At Scotland’s Holyrood, Great Whiskey Starts with Great Beer

Holyrood Distillery in Edinburgh takes inspiration from the world of craft brewing, charting a new course in the tradition-heavy world of Scotch.

Don Tse Jun 14, 2024 - 10 min read

At Scotland’s Holyrood, Great Whiskey Starts with Great Beer Primary Image

Photo credit: Murray Orr

Whiskey, as we know, is essentially distilled beer. Yet distillers rarely think of their wash in the same way that brewers think about beer.

Not so at Holyrood Distillery, founded in 2019 as Edinburgh’s first new distillery in nearly 100 years. The distillery is in the city’s “Charmed Circle”—a concentration of wells that was once home to as many as 38 breweries. Brewers prized the area’s water from an aquifer around the formerly volcanic hill known as Arthur’s Seat for its rich mineral content. Holyrood founder Rob Carpenter sought to honor that history, even while challenging conventional beliefs about the flavors of Scotch.

To that end, Holyrood makes its whiskey washes from brewing malts, including heritage varieties such as Chevalier and Maris Otter as well as amber, chocolate, and crystal specialty malts. (Notably, “single malt” refers to whiskey that comes from only one distillery and is made from barley malt—however, technically, it can include different types of barley malt.)

Holyrood also ferments its washes with all manner of beer yeasts, including American and British ale strains (such as US-05 and Nottingham) and Norwegian kveik. It’s also experimenting with yeasts traditionally used in the making of sake, wine, rum, and tequila.


“We will use anything we are allowed to use by the Scotch Whisky Association,” says distillery manager Calum Rae.

Embracing the Mystery

“I’ve built my career on naïve enthusiasm,” says Rae. He has worked in breweries as well as another distillery, but he has a clear-eyed view of his own expertise.

“We need cowboys and astronauts,” he says. While he may be one of the former, the Holyrood team includes plenty of the latter, too, including graduates of Edinburgh’s famed Heriot-Watt University.

That means there is thought and intention behind their beer-inspired approach to making whiskey. “We don’t just add some specialty grains to the grain bill,” Rae says. “One of our favorite things is to have a great beer in a pub and figure out how to make it, so we can then distill it. We are big nerds and look at beer-ingredient websites and get excited about making the beer.”

They’ll also riff well outside of what many might assume would be a comfort zone of Scottish or British ales—such as a spirit inspired by Mexican lager. “Many of our washes are based on fully developed beer recipes,” Rae says. “We just love a good beer.”


As they experiment with different new makes for whiskey, they release some of them publicly as a line of New Make spirits. For the Mexican-inspired one—a special release for World Whiskey Day 2023—“the wash was a Corona knock-off,” Rae says, “and then we fermented it with tequila yeast.”

With so many unique distillations derived from unique brews, Rae says a big part of his job is keeping records. “Our motto is, ‘Test, learn, improve, repeat,’” he says. “The difference between madness and science is scientists write things down.”

However, these are not random experiments—all of Holyrood’s products are driven by a desire to add layers and complexity to Scotch. “The main thing is, flavor first,” Rae says.

They taste a new make and track it as the whiskey ages in barrels. For example: If the flavor of roasted malt starts to fade after a while, they make a note of that and factor it into future decisions on any whiskeys that include roasted malts.

The Short Game, and the Long One

Consumers get to participate in the fun. Holyrood sells many of their new makes in their New Make line, with labels that share details about the unique ingredients and process that go into each bottle. Eventually, they release many of the same spirits as single-cask editions, so that single-malt enthusiasts can taste for themselves how they mature. Some Holyrood fans—including me, in full disclosure—keep dedicated tasting diaries so they can keep track.


One thing that Holyrood has demonstrated clearly is that the flavors of specialty malts are evident in the flavors of new makes. Meanwhile, they’re learning more all the time about how those flavors hold up over time on oak. The heritage barley varieties as base malts seem to express themselves in the texture while making subtle differences in the flavor. “The breadiness of Chevalier is like a fresh baguette,” Rae says, “while Maris Otter is straight-up digestive biscuit.”

Holyrood won’t release everything as single-cask bottles. “We consider blending to be an equal pillar to malt, yeast, and wood,” Rae says. “It helps to build a complex character.”

Malts that are driving the flavors at the outset, and the compatibility of those flavors, is an important consideration when they select blends. “We pick whiskey from malts that are next to each other on the flavor wheel,” Rae says. “Chocolate malt and peated malt can work together, so we try blending those whiskeys. But we definitely have a lot more colors to paint with.”

It’s also important to get a variety of perspectives when blending. “As a former sound engineer, touring as a roadie with bands, I learned that what I like isn’t always what everyone else likes,” Rae says. “You have to be aware of your own biases, so when we’re blending, I’m sure to take a collaborative team approach and listen to what everyone has to say.”

With all these different washes and spirits, Holyrood may never land on a core range of expressions, nor will they lean on age statements as any sort of product or market differentiator. “We will be consistently inconsistent,” he says.


Yet despite the broad array of washes, yeast strains, and barrels, Rae says he’s confident that Holyrood is developing its own house character. Holyrood has very tall stills that result in fruity aspects; Rae likes to run the stills hot to get an oily character, too.

“Fruity creaminess,” is how he describes it. “Even though we won’t have a core range, we will have core flavor.”

The Arrival

Arrival is the name of Holyrood’s first single-malt Scotch release, satisfying all of the requirements of the Scotch Whisky Association. “But Arrival means we've arrived at the start line, not the finish line,” Rae says. “We have only taken the very, very [first] baby steps of our journey.”

Bottled at 46.1 percent ABV, Arrival is an unpeated single-malt matured in a mix of Oloroso sherry butts, Pedro Ximenez sherry hogsheads, bourbon barrels, and rum barriques. Holyrood used traditional distiller’s malts and yeasts—Crisp Scottish Premium Pot Still Malt and strains DY379 and DY502, respectively—to produce the wash to an ABV of 7.6 percent. All those specs and more are available on the distillery’s website for any whiskey nerds who delight in details—a refreshing contrast to distilleries who tend to keep their process opaque or assume that customers aren’t interested.

The second single-malt release, Embra—named for how many locals pronounce Edinburgh, phonetically—expresses more of Holyrood’s experimental nature. The blend includes whiskeys made from three malts: heavily peated, distiller’s malt, and chocolate. The fermentations involved seven different yeast strains, including two distiller’s strains, three ale strains, and two wine strains. Aging involved three types of casks: mostly first-fill bourbon, with some peated Islay casks and a small percentage of new American oak. Given its composition, it’s unlikely that Scotch enthusiasts have ever tasted anything like it.

With its location in a well-touristed area of a well-touristed city, Holyrood expects to be a stopping point for Scotch enthusiasts as well as other travelers. “We might be the first distillery some people ever go to,” Rae says. So, despite its experimental ethos, there is no desire at Holyrood to make spirits that are weird or off-putting.

Photo courtesy Holyrood Distillery

The Future

Another place that Holyrood aims to take inspiration from craft breweries is in its own tasting room. “The same way people can go to a brewery taproom and try a flight of interesting beers, we will eventually have 20 of our whiskies available,” says Rae says.

And since every Holyrood release is a limited release, it will be in the taproom only until it sells out—then comes the next one.

It’s daunting to start a new distillery, especially in a place where tradition weighs heavily. The Scotch industry is best-known for, and largely populated by, distilleries that are centuries old. However, it makes sense that the new kids on the block would be the most likely to try new things—what Rae calls a “fresh, creative approach to Scotch.”

Don Tse is an internationally recognized beer writer and beer judge, working from his home base in the middle of North America’s barley belt.