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Posted by
Maddie Darrell
on 07/03/23

I hit the jackpot.

It was just an idea to ask a brewer, a distiller, and colleagues a few questions as part of the International Women’s Day celebrations. I knew that whatever answers I got, I’d learn something new. That’s inevitable given that I’ve been in the industry only a few months.

But I wasn’t expecting the gems that landed in my inbox. They are fantastic. Just packed with interesting information, unexpected insights and personal observations.

The lead distiller at Holyrood Distillery sent me fabulous responses, which you’ll see below. Not only that. She also took it upon herself to forward the questions to another Holyrood distiller, Jane, so that we would get more than one perspective from this exciting new business. So now we have two great interviews for the price of one. Thank you Elizabeth and Jane!

Prepare yourself for a great read about Edinburgh’s first single malt distillery in 100 years – and two of the inspiring people who work there.

Posted by
Maddie Darrell
on 07/03/23

Elizabeth Machin, Lead Distiller

Elizabeth a distiller at Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh stands with waste malt

Nursing to distilling: not an obvious career progression – how did that happen?

It is an interesting one indeed. As I was coming to the end of my nursing degree and started working as a nurse, I was more and more convinced it wasn’t for me.

I had been doing a bit of home brewing as a hobby and I heard about the MSc at Heriot Watt. I applied on a whim deciding to let fate choose. If I got in, it was meant to be, if I didn’t, I would continue my career in nursing and look to pursue a career in nursing anaesthetics or research.

Luck would have it I was given a place on the course and so my new path began, leading me to join the team at Holyrood not long after graduating.

What’s the story behind Holyrood Distillery?

Holyrood was an idea sparked by Rob Carpenter and David Robertson. Both having strong ties to the whisky industry, they were keen to create a distillery that would push the boundaries of Scotch tradition and whisky as we know it.

Using a balanced base of science and curiosity the idea was to explore every aspect of raw materials that are used in whisky. That is, barley, yeast, and water. So far, we have had a good go with exploring different malts and yeasts, having used an astounding 28 varieties of malted barley and 47 varieties of yeast. So exciting!

You are part of the Distillery’s commissioning team: what does that involve?

Initially, it was a lot of anticipation and laying down the groundwork in terms of processes and paperwork.

Once we were allowed into the distillery, that was when the fun began! We worked alongside engineers to ensure all our processes and automations were correct. There were also the logistics of getting all our raw materials delivered. Being in the city centre and in a listed building means we don’t have much room on site for storing stuff.

It was a learning curve for us all, but it was a great couple of weeks, and I learnt so much in that short space of time. We didn’t realise quite how much actually would go into starting a distillery from scratch, but it was done alongside a great team, and I feel that so far we have achieved great things.

What the essential skills needed for successful whisky and gin distilling?

Although a good knowledge of engineering and bio-chemistry is an advantage, I think being eager to learn and having enthusiasm for what you are doing trumps everything. A keen interest in spirits, and a good palate and sense of taste don’t go amiss.

With whisky, patience is key. That’s a virtue I have had to learn as I am as impatient as they come!  But it actually doesn’t feel that long ago that we ran the spirit still for the first time – and we already have whisky.

How important are ingredients, what difference do Heritage Malts make, and what do you get out of your relationship with Crisp?

The ingredients are the base of it all, so it is important to have good quality produce coming in. We have found that heritage malts bring a lot of texture to the ‘new make’. They have been interesting and fun to work with – building them into different recipes and delivering very unique flavours.

Crisp have been great to work with in terms of what they have on offer. We have a great partnership as we are both keen to learn and to make great whisky.

That’s as well as backing it all up with science – which is why we have jointly sponsored a PhD looking into different malts and the best way to use them in distilling.

Tell us a bit about your New Make spirits.

We have released several ‘new make’ spirits, built up with different malts and yeasts.

I think it is great to offer the public the chance to taste the base of what goes into whisky – and not many distilleries offer tasters of their new makes. It is also a reminder of what a great impact ageing in wood has on our spirits and the impact that wood alone has.

Our Charmed Circle range is malt vodkas – an ode to heritage malts and a way to give these ingredients a platform to shine. We did one with Crisp Chevallier Heritage malt and it gave the spirit a creamy butter and digestive biscuit taste.

Holyrood’s mantra is ‘Test. Learn. Improve. Repeat.’ How does that play out in your role?

The way we have been working production is to first think of what it is we want to achieve.

We do a trial, learn from what we have made and think about how we can improve it. Then we do it all over again with the tweaks.

We have been making some cool stuff, and it is a great way to improve flavour or texture on the spirit. We’re learning along the way more about what different malts and yeast contribute to each spirit.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

I love that we are exploring the boundaries of whisky – and are leaving no stone unturned. It is great to have an idea, be introduced to a new malt, or see a new yeast – and to take it into consideration for production.

I love visiting our warehouse and see the ever-growing row of casks and to know that we made each one. We have also won quite a few awards for several our spirits – and that makes me really proud, to know others are recognising and appreciating what we do.

What would you most like to change in the distilling industry and the spirits market?

Change is happening, but it is slow. I would love for people to break away from the pre-conceived “whisky rules”.  There are several of these rules – and they can be quite frustrating.

Biggest of all is women don’t drink whisky. I can personally debunk this one for starters!

Secondly are age statements on whisky, including that older is better. We know this is simply not true, but a lot of people still think this way, and it is something we are working hard to change.

If you were trying to convert a newcomer to spirits, which of yours would you recommend – and why?

Right now, I would offer them our chocolate new make, as I think it is excellent – and is a great addition to hot chocolate. It has a lovely rich coffee and cocoa taste to it.

However, this is the year that we see our very own whisky release, so I will be recommending that in the future for sure!

How would you sell the idea of a career in the distilling industry to young women with no spirits background?

The whisky industry is fun and ever-changing. There are so many areas within the industry that you can join – from production to laboratory-based scientific research, to sales, marketing and engineering.

There are a lot of graduate programmes on offer and enthusiasm is key.

It can be tough at times to stand your ground, as it is a very male-led industry, but that is precisely why we need more women to join. We have some great women achieving amazing things throughout different areas of the industry.

It is a very welcoming industry and people are keen to mentor, help and offer advice to newcomers.

Jane Crosbie, Distiller

Crisp Malt | Malt Wheel at Holyrood Distillery

How did you get into distilling?

I did my undergraduate degree in biotechnology. I picked the broadest degree I could in an area that I was interested in and was good at.

One of my courses focused on the application of distillation in various industries – and I enjoyed learning about the application of the science behind it. It was obvious it was something I could apply myself to really well.

Just after Covid I was lucky enough to visit Islay and speak with some of the distillers there. This led me to taking the foundation in distilling course with the IBD. That gave me a good base knowledge for starting out in the industry and also gave me a better idea of the types of roles I thought I would like.

What’s your take on Holyrood Distillery?

Holyrood Distillery for me is about bringing whisky into Edinburgh in a way that fits well with the feel of the city today. We are relatively small and compact, but with a lot of character and quirkiness, like the city.

We’re really lucky to be as flexible as we are. While building our own name, we get to experiment with a variety of raw materials and production methods – and to build our own recipes by trying out lots of different things.

What the essential skills needed for successful whisky and gin distilling?

We are a small team at Holyrood, so we have to have really good communication to get through everything that needs to be done for a production run.

Teamwork is another key skill. I feel extremely lucky to be working as part of the HD team. Everyone brings their own strengths, knowledge and skills to the table, so we benefit as a team and learn a lot from each other.

We are constantly bouncing ideas or problems off of each other, which helps us improve as individuals within the team.  It helps with problem solving in this kind of site – where there is a balance of automation and manual input – and where we are still trying to pinpoint our optimal parameters. No two days are the same, and unexpected problems crop up constantly. They sometimes require more creative solutions – and we make it work really well here.

The role itself is very dependent on being able to juggle several jobs at once, so time management is important. You need to know exactly what time you have, and when you can fit in the smaller, but important, tasks.

How important are ingredients, what difference do Heritage Malts make, and what do you get out of your relationship with Crisp?

The ingredients we use make all the difference. The flavour and aroma as well as the texture and mouthfeel of the spirit we produce are all influenced by the raw materials.

Our spirit coming out of the still and going into cask is only as good as our starting ingredients. The heritage malts that we use have a subtle impact on flavour profile of the spirit – and make real, significant differences in the texture of the spirit.

Tell us a bit about your New Make spirits.

Our new make spirits are what we produce directly from the still before they go into cask. We have four, termed NM 01 to NM 04, as part of a core range. They are made using a variety of specialty malts including medium crystal and chocolate malt – as well as different brewers’ yeasts, such as US-05  and Edinburgh Ale Yeast

We also have our World Whisky Day Release new make, which was made using Sake yeast. The recipe and production process were proposed by one of our distillers, Conor, and it has recognisable strawberry and apricot notes.

In addition to these new makes, we trial different recipes throughout the year, experimenting with different malts including heritage malt varieties like No 19 Maris Otter, Chevallier and Plumage Archer. Combining all of these speciality malts with a variety of yeasts, we have built up a substantial portfolio of recipes and spirits with very different flavour profiles.

Holyrood’s mantra is ‘Test. Learn. Improve. Repeat.’ How does that play out in your role?

‘Test. Learn. Improve. Repeat.’ was coined by our distillery manager, Marc, and is something that is applied every single day. For me, it’s very much as it sounds. I’m still learning how to optimise the production process as an operator, as well as troubleshooting and problem-solving with the kit. We often try ideas that could potentially optimise a process; make something safer; or make our products better. We’re looking for things which can be applied to our day-to-day operations.

Test. We can then observe how the change affects our production process or the finished product.

Learn. Either it will have the desired effect to some degree, or there may be some things we have to do differently – or we may need to try something else entirely.

Improve. Once we are happy the process is optimised within the given scope at the time, we move onto something else within operations and aim to do the same.


What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

This is the easiest question to answer. I think overall I find it gratifying to be a part of something as big and widespread as the whisky industry especially in Scotland. To be part of Holyrood within that industry means to be trying something a bit different and having the freedom to make production decisions that improve my ability as an operator.

The personal development I get to experience in this role and in this team is important to me and is something I am very grateful for. I also really enjoy being part of a team/business where you work alongside people that are just as proud of what they do here as I am.

What would you most like to change in the distilling industry and the spirits market?

I think the industry would benefit from moving away from rigid, centuries old traditions and embrace some new ideas. That doesn’t mean to discard them. Whisky in Scotland is what it is because of them. But for the industry to survive, like anything else, it has to fit.

Becoming more inclusive and being able to hit a wider target market by making it more accessible – and involving groups of consumers previously unable to break into the industry – would be a very positive change.

If you were trying to convert a newcomer to spirits, which of yours would you recommend – and why?

I would recommend NM 03.

Aside from being top on my list of favourites for flavour, I find it is the most versatile of the new makes. It’s mellow enough to drink neat as a warming nightcap or as part of a fun tasting. It’s a nice demonstration of what we do at Holyrood, combining the use of chocolate malt and Edinburgh Ale yeast. I also think it makes the best hot toddies ever.

How would you sell the idea of a career in the distilling industry to young women with no spirits background?

The biggest selling point for me is the versatility and diversity of what you can get involved in.

The skills you learn in one role are easily applied in other areas of the industry, and once you have built a good base knowledge and a little bit of networking within the industry, you can tap into most roles. You never feel stuck in one space.

The spirits world is a fantastic industry to be a part of.  Most people you come across share a profound sense of pride about what they do and what they are making – and it’s exciting to be a part of that community.

It gives you a strong sense of wanting to learn, wanting to try new things, and building on what other people are doing. That’s as well and wanting to be the best at what you’re doing – and then sharing it with the rest of the world.

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