A new distillery in the heart of Edinburgh is testing the limits of whisky flavor. Officially opening on July 30 with whisky production starting in August, Holyrood Distillery has a focus on innovative production processes and pushing the bounds of what’s expected for scotch.
The brainchild of Rob Carpenter—who, along with his wife Kelly, founded the Canadian branch of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society—Holyrood sits in the shadow of the eponymous park, housed in a former railway goods shed dating back to the 1830s. Co-founded by former Macallan master distiller David Robertson, the distillery will produce single malt whisky alongside a range of gins and gin liqueurs. It aims to become one of Edinburgh’s top tourist destinations, benefiting from its central location near Edinburgh Castle and the bustling Waverley train station.
Holyrood is one of a few new single malt distilleries setting down roots in the Scottish capital, which was once a bastion of whisky production, although its last distillery closed in 1925. Holyrood’s opening follows the 2018 debut of John Crabbie & Co.’s Granton distillery (which isn’t open to the public); the company will open a second facility called Bonnington Distillery this year, where they’re looking to begin production in September, with a visitors center planned for spring of 2020. Meanwhile, Port of Leith Distillery aims to break ground on its nine-story facility in August.
For now, Holyrood is leading the charge for Edinburgh’s distillery revival. It’s targeting 50,000 visitors between opening day and the end of the year, gradually ramping up to 200,000 annually. In addition to hosting daily hands-on tours, gin and whisky tastings, and a whisky master class, the distillery will offer a walking tour focusing on the area’s rich distilling heritage. Its opening comes just in time for Edinburgh’s annual Festival Fringe, starting Aug. 2, when the city welcomes around 100,000 tourists.
Distillery manager and head distiller Jack Mayo—who holds a doctorate in astrophysics, and previously worked at Glasgow Distillery—will handle spirit production, alongside distillers Ollie Salvesen and Elizabeth Machin. All three are alumni of Heriot-Watt University’s brewing and distilling academic program, with Mayo and Machin holding master’s degrees and Salvesen a bachelor’s. Their main focus will be on innovation and creating robust flavors through different production processes, rather than meeting a bottom line. “If you look around at most of the scotch whisky industry, it’s heavily accountant-driven,” Mayo says. “You want to get as much alcohol as you can for your money. At Holyrood, that’s not what we’re about at all. We’re about maximum flavor.” Holyrood will use specialty malts and a variety of yeasts to create new flavors, as well as an unusual spirit still that features a retort system typically found in rum distilling, which creates a more complex spirit.
Mayo describes the styles of whisky he aims to create—spicy, sweet, fruity/floral, and smoky—which can be combined to create new, unique expressions. “We’re not trying to recreate the same single malt new-make spirit every time,” Mayo says. “We’re looking to improve all the time, and create different styles.” Holyrood will be capable of producing around 250,000 liters of alcohol a year when operating at full capacity. “Which, to put things in perspective, is probably less than the angels’ share at the likes of Macallan or Glenlivet,” Mayo adds.
But the end game, as far as whisky is concerned, is to “make something as delicious as we possibly can,” Mayo says. “The scotch whisky regulation is quite a strict file, but there’s still a lot of free parameters to play around within that. That’s part of the challenge. We’re looking forward to some serendipitous discoveries, and some excitement.”