Wandering around the derelict quays of the Port of Leith in the early 90s, I remember a strong sense that something exciting used to happen here. The huge industrial debris that littered the port captured the imagination of my 10 year-old self, and I thought how exciting it would be to see the rusting cranes lift cargo from vessels and witness new ships rolling out of builders’ sheds into the water.
Even then, Leith still retained an exotic allure. My Dad had bottles of wine with “Cockburn & Co of Leith” on the label. We made fortnightly trips to Valvona & Crolla for my Italian mum to stock up on olive oil and parmesan cheese. Edinburgh’s historic port was a place where delicious foreign things arrived in Scotland.
In the intervening years, a delicate and intricate ecosystem of industrial, manufacturing, creative and hospitality businesses has slowly emerged, laying the foundations upon which a new business like ours, and many others, could flourish.
Now, the streets of Leith have been utterly transformed. Take a stroll along the shore at lunchtime today, and you will find scores of young professionals and creatives queuing for their sandwiches, tourists sat in world-class restaurants, ships transformed into gleaming floating hotels, warehouses repurposed as trendy flats, and a busy port with enormous cruise ships and industrial vessels moored in its quays. The excitement is here, and now.
For much of the 19th and 20th century, Leith was the unofficial capital of Scotch Whisky. The largest whisky company in the world, Diageo, has its roots here. The Scotch Whisky Association was first established here.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society has its headquarters here. Iconic brands like Vat 69, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Hankie Bannister, Glenmorangie and Highland Queen were matured, blended and bottled here. Many residents today are related to someone who worked in the whisky industry, in one form or another, prior to its gradual migration from the city in the latter part of the 20th century.
Where else in Edinburgh but in the industrial port itself could we build a new industrial landmark like the Port of Leith Distillery; an honest and modern piece of architecture that reflects our new and innovative approach to production.
Raising millions of pounds of investment to construct our building was a tall order. With our location in Leith however, we could make a business case that with hundreds of thousands of visitors already coming to Leith to visit The Royal Yacht Britannia, we too would be able to draw tourists to our distillery.
In establishing our company here, we found a wealth of creative talent on our doorstep, from videographers and photographers to illustrators and designers. It was with a Leith agency called Contagious that we created our gin brand, Lind & Lime, that is now exported into 24 international markets and has won a clutch of major global design awards.
What’s more, we’re not the only ones finding success down by the Shore. An incredible array of food and drink companies have grown up around us. Restaurants like Borough, The Little Chartroom and Heron, in an area that already contained the Michelin starred tables of Tom Kitchin and Martin Wishart, have surely made this one of the most exciting culinary destinations anywhere in the UK.
Pilot Beer, Campervan, Moonwake and Newbarns breweries, The Bonnington Distillery, The Old Poison Distillery, Electric Spirits, Woven Blenders have all helped revive Leith’s reputation as Edinburgh’s brewing and distilling district.
The history is still here, the relics of industries gone by continue to surround us. A visitor to Leith can still sense that exciting things used to happen here, and better still, they continue to happen.
Ian Stirling, Co-Founder of Lind & Lime and The Port of Leith Distillery