Show Bonus: Port of Leith Distillery

Some rules are meant to be broken. With a humble nod to Scotch whisky tradition and a raised eyebrow to how their forefathers have always done it, Edinburgh native sons Ian Stirling and Paddy Fletcher founded Port of Leith Distillery, set to open its doors to the public in June 2021. The duo sat down with us for the March 17 Stick and Hack Show to talk whisky, a quintessential golf pairing from an iconic golf setting.

Theirs will be the first vertical distillery in Scotland, applying novel scientific approaches to whisky-making. We dug in a little deeper with Stirling after the mics were switched off. A few things we thought you’d find interesting follow:

Leith’s claims to fame

The earliest known written rules of golf date back to 1744 when the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh set pen to paper for a single-day, open competition on the Leith links of Edinburgh. Although they’ve evolved over the years, the so-called “13 Articles” laid the foundation for how we play today.  

A second reason to know Leith is for its pivotal part in Scotland’s whisky heritage. In 1822, this port in the northern part of Edinburgh was granted one of only six licenses issued to ports. The license made it legal for them to store whisky under bond. While whisky was considered a poor man’s drink at the time — wine and brandy dominated — the tide turned in whisky’s favor in the late 19th century.

Location, location, location

“It’s one of the worst places you should try to build a scotch whisky facility because it’s so small,” Stirling says of the spit of land facing the Firth of Forth, an estuary of several connected rivers where the Port of Leith Distillery is being built.

The location is actually a cool opportunity, once you embrace the constraints and consider its neighbors. Twenty meters away is the Royal Yacht Britannia, which gets 400,000 visitors every year as a key tourism attraction. The city is also home to Edinburgh Castle, medieval architecture and art mecca Edinburgh Festival Fringe, lasting three weeks in August.

The smallness of the space is what makes it tough, and altogether interesting. Most distilleries sprawl horizontally. The postage-stamp real estate led Stirling and Fletcher to take their intentions to follow modern architectural designs even further. The very vertical building will include a rooftop bar and restaurant, shop, tasting rooms, distillery and laboratory for experimentation.

Hops and scotch

So, did you know that in order to make scotch whisky, you have to brew beer first? We didn’t. That’s where Port of Leith Distillery will push the envelope in its research-led whisky program.

During the fermentation step, they will explore processes (e.g., how to put gravity to work) and ingredients to keep evolving what they’re doing. Because scotch whisky requires aging, the first batch will come off the still in July 2021.

From drinking buddies to business partners

Stirling and Fletcher met at age 4, sticking together as kids until they parted ways to go to university. After graduation, they moved into the same apartment in London. To kick back, they would buy a bottle of scotch to sip and discuss. Their interest piqued, they started going to tastings.

Before Porth of Leith Distillery was on the drawing board, Stirling was in public relations and then wine distribution. Fletcher was head of finance for WeWork in Europe.

Six years ago, Stirling told a wine client in China that he’d always wanted to build a distillery in his home city. The guy said he’d fund it, so Stirling told Fletcher they were going to build a distillery in Edinburgh. They made a business plan and found the perfect site, but before the Chinese investor wrote his first check, he stopped returning calls and emails.

The Scots had to find other investors, and they did. This time, it was three legitimate investors, also from China. But then they lost the perfect site, and the three investors pulled out.

The loss hit hard as the friends tried to find a place to firmly plant their flag, made more difficult by Edinburgh’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site, which puts stiffer regulations on who and what can be built in the city.

“We spent 18 months getting people to believe in us,” Stirling says. Finally, the owners of Ocean Terminal Shopping Centre said they had a bit of land that could be perfect. Stirling says they hadn’t really considered the area because they didn’t want to build a distillery in a shopping center, but this site was different. Today, he says the synergy between the shopping center and the distillery is great for everyone.

OK, but what about golf?

Golf, Stirling says, is an excellent way to experience the landscape and climate of his home country.

“Scotland is steeped in a great golf history, which for some of us can be a little intimidating at times. Which is one of the things I love about Stick and Hack, making golf more approachable for those who are less talented at it.”

Stirling’s father used to be a member of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society, a club that had a 30-year waiting list when he played there. The elder Stirling held onto his membership, assuming one of his children would play well enough to take it over someday. He signed them up for a few lessons.

“It quickly became apparent we had no talent for the game,” Stirling says.

Stirling and Fletcher both enjoy golf, but they’re hacks through and through. You can’t be good at everything. We’re glad they picked scotch whisky. 

Is taste profile really a thing when it comes to scotch whisky? (Adam is skeptical.) Hear Ian Stirling answer in a charming Scottish accent on the Stick and Hack Show. Plus, meet partner-in-scotch Paddy Fletcher and hear more about Port of Leith Distillery.