Interview with Ian Stirling, co-funder of The Port of Leith Distillery
Today, we invite you to meet Ian Stirling, co-founder of The Port of Leith Distillery, located in Edinburgh, Scotland.
1. How did you two – Ian & Patrick – met and where the idea to build a distillery came from?
Ian Stirling: My business partner Paddy and I went to school together, went our separate ways for university, and then ended up sharing a flat in South London together. We got in the habit of buying a bottle of whisky for the house, which was normally whatever was on offer in the Co-op.
We then began to go to whisky tastings at a London whisky shop called Milroy’s and just got more and more interested in it. Eventually we thought it might be fun having a go at making it ourselves and bought a little 40L copper still from Portugal.
We learned a lot from that – the most important thing being that the most complicated bit of making whisky by far is fermentation. Whisky is distilled beer, and before you get on to distillation there are a lot of choices you need to make in how you brew that beer: what yeast to use, what temperature you ferment at and how long for.
As whisky enthusiasts it mystified us that no one in the industry spoke about this part of the production process. Scotch whisky brands focus almost entirely on water, copper stills and casks when marketing their products. So we saw an opportunity there.
2. Scotch is a long tradition in Scotland. There are so many distilleries, how do you plan to distinct yourself from the others?
Ian Stirling: Coming from Edinburgh, it also seemed strange that there wasn’t a Single Malt whisky distillery in Scotland’s capital city. At one time there were as many as 8 distilleries in operation, and all but one of these had closed/relocated by the end of the 20th century.
Edinburgh also provided a very exciting answer to Scotch Whisky’s major barrier to entry. Scotch must be matured for 3 years before it can legally be called whisky, and much longer to produce a quality product.
That is a massive cash flow hurdle for any new business and the main reason why we haven’t seen the craft whisky revolution in Scotland that we’ve seen elsewhere in the world (there are now more whisky producers in New York State alone than the whole of Scotland).
Edinburgh attracts 4 million visitors a year, and many of them would love to visit a working distillery, but don’t have time to leave the city and make the long trip to visit one. So there was a very significant opportunity to bring early-year revenues from tourism while we waited for our whisky to mature.
3. Why a vertical distillery?
Ian Stirling: We didn’t set out to build a vertical distillery – that was very much a product of our very tight site. It’s taken us 6 years.
It started when I was having lunch with a rich Chinese wine client. We were discussing aspirations and I told him that I’d like to build a distillery in Edinburgh. He almost jumped out of his chair and told me he would fund it. That made Paddy and I take the whole thing seriously.
We started engaging with everyone we could in the industry to learn about cashflows, site requirements, costs, the market etc. and put together our first business plan. We then managed to find a fantastic site (we didn’t realise how lucky this was at the time) and everything was looking peachy.
Then the investor backed out due to other commitments. By this point we’d appointed an architect who offered to design a distillery concept to help us raise new investment. He designed a fantastic building and we went out and found a new trio of rich Chinese investors.
Then we lost the site to a major housing developer. Shortly after that, we lost our new investors. Three years in and we were back to square one.
We started trying to find a new site and this time, it was incredibly hard. Finding somewhere in Edinburgh, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where you can build a new industrial building and have access to tourists is a very significant challenge. Getting land-owners/agents to engage with you when you have no money in place is even harder.
Then Edinburgh Council suggested we speak to Ocean Terminal – a large shopping centre on the harbor in Leith. We first balked at the idea because we clearly didn’t want to build a distillery in a shopping centre, but the centre manager called me and sent over a site plan for a patch of land they had. It was small, and right by the water’s edge, but it was just 20 metres away from The Royal Yacht Britannia, one of Scotland’s premier tourist attractions. It was perfect.
We set about negotiating a deal on the land. This took 18 months as the shopping centre is owned by a large organization, for whom we were understandably a fairly small detail. During the course of this, we decided to take a different strategy towards investment.
Rather than find big ticket investors from the beginning, we sought to raise enough money to design our distillery, secure planning permission, and set up a smaller distillery to start gin production. This would significantly de-risk the project for larger investors, and allow us to start trading during the construction of the main distillery.
We managed to raise just over £400k from 7 investors to do this, and slowly but surely, managed to get the investment and land deal over the line in tandem in February 2017. Then we were in business.
We didn’t set out to build a vertical distillery – that was very much a product of our very tight site. What we did intend was to build a modern landmark for Scotch Whisky; a building that would reflect what we wanted to be as a business, and contrast dramatically with the traditional distilleries you find elsewhere in Scotland.
For two boys from Edinburgh, the opportunity to build a landmark like this in our beautiful home city is probably one of the most exciting things about this whole project.
4. What was the biggest challenge so far?
Ian Stirling: Everyday we are faced with new challenges, each obstacle is a reminder of why we are doing this, and gives us a renewed hunger to achieve our goals.
The biggest challenge a small company can face, in a competitive industry with a mountainous task ahead, is the David/Goliath syndrome. Thankfully, our team is incredibly talented and we celebrate each victory, be is large or small. Our collective passion is the grey-matter that binds us together, and that is truly invaluable.
5. You had all Scotland to choose from; why Port of Leith?
Ian Stirling: We met in Edinburgh and that’s where we’re from, that’s where we have planted our flag.
Edinburgh has for centuries been an exciting place for invention, discoveries and innovation. Every day we feel that energy in the streets and conversations we have here.
The Port of Leith is also crucial to the development of the whisky trade. Oak barrels would arrive by ship from France, Spain and Portugal containing wine, port and sherry. These delicious foreign products would be bottled in Leith and sent onwards to customers, with barrels left behind on the dock.
Spotting a bargain, whisky distilleries would pick up these barrels for maturing their whisky, imparting a distinctive flavour as a result. This relationship was born in Leith and producing our very own whisky here was rather poetic.
6. The History of Port of Leith is everywhere in your communication and products. How do you think young generations of customers relate to that kind of storytelling?
Ian Stirling: The young generations are born with a phone at their disposal, that is all the knowledge they could want. They are hyper-informed and cannot be fooled with savvy marketing. Our philosophy has always been to be open, curious and innovative, so they’re our natural customers.
The history of Leith and Edinburgh is rich, and really connects with the curious younger generation. We’re looking forward to welcoming drinkers and non-drinkers to our distillery, to discover our history and the importance of Leith in the world of whisky.
7. Your gin already has won many medals. What’s so special about it?
Ian Stirling: Our dedication to creating the gin we wanted took a full 2 years, and that’s only for the recipe creation. Our very talented friend James Porteous, from the Electric Spirit Company, was tasked with creating a balanced, crisp and refreshing gin with the core botanicals of juniper, pink peppercorn and lime peel. What he achieved was an elegant London-Dry gin that has silky mouth-feel and works equally well in a Gin&Tonic or in a Dry-Martini.
We take great care in sourcing the finest botanicals, and it show, quality always shines through.
8. The design of the bottle is quite different of what we see in the gin industry. Who is the genius artist between you both? Who came up with the idea?
Ian Stirling: We developed very clear ideas about what our company was about, and the stories that we wanted our products to tell. We fleshed these out into very comprehensive briefs. We then found an agency that was tremendous (with a particularly talented illustrator) at translating these into the designs that we wanted.
My experience in design and branding has definitely been important in achieving the results we wanted. Nevertheless, even without those skills in our team, a clear and well-thought-out brief is essential in this regard. Asking an agency to devise a concept from scratch is never going to turn out well
9. When will your first whisky be released?
To be able to release a Single Malt Scotch whisky, our new make will need to be matured for 3 years and 1 day minimum. Since we are yet to open and start distilling, we cannot be certain. But we are very confident we will have a whisky released in 2025.
10. What could we expect of Port of Leith in the next 3-5 years?
Ian Stirling: You have to be very patient in Scotch whisky, and 3-5 years is a pretty short amount of time in our world. However it’s not a bad number to have chosen because by that time we will have completed construction of our main distillery and been operating it for 3 years. We’ll be very busy indeed with the tourism element of our building.
Within the next 5 years we will have a Single Malt Scotch Whisky available, as well as a raft of other products.
We also have significant expansion plans and I’d look to think that we’ll be part of the way towards realizing those.Sometime close to the 5 year mark, we hope to finally grab a little sleep!