As production begins at the innovative £12m Port of Leith Distillery, its co-founder has spoken of an 'unadulterated joy’ which drives both his team and the wider whisky industry across Scotland.

Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher are lifelong friends turned business partners who grew up together in Edinburgh before reuniting in their London uni years and developing a taste for all things whisky.

What started as a ‘pipe dream’, hatched over drams at Milroy’s bar, soon turned into back garden experiments in distilling before their focus turned back to Scotland and how they could truly make their mark in the sector.

The Herald: Pictured: Port of Leith Distillery co-founders Ian Stirling and Paddy FletcherPictured: Port of Leith Distillery co-founders Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher (Image: Supplied)

Stirling said: “Before we got into whisky, Paddy was working in accountancy and I was in the wine trade.

“When we did start to seriously consider going into production, we realised that at that time there wasn’t a whisky distillery in Edinburgh and thought that could be our opportunity.

“The starting point of this whole journey was really just two friends with an aspiration of building a whisky distillery in their home city.”

Dreams are well and good, but to make their plans a reality the ambitious duo would first have to complete the difficult task of securing both an investor and a suitable construction site in the capital.

After three years and numerous false starts, they decided to hone in on an area that was steeped in the history of Scotland’s whisky and wine trades.

The Herald: Pictured: The nine-storey Port of Leith Distillery began production last weekPictured: The nine-storey Port of Leith Distillery began production last week (Image: Supplied)

Stirling said: “Whisky is a tricky business because you need millions of pounds to build a distillery, then millions more to produce it before you’re close to selling it.

“So, it certainly didn’t help that we had no money.

“We were looking for a place where we could essentially build an industrial facility but also somewhere that we would be able to make a case for investors by attracting tourists.

“It quickly became apparent that Leith was going to be the answer to our problems.”

The reasoning for Leith, Mr Stirling explained, was threefold.

“First of all, while the area was already undergoing a regeneration, there were still site opportunities where we could build something of this ilk.

“Although it was just outside the city centre, there was this huge asset of the Royal Yacht Britannia attracting visitors as well as Michelin Star restaurants like The Kitchin creating a buzz.

“And finally, as two people who had become obsessed with whisky in Edinburgh, we discovered this enormous heritage that it held as this sort of capital of Scotch whisky.

“While whisky was being produced all over Scotland throughout the 20th century, a huge quantity of it was arriving in Leith to be matured, blended and bottled.

“Some of the biggest names in the industry like Diageo, the Scottish Malt Whisky Association and Glenmorangie all have historical ties to Leith.”

The Herald: Pictured: Leith is steeped in whisky industry heritage Pictured: Leith is steeped in whisky industry heritage (Image: Supplied)

Determined to honour this spiritual legacy, the next breakthrough for Stirling and Fletcher would come at the hands of the Edinburgh Council’s Economic Development team, who suggested the pair consider a plot of land not far from the Ocean Terminal shopping centre.

While sceptical at first, this small space in the heart of an urban landscape would ultimately inspire the Port of Leith Distillery’s most distinctive design feature.

“When they asked if we had tried talking to Ocean Terminal, I said ‘Certainly not. I don’t want to build a distillery in a shopping centre, that’s a terrible idea’ and sort of left in a huff.

“Two weeks later the centre manager phoned me and said we do have this little bit of land that might work.

“I’ll always remember being at the park with my daughter who was around two years old at the time and almost losing track of her for ten minutes because I just stood and looked at this email pdf of the site.

“It was perfect, a small bit of land just 20 metres away from the Royal Yacht Britannia.

“We hadn’t planned to build a vertical distillery, but always set out to create a modern piece of architecture and knew that it was right for the site.

“We were a new company bringing new ideas to whisky and we wanted a building to reflect that.”

The Herald: Pictured: Stirling says a vertical design was 100% a product of the urban sitePictured: Stirling says a vertical design was 100% a product of the urban site (Image: Supplied)

Although it’s often said that you should never meet your heroes, as new kids on the block with bold ideas and a passion for whisky, Stirling and Fletcher quickly began to feel at home alongside some of Scotland’s greats.

“As a whisky fan, I had encountered brand ambassadors or salespeople before, but it always felt like the industry was quite far away and dominated by big companies.

“When we started reaching out to people for advice, we found that they were not just generous and welcoming, but extremely excited about what we were doing.

“In fact, we’re enormously indebted and grateful to companies like Diageo and Pernod Ricard who in the decades before us have gone out and created this sector of Scotch whisky that is now the world’s premium spirits category.

“Because of them, we’re able to take this product and try something new, but we are very much treading in their footsteps.”

Inspired by their peers and raring to go, work finally began to construct a nine-story building which towered Edinburgh’s historic harbour.

The distillery opened to much acclaim in October last year, with a bar serving spirits including the team’s own Lind & Lime Gin, a restaurant, distillery tours and 360 views across Stirling and Fletcher’s home city.

The latest milestone in a decade-long journey was achieved just last week, when for the first time ever Port of Leith’s new make spirit was distilled on-site, and plans are now in place to experiment over the coming months and develop a profile for its future whisky.

The Herald: We stepped out the boardroom suddenly the whole building smelled of fermentation and malt'We stepped out the boardroom suddenly the whole building smelled of fermentation and malt' (Image: Supplied)

Speaking of the moment everything had fallen into place, Stirling said: “One day Paddy and I were in a meeting, and when we stepped out the boardroom suddenly the whole building smelled of fermentation and malt.

“There was the most incredible feeling of pure unadulterated joy.

“And I’m not ashamed to say that joy is the central purpose of our business.

“Not in the sense that you drink to get drunk in any shape or form.

“But Scotch whisky is an incredibly precious and extraordinary thing for this country.

“It is a product made using barley and grains produced here, exquisitely so because of our climate and slow maturation as well as the generations of experience that have instructed the production process.

“When we talk about alcohol in the context of health or public responsibility, I think it can often diminish the incredible creativity, science, intellect and endeavour that goes into whisky production.

“Experiencing a whisky that tastes of four, five, six different things at once is sheer alchemy.

“Although we’re just a tiny part of it, it’s a privilege to work in an industry which makes the most exciting, magical and complex beverage in the world and is recognised for that.”

The Port of Leith Distillery is located at 11 Whisky Quay in Leith, Edinburgh.

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