High spirits: the new Port of Leith distillery

The Port of Leith distillery in Edinburgh is the UK's first vertical whisky distillery. Johanna Derry Hall tours the building and talks to head of whisky, Vaibhav Sood, about the project's challenges and benefits as launch day approaches

Words by Johanna Derry Hall

The Port of Leith distillery
The distillery's small footprint meant building up was the only route to maximising the site's potential

At the end of September, the first vertical whisky distillery in the UK and the second only in the world will open on the shoreline of Leith in Edinburgh. Standing nine stories high, clad in black, with bright orange trim around the windows, it’s a striking new landmark jutting from the docks into the Firth of Forth. Its top-floor bar affords views over the Royal Yacht Britannia, across the distinctive Edinburgh city skyline and beyond towards the Pentland Hills in the south.

At the forefront of production is Port of Leith’s Head of Whisky, Vaibhav Sood, who joined when the distillery was still a shell from his former role as Whisky Operations Manager at The Lakes Distillery.

‘It’s very exciting to have a blank canvas on which to create a world-class single malt whisky,’ he says. ‘Being able to design, set up and optimise the spirit from infancy, to control every aspect of the whisky-making process, and to set the parameters from the start is a great opportunity.’

Vaibhav Sood standing in the Port of Leith distillery
Vaibhav Sood, head of whisky for the Port of Leith, stands by the stills in the new distillery

Not that he’s made much whisky yet. Since October 2022, Sood has been on site in hard hat and hi-vis jacket, overseeing the construction to ensure everything is set up to make whisky to the specifications and flavour profile they mean to make their signature. ‘Every part of the building will help shape the whisky. Every piece of equipment has been made specifically to make the kind of spirit we want to make, and the building has been designed to incorporate it all.’

Sood is keen to emphasise the importance of what’s local to Leith in the spirit they’re making. The barley will come from a farm less than 30 miles along the Forth in Haddington, East Lothian, and the spirit made in the city will be matured on the river (with plans for a warehouse to be built in Leith), in casks taken from Port of Leith’s sister business the Leith Export Company, which already imports and bottles port and sherry.

‘Being in this urban landscape, in the middle of Edinburgh, surrounded by beautiful views of the sea as well as the port, gives us that sense of place.’

Diagram of the Port of Leith distillery

The top five floors are dedicated to hospitality; the bottom four to production. The process from milling through to distilling cascades from the fourth floor to the ground. There, a wide 8,500-litre wash still encourages the heavier flavour components of the liquid, while a reflux ball in the spirit still highlights the lighter flavours, both ‘set in place to give the whisky complexity’.

Building up was the only way to optimise the small, 20,000ft² footprint of the distillery’s urban location and from start to finish, the distillery has been an exercise in problem solving and creativity.

It’s very exciting to have a blank canvas on which to create a world class single malt whisky – Vaibhav Sood

Every constraint has had to prompt a creative solution. The mash tuns, for example, are not as wide as you’d normally expect and were made bespoke to fit into the building’s footprint. Likewise, the washbacks were put into position first and the building’s superstructure was then constructed around them. ‘If you look you’ll notice they have no legs,’ he laughs. ‘All ten tonnes of them are hanging from their shoulders.’

‘So many distilleries are essentially turnkey projects,’ says Sood. ‘Of course, adjustments are made for individual character and building size and so on but you could also take the kit and put it somewhere else. This is the opposite of that. It took a lot of time and effort to plan. We don’t want to be fighting the distillery to create the spirit character, so everything here has been designed specifically for us.’

A portrait of Vaibhav Sood
'We don’t want to be fighting the distillery to create the spirit character, so everything here has been designed specifically for us,’ says Sood

While he’d have preferred wooden washbacks for the depth of flavour they bring, it wasn’t possible. ‘The challenge of replacing a wooden washback in a vertical distillery meant they weren’t feasible,’ he says. The workaround was to wrap each washback in a cooling jacket with a temperature control, ‘which we can use to create esters and different flavour components.’

As it turns out, this solution has proved crucial to what will be the spirit’s distinctive character. The plan is for the standard Port of Leith whisky release to be no younger than eight years old, meaning Sood is planning for long-term maturation.

The distillery is a complete conversation between architecture, design, engineering and distilling

‘For that we need a robust, complex, slightly heavy spirit, something that’s fruit forward.’ His eyes drift back up towards the washbacks. ‘That’s why temperature control is so important. Those cooling jackets will help us produce the chemical compounds that will give the spirit those properties.’

The distillery is a complete conversation between architecture, design, engineering and distilling – a symbiotic relationship, where the building has been shaped by the kind of liquid Sood wants to make and the kind of liquid Sood can make, in turn, is shaped by the design of the building. ‘Every time something was taken away, something else was given to us. The result will be a whisky that’s full of flavour.’ Thanks to the particularities of its location and production, one that will be entirely unique.