Making Whisky in Leith
Leith. The powerhouse of Whisky Blending
Whisky has successfully cultivated an image for itself that conjures open countryside, and gleaming copper stills nestled between rolling hills in the far flung parts of Scotland. But a quick look at the history books, and cast a trained eye at the major cities of Scotland and you quickly realise that Whisky making has been intertwined through urban centres as much as it is a rural pursuit. Nowhere is this more true than Leith, which was once Edinburgh’s “Whisky district”. As Justine Hazlehurst, owner of Kask Whisky and founder of the excellent Leith Whisky Trail says”:
“To say that the port of Leith has played a major role in Scotland’s whisky heritage would be an understatement. At one point, approximately one hundred bonded warehouses were located in this once thriving whisky district and it was here that many of the blenders and bottlers started”
Justine is a veritable expert on all things whisky in Leith and we can’t recommend her walking tour (which includes some vintage drams of Leith Blends at its conclusion) enough.
Why this interests us...
Woven is based in an old Biscuit factory on Anderson Place, in the shadow of a vast apartment complex that was once the Bonnington’s distillery. It’s got the tell tale signs of an old bonded warehouse. Many floors, tiny windows. Once you notice them you seem them all over Leith. The site boasts a proud history of whisky making, and was established by Messers Balenie and Kemp in 1798 before being eventually purchased by John Haig (one of the “big name distilling dynasties that persits to the modern day) at the turn of the 19th century. Bonnington’s was one of the early adopters amongst distilleries in Scotland of the Coffey still, a leap forwards (depending on who you ask) in semi-continuous distilling technology that ultimately led to a seismic shift in shaping what we define as Whisky, and this had implications for the art of blending in particular.
Suffice to say - having played an important role as a gateway to Scotland for imports of wine and brandy, the pendulum swung in the direction of whisky’s fortunes as the category elevated itself with meteoric rise across the classes.The phylloxera virus that swept through Europe’s grape growing regions, devastating the supply of raw ingredients for brandy and wine caused a seismic shift in alcohol consumption that changed history and set the stage of whisky, and blends in particular to gain a foothold that persists in some ways, to the present day.
The Lost distilleries of Leith
There are some wonderful resources on the internet that chart Leith’s history with varying degrees of accuracy and clarity. The inimitable Geraldine Coates, the original spokesperson for modern gin, most famous for her excellent book on the subject; “Classic Gin” has contributed to an excellent essay on Leith’s spirits history hosted on a Spencerfield spirits blog. But what we can be sure of that at least three Single Malt distilleries that once operated in Leith including Yardheads, Bonnington, Lochend. Since they operated at different times, it’s plausible that both Yardheads and Bonnington’s were known as Leith at various points.
Blends with Origins in Leith
The list of brands either originally or in some way associated to Leith is bona-fide ridiculous in terms of whisky pedigree. Edinburgh is the undisputed home of whisky blending, with grocers setting up and establishing the art as we know it today, none more famously than Andrew Usher, the godfather of blending, whose blending room still remains within the Peartree Pub in the university area of town. Add to that list Ballantine's, and you’ve got two of the most notable names in the history of blending.
Leith was ideally positioned to become an important centre of blending. As one of the busiest ports in Europe, Extensive warehousing and easy export were the two crucial factors. Blenders established themselves in the bonded warehouses and the list of Leith Blends boasts the likes of
Highland Queen, made by Macdonald & Muir
(Precursor to the Glenmorangie Company, now part of LVMH)
Mackinlay's is currently owned by Whyte & Mackay. Charles Mackinlay, initially an agent for Macfarlane’s whisky, established himself in 1815 as a wine merchant in Leith, before in 1847 he registered ‘The Original Mackinlay’, the backbone of the burgeoning brand. In 1892, Mackinlay's adopted ‘Leith & Inverness’ on its labelling after it was involved in building Glen Mhor distillery in Inverness.By the early 1980s the brand was the 11th best-selling Scotch in the UK.
Vat 69 produced by William Sanderson & Sons, probably the last major player to leave Leith, but now part of Diageo. The story goes that Sanderson made 100 vats of whisky blends and let the public choose their favorite. Vat 69 was the preferred choice - and the name stuck.
Abbots Choice: Notable for its once scale, and then quick decline - Abbots choice is one of the more famous blended brands that for all intents and purposes, simply disappeared. So many historic Leith blends ended up on the scrap heap - unloved by parent companies that had portfolios large enough to abolish brands and absorb the losses. Bailie Nichol Jarvie - a blend that was perhaps the last bastion of quality in the “standard” blended segment was culled as recently as 2010. Not because it wasn’t loved, or struggled for sales (it had grocery listings in the UK), but because it didn’t fit with the long term view (of a focus on luxury goods) of its parent company, LVMH.
Probably one of the notorious names in the history of Scotch Whisky, The Pattison brothers turned a legitimate blending enterprise into a scandal involving fraud and deception that shook the industry to its very core. The fallout of the “Pattison’s Crash” was the touch paper that ignited an industry collapse, ultimately resulting in a series of mergers and acquisitions that STILL shape the way the global spirts market looks.
The Present and Future of Leith’s Whisky Making credentials
Whilst the industry isn’t what it once was in Leith, there are still strong ties between Leith and Whisky. Numerous Whisky bars are dotted around the shore, and the Scotch Malt Whisky Society’s global HQ is in one of the oldest warehouse buildings named “The Vaults”. It’s an institution in its own right, and there is no better place in which to totally geek out on whisky.
Pleasingly, There are also new distilleries: Bonnington, operated by Halewood can be seen from our studio. We don't know for sure, but the amount of casks they get delivered each few weeks indicates a pretty ambitious level of production! They produce a “Yardhead” blend, and are laying down significant stocks. And there is The Port of Leith Distillery, possibly one of the most ambitious (and frankly bat shit crazy distillery) projects being undertaken anywhere in the world right now. In what feels like "Leith Whisky Style" they're pioneering new frontiers in distillery design with Scotland's first and only "Vertical distillery". However, they're also pursuing new flavours with proprietary yeast strains. Both projects promise a bright future for Leith’s whisky pedigree and both seem to channel history, local pride and innovative approaches in equal measure.
Modern Leith Blenders
There is a smattering of modern Leith Blenders, striving to put whisky back on the map.
We’re proud to call Leith our home. And whilst as blenders we source whiskies from all over the place, the fact that we curate them from, and assemble them in Leith means something, to us at least. The fact that we create all of our liquids from our tiny Studio in this location is an immense source of pride. Whilst we are keen to stress a contemporary and “new world” whisky mindset, we are hugely excited about the creative inspiration that surrounds us. We are a whisky company immersed in Leith’s melting pot of creative and cultural influences, and who knows, in time, Leith might have be famous for blends all over again.