Stills: 2 (1 wash and 1 spirit)
Wash still: 5,000 litres
Spirit still: 3,750 litres
Washbacks: 5,000 litres
Fermentation: 70-90 hours but varies depending on style
Warehousing: Off-site dunnage with current capacity for 3,600 casks on site
Pictured: Holyrood distiller Elizabeth Machin