Scotland is known for birthing one of the most successful spirits categories in the world, Scotch, a product that comes with powerful associations and strict production rules. Canada, in recent years, has forged its own reputation for quality wine and a hot rye renaissance. So what happens when a wave of Canadians migrates to Scotland and starts shaking up its tradition-bound drinks industry? Five who are currently putting their bars, distilleries, bottles and brands on the world drinks map tell us what it takes.
The master mixologist: Tristan Ley
The welcome at Edinburgh drinks temple Panda & Sons – which is as warm and fuzzy as its namesake animal – is embodied in the friendly voice and seamless manners of its new head bartender Tristan Ley. The Vancouverite landed at a bar that was No. 61 on the World’s Best Bars List through a global cocktail competition and “a lot of luck,” he says with typical Canadian humility.
He was actually the Vancouver runner-up in the New Malt Order competition of single malt Scotch brand Auchentoshan last year, but when his winning friend couldn’t take the late-2018 prize trip to Scotland, it was awarded to Ley. He fell hard for Edinburgh, where a cocktail crawl through its top drinks dens brought him to the speakeasy-cum-barbershop. “Before I even had a drink in my hand, I said, ‘This is the best bar I’ve ever been to. I’ve got to work here.’” He relocated when a vacancy came up in January, quickly rocketing to head bartender.
At a creativity-driven bar that uses its cocktail lab to do everything from freeze-drying to smoking and clarification, he’s using every skill he developed as a former bartender at the tony Vancouver Club. Ley, who is a former executive assistant to a B.C. member of parliament, says Edinburgh reminds him of Vancouver, “Because it’s such a mixed demographic. We get seniors coming in after church on Sundays, students, bartenders who are in town.”
Though he acknowledges the Scots will raise an eyebrow “when you try to use certain iconic whiskies in a drink,” Ley says the scene is wide open to innovation, beyond the chef-driven ingredients and techniques used today. “It’s time for bars to separate themselves from kitchens a little bit and do their own thing,” Ley says.
The disruptive distillers: Meeghan Murdoch and Katrina Stewart
Montreal-born Meeghan Murdoch has brewed sake in Japan, made wine around the world and is a trained brewer and distiller. She now manages operations at Eight Lands, a new brand of organic gin and vodka based in Speyside and launched this June. When recruiting a distiller for Eight Lands, she sought “somebody new and young and fresh, who didn’t have all these set ideas about distilling a certain way.” Finding Katrina Stewart, a fellow woman and Canadian, was serendipity, but “I would have hired her if she was purple!” she says. “She was the very best candidate.”
For Stewart, a Calgarian who arrived in Scotland via Nova Scotia and Ontario, “Being in the heart of whisky country as a gin and vodka distillery, we’re doing things differently,” including using cutting-edge technology and techniques borrowed from brewing to make a crisp wheat and barley vodka that’s good enough to convert many whisky drinkers.
Visitors to one of Scotch’s hallowed regions can get a “kind of whisky fatigue,” says Stewart, with Eight Lands providing a fresh alternative for Speyside travellers. The entrepreneurial, upstart company can take risks and make changes that a tradition-bound single malt producer might not, Murdoch adds.
The capital innovators: Rob and Kelly Carpenter
“It’s just the end of the beginning,” says Rob Carpenter, founder of a £6.7-million ($10.8-million) distillery – the first in Scotland’s capital in almost 100 years – the day after it opened in July. Holyrood Distillery, his vision since 2013, was sparked after the Calgarian and his wife, Kelly, spent time in Edinburgh completing his master’s degree in law and falling in love with Scotch. They later founded the Canadian chapter of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, a tasting and buying club for aficionados, which Kelly still runs from Calgary, while Rob continued to practice law at Calgary corporations and dreamed up a distillery of his own.
“My thinking was, ‘How do you turn the typical single malt distillery model on its head?'” Carpenter says. After all, Scotch distilleries are typically centuries-old facilities, with limited potential for visitor experiences.
His partnership with Scotsman David Robertson, a former master distiller at the Macallan, was instrumental in getting Holyrood off the ground. “I’m not a distiller,” acknowledges Carpenter, who relocated to Edinburgh during the pre-opening phase, but his experience in business planning, complex compliance rules and overcoming regulatory hurdles was “even more important, in terms of creating a project.”
Innovative tastings, such as a master class with Holyrood’s astrophysicist distiller and tours of the 1831 railway-shed-turned-distillery and its historic neighbourhood lure tourists in Britain’s second-most visited city. A decision to make “world-class proper single malt and Scottish gin, in the same building” means four gins and gin liqueurs are already on sale, with spirits in the barrel that will be “great whiskies you don’t have to wait 15 years to drink,” Carpenter says. “We love Scotch and we love the tradition. But in the end, we will try some new things.”
Of overcoming the red tape accumulated since Edinburgh’s last distillery closed in 1925, the can-do Calgarian laughs, “Maybe I was too dumb to know what I was getting into? Once I get my teeth into something I just kind of keep going.”
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