Arrival is one of the first single malts produced in Edinburgh for over a century. Kristiane Sherry travels to Holyrood Distillery for a taste.
There’s something magical about urban distilleries. A very different breed from the chocolate-box quaint rural makers we’re so used to seeing, city whiskies just hit different. An unexpected part of the global whisky revival has been the proliferation of urban makers, from Melbourne to New York and far beyond.
In Edinburgh, there was a three-way race to be the first to make whisky within the city limits for 100 years. Holyrood didn’t quite win the race (that crown went to Bonnington), and Port of Leith has just started producing. But honestly, being the outright first doesn’t matter. Arrival is here, and it’s a fitting primary release from a distillery making a name for itself as a boldly curious pioneer.
The sun was shining down on the Salisbury Crags when I visited the distillery in late September. Autumn hadn’t quite kicked off yet, and the rocky outcrop, close to Arthur’s Seat in Holyrood Park, was buzzing with tourists taking in the views. It’s always remarkable to me how central this mountainous park is. How it’s possible to get that sense of remoteness while in one of Europe’s most celebrated cities. Arriving at Holyrood, I marvelled at how easy it was to walk from the centre to a whisky maker.
Holyrood Distillery: ‘Very, very experimental’
I was met by Rob Carpenter. He co-founded the distillery back in 2019 inside the old Innocent Railway station. It carried coal to heat the 19th century breweries and distilleries, as well as other pioneering industries in Auld Reekie. The former use of the building helped inspire the name ‘Arrival’.
It’s a surprisingly tiny space – and pleasingly accessible, with a decent-sized lift at each end of the building. Packed inside is a visitor centre, bar, and one of the most flexible distillery set-ups you’ll ever see. The team handles 12 mashes a week, and from grain and fermentation to distilling and beyond, every element is made to be played with.
“We did 99 different recipes last year,” Carpenter tells me. That included experimenting with 50 different yeasts, often in combination with each other. “‘I would be astonished if there were other people in Scotland using these yeasts,” he remarks. In addition, the stills – “proportionally the tallest in Scotland,” he says – have five different settings, plus an optional thumper. “If we’d put in short, dumpy stills, we could never have made light stuff,” he explained. Every detail is considered.
“It was always the intention to be very, very experimental and try lots of different things,” Carpenter outlines the Holyrood philosophy. This is evident from the outset. The distillery has always been vocal about its production runs, and even shown off its new make spirit as the whisky came of age.
Ultimately for Carpenter, and indeed the wider team, it’s about producing interesting and different profiles upstream. “You can create flavour before you put things in-cask,” he says emphatically.
Going for bold
It’s not just being experimental for the sake of it. At Holyrood, the entire philosophy is about pushing the industry forward, too. There are projects up to PhD level with the nearby Heriot Watt university looking at barley varieties and beyond. But is it challenging to innovate to this extent while trying to build a core range?
Ultimately, that’s not really what Carpenter wants. He stresses there will never be an undue focus on age statements. “We don’t have a style, nor do we intend to have a style,” he says. This is a flavour-first distillery.
“Maybe over 3,4,5 years, we’ll find a core of a couple of things,” he continues. “But there will always be lots of experiments. Let’s just have some fun with it and create a different thing.”
This pioneering approach does bring with it some challenges, especially when you’re genuinely working on a ‘first’. “Sometimes you don’t quite know how things are going to react,” he says. “You don’t want things to go so far in a direction that it isn’t good for future releases.” He acknowledges that some of the experiments didn’t go to plan. “There are a couple of things we’ve decided we’re not going to do again.”
There’s also a passion to bring back the past through the use of heritage malts and time-aged techniques. It’s an element of Holyrood that stops things moving in the direction of innovation for the sake of it. “We’re trying to recreate things that no-one else will,” Carpenter states.
Fascinatingly the Holyrood squad doesn’t include a master blender. Instead, they all work on releases as a team. And this is exactly how Arrival came to be.
Discovering Holyrood Arrival
We head up to the bar to check out the impending launch. It feels thrilling to get a sneak peek at the inaugural release from one of Scotland’s most exciting newcomers.
First of all, the bottle design feels fittingly fresh. The typeface – and indeed wider Holyrood brand – feels like a modern reflection of the industry today. And the liquid lives up to it, too.
As you’d expect from a distillery as experimental and transparent about Holyrood, we get to learn lots about it. Made from ‘traditional’ malt sourced from Crisp Maltings, it was then fermented for 104 hours. Two different strains of distillers yeast were used: DY379 and DY502.
Post distillation, it was matured in a range of casks: Oloroso butts, Pedro Ximénez hogsheads, Bourbon barrels and Rum barriques. It certainly gives you a sense of the level of flavour inherent in the release.
First impressions? Youthful, yes. Vibrant, definitely. There was an interesting funky note, too. The mouthfeel was rich, round and bold. I got an array of citrus, eclair, milk chocolate and pineapple throughout, with more spices coming through on the palate (the full Holyrood official tasting notes are below). It’s a fun dram, one absolutely to be shared and savoured with friends.
Carpenter seems quietly proud of the inaugural release. A few weeks later, he describes Arrival as the embodiment of “our story-so-far as whisky makers”, and that it “marks the beginning of a journey of progression, innovation and experimentation”.
What’s next? He won’t be drawn, but expect something different. “Remember, we’re not following flavour profiles here,” he said. There may be some single casks at some point. If there’s one thing for certain, Holyrood’s next move will be outside the box. “We don’t need to do the same thing that everyone else in Scotland is.” We can’t wait to see it.
Holyrood Arrival is available from Milroy’s now, and is expected to sell out quickly.
Holyrood Distillery Arrival official tasting notes
Nose: Dried fruit, tropical fruit, raisins, hint of butterscotch, fresh baked cake, sticky toffee pudding, soft leather, biscuit.
Palate: Toffee, caramel, vanilla, digestive biscuits, ginger spice, butterscotch, tablet, slight savoury salinity, raisins.
Finish: Long lasting, mouth-watering, juicy, sweet spice, delicate, fruity, spice, apple pie, red fruit.