LONG gone are the days when more than 100 warehouses and other whisky-related buildings bustled away in Leith. By the 1980s, little remained, bar the empty hulks of those behemoths, as this port district itself struggled. I’ve just been back on the new trams and I’m delighted to report that Leith is again synonymous with whisky.

“Leith was one of Scotland’s real whisky hubs, Edinburgh’s ‘Whisky District’,” explains guide and whisky aficionado Justine Hazlehurst as we set off on one of her Leith Whisky Trail adventures. “Our walks bring that heritage alive as we visit the old warehouses and headquarters of companies that grew into some of the biggest names in Scotch whisky.”

We walk Leith’s grand old streets amongst whisky buildings that are now flats, others nurseries; some still derelict. I hear the old names of family whisky companies in Leith, like Pattisons and Mackinlay. One strikes me – William Sanderson & Son Ltd, who made Vat 69. Justine explains how the name came about “after they got people to try 100 vats and Vat 69 was their favourite”.

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They had a massive presence in my native South Queensferry and I hadn’t even realised they were Leith-based.  Justine explains some of these old names became huge brands, with what today is Glenmorangie growing out of the warehouses now housing Tom Kitchin’s eponymous  Leith restaurant. 

Justine’s tour always ends, of course, with a wee tasting, All the drams have a Leith connection. We talk of Leith today and she is delighted to see Crabbie’s Bonnington Distillery going great guns since opening in Leith in 2020. She also rates Leith’s Woven Whisky Makers, who conjure up superb blends in the Biscuit Factory.

Then there is the impressive independent whisky bottler Woodrow’s of Edinburgh.  For me, the most exciting of all has to be the sparkling new Port of Leith Distillery, the UK’s first vertical distillery and the most striking opening in Scotland for years.

I did a hard hat tour of the site in spring and even then was blown away. Returning to this gleaming Darth Vader-esque sleek black drama I’m even more so.

Port of Leith Distillery co-founder Ian Stirling greets me. They are now greeting everyone to their whisky bar, easily one of Scotland’s most scenic, peering out over the Firth of Forth towards the low hills of Fife. They do food too and tours have just started the week I visit. 

At Port of Leith Distillery, all the modern distilling equipment reminds me of slick purpose-built modern distilleries like Arran and Kingsbarns, but all the stairs and nooks and crannies give it a charm that evokes Islay’s old Victorian distilleries.  “It is important to us to offer an authentic visitor experience,” says Ian.

“This a working distillery. We want people to experience that as they come and learn about what we do.”  The tours are great value – £26, including a five-dram tasting, a newmake to take away and even a cocktail in their bar.

Leith’s new whisky enterprises are bringing in jobs too. “We’re employing 50 people directly in the whisky business,” says Ian. “We’re also trying to keep it as local as possible with low food miles.  “All our barley comes from just outside Edinburgh. For water we’ve got a borehole that delves down 130m into mineral-rich water that will help with a spirit we want full of flavour and complexity even before it sees a cask.”

My last stop is at what has been the unmissable Leith whisky bolthole for years – The Vaults.  This graceful old dame has stood here since the 12th century, since 1983 the home of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.

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They’ve just spent £500,000 doing it and up and it shows. The Members’ Bar opened last month, an utter joy.  I tucked into plump Shetland mussels followed by a perfectly cooked steak. And, of course, some of their single cask cask-strength malts.

The bar centrepiece is the 15-foot-high and 30-foot-wide oak bar that stocks 2000 ultra-rare Scotch whiskies.  Above the bar reads the inscription:  “The people who said it couldn’t be done  were so dull.”  It is a quote from the SMWS’s founder, Pip Hills (below), who has just published a new edition of his fittingly named memoir Maverick.

The National:

I meet Pip and he takes me through the story of how what started as a group of pals buying a cask to enjoy themselves turned into a global club with 40,000 members. And how they helped revolutionise whisky in the volte-face from blends being pre-eminent to the current popularity of single malts. 

Pip doesn’t like the word “club”, indeed he says when he was on the board: “I really fought any attempt to create an exclusive gentleman’s club. I wanted our society to be open to all. Everyone is welcome.”  You do have to be a member to enter the swish Members’ Bar in Leith, but you can buy a day membership.

Pip likes what he sees happening in Leith: “It’s good to see whisky being distilled again so close to us. There is a bit of buzz about Leith at the moment and the Society is glad to be a part of that in what is the 40th of anniversary of creating our whisky society here in Leith.”