01 October 1994
Remembering the Spirit of Leith
By Charles McMaster
There must be members of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society who have idly wondered why Leith was chosen as a base for this hedonistic operation. Those who know Leith at all probably regard it simply as a place where you fall into the sea to the north of Edinburgh, but in fact, the famous port has a long and enduring connection with the whisky industry, one which persists, albeit on a somewhat reduced scale, down to the present day.
Leith has long been home to a wide range of whisky brokers, bottlers, blenders and rectifiers, as exemplified by the large numbers of bonded warehouses still to be found in the port. In the not-too-distant past, Leith could even boast its own distilleries. Distilling came to Leith, in its legal form at any rate, in the early 1790s when the partnership of Balenie & Kemp established a large pot-still malt whisky distillery at Bonnington, about a mile from the River Forth shore. Known as the Leith Distillery, this sat on the south side of the Water of Leith, just downstream from Bonnington Bridge.
In 1804, the Leith Distillery was acquired by the famous Haig distilling family, in whose possession it was to remain for the next half century. The Haig family and their relatives, the Steins and the Philps, had long been involved in distilling in central Scotland and, indeed, had previously established another distillery a mile or so further up the Water of Leith at Canonmills.
Under Haig's ownership, the Leith Distillery was converted in 1835 into a patent-still grain whisky distillery and was one of the first to install a Coffey Still. This enabled continuous production of cheap grain whisky, but the distillery closed within twenty years, by about 1853, for reasons which are unclear. The buildings remained in use for a variety of other purposes for a further century and can be clearly discerned in aerial photographs of Leith taken after the Second World War.
All the buildings are sadly now demolished, although some of the retaining walls can still be seen. This distillery was not on the site of the DCL Vat 69 Bond, as has sometimes been stated, but was a little further to the south- west. The second distillery to be established in Leith was the Lochend Distillery, which dated from about 1825 and which incorporated some of the old Yardheads breweries, a collection of typical small, local breweries of great antiquity.
This distillery was situated on the north side of the Yardheads, bordered in the west by Cables Wynd and with an entrance to the north, on St Giles Street, virtually opposite The Vaults. Between 1833 and 1848, the Lochend Distillery was in the possession ofJohn Philp but, following his bankruptcy in the latter year, it rapidly passed through several changes of ownership before coming into the possession, in 1852, of Edinburgh brewing family of T & J Bernard. Bernards already owned the St Ann's Grain Whisky Distillery situated on Edinburgh's historic Croft-an-Righ (as well as a brewery on North Back of Canongate), but this was promptly sold to Robert Younger, who converted it back to a brewery, whilst Bernards in turn acquired a share in the newly erected Caledonian Distillery at Haymarket in Edinburgh, opened in 1855.
Under Bernard's ownership, the Lochend Distillery produced a wide range of spirits, gin and brandy being rectified as well as whisky distilled. In addition, wines, cordials and methylated spirits were produced. Bernard's Whisky was sold as "Encore Double Distilled Brand", with the trademark of a muzzled bear. This whisky won a number of unsolicited testimonials from somewhat unlikely sources. In an advert in the local paper, the "Leith Burgh Pilot" for 1874, "The Lancet" was quoted as stating "a very pleasant and wholesome whisky" whilst the British Medical Journal reasoned that "all injurious substances have been completely removed".
The Lochend Distillery remained in Bernards' possession until 1931, although it is thought that actual distilling ceased around the time of the First World War. Another distillery company with a presence in Leith, was that of John Crabbie & Co. Crabbies owned the Westfield Distillery in Haddington in East Lothian but, in 1852, acquired the splendidly named Scottish Porter and Ale Brewery on the south side of Yardheads.
This large modem brewery had only been erected in 1825, but the company went into liquidation in 1848. John Crabbie was a close friend of Andrew Usher and it was from Margaret Balmer, the latter's wife, that John Crabbie learned the secret of producing green ginger wine. It was for the production of this and other wines and cordials that he used the Yardheads premises. A gin still remains there to this day. Crabbie's was recently bought by Macdonald & Muir, also of Leith and the production of the famous green wine will continue in Leith.
The story of whisky in Leith for much of this present century has been concerned with ancillary activities, with broking, blending, bonding and bottling being much in evidence. As one of Scotland's foremost sea-ports, many of the major companies in the whisky industry, past and present, had a significant presence in Leith: Macdonald & Muir, A & A Crawford, Pattison Elder & Co, J G Thomson Ltd, Distillers Co Ltd and Mackinlay McPherson Ltd are just a few of the companies closely associated with Leith.
Today, however, the industry's presence is much reduced from that of even a few years ago, with rationalisation and the relative decline of Leith as a shipping port taking its toll. Many of the old bonds have been converted to other uses and some have been demolished in recent years, but there is still plenty to remind of Leith's long links with the whisky industry.
Those who visit the Scotch Malt Whisky Society's headquarters at The Vaults would do well, if they have any time to spare, to take a wander around Leith to get some idea of the whisky industry's enduring presence in the port. And, oh yes, the real reason that the SMWS is situated in Leith is that the Chairman's Lagonda can't get much further these days, not even on a tankful of single malt from Islay.