Though it is more famously known for it brewing heritage, Edinburgh was once home to several successful whisky distilleries. 

Today, Edinburgh’s residents will be more familiar with the sight of – or at least the smell of – the city’s last great surviving whisky distillery – North British Grain Distillery – and the ever popular Glenkinchie Distillery which lies outwith the capital, but in the past there would have been many more examples of whisky production evident in Auld Reekie.

Though the capital could soon see the return of single malt whisky distilling in the form of the Holyrood Distillery project and a new distillery proposed for Leith, there hasn’t been single malt produced in the city since Glen Sciennes closed in 1925.

There has always been a long and fruitful history of whisky making in the capital with records of the usige beatha being produced as far back as 1505 when the Guild of Barbers and Surgeons were granted a monopoly for distilling ‘Aqua Vitae’ in Edinburgh by James IV of Scotland.

In 1777, there were no less than eight licensed stills in Edinburgh, but as was the trend at the time, the legal operations were dwarfed by the sheer number of illicit stills, with it being suspected that at the time there were more than 400 operating in the city illegally.

There were even rumours of one illicit still said to be found hidden in the stairwell of North Bridge, underneath The Scotsman hotel.

Scotch Whisky Archivist Joseph Trotter said: “Perhaps the most dramatic episode in Edinburgh-distilling history happened that century.

“In June 1784, a crowd descended on Canonmills Distillery, part of the Haig/Stein distilling dynasty, with the intention of seizing grain and vegetables they believed were stored at the distillery.

“Scotland was in the middle of vicious famine, and there was outrage that distillers continued to produce spirit in such hardship.

“The first attack on Canonmills was repelled by armed servants, and the second by professional soldiers.

“Two ringleaders were sentenced to be publicly whipped. James Haig, distillery owner, released a statement disclaiming the use of food crops such as oats, potatoes, turnips and carrots at the distillery.

“And he was probably telling the truth; Adam Smith, writing in 1776 suggested that malt spirit contained a mash of 1/3 malted barley to 2/3 raw barley or 1/3 malt barley, 1/3 raw barley, 1/3 wheat.”

By the time writer Alfred Barnard made his now famous whisky pilgrimage around the UK in 1886, the distilling scene in the capital had calmed down somewhat, with the gaugers beginning to win their battle with the many smugglers and illicit distillers who had taken hold in the city’s streets.

A battle that had sensationally exploded in 1736 with the Porteus riots which saw the Captain of Edinburgh’s City Guard lynched for his role in not only the hanging of a smuggler but also the death of 9 citizens in the ensuing riots.

Barnard, who had just spent his time travelling among the “heather, valley and mountain” scenery of the Highlands, described Edinburgh as the “noble and ancient metropolis of Scotland” and a city of “tragedy and romance”, as he recorded his visits to the capital’s three remaining legal single malt whisky distilleries.

The Lost Distilleries

The Caledonian Distillery

(Easter Dalry Wynd, Opened: 1885 – Closed: 1988)

Distilleries

The distillery’s 300ft chimney stack still stands. Picture: Google

Situated close to Haymarket Station, The Caledonian Distillery was built by Graham Menzies in 1855, and is noted by Barnard as being the second largest grain distillery in the UK at that time.

Described as the “model distillery of Europe”, Caledonian was according to Bernard a thoroughly modern distillery and said to have “every improvement of machinery and new patent known to distilling”.

It was also said to have the benefit of access to not one but two great railway lines in the Caledonian and North British. Barnard also noted that it had what was thought to be, the largest Coffey Patent Still in Europe.

The distillery was finally closed in 1988 with much of it being renovated and transformed into private housing.

Edinburgh Distillery (also known as West Sciennes, Newington, Glen Sciennes)

(Sciennes Street, Newington, Opened: 1849 – Closed: 1925)

Most of the distillery building was demolished and replaced with private housing and offices. Picture: Google

Originally a brewery said to have been built in 1430, the Sciennes Street was transformed into a distillery by Alexander Pearson in 1849. Situated close to Arthur’s Seat, the distillery changed hands – and names – several times before being taken over A. Usher & Co. who dubbed it Edinburgh Distillery.

Described by Barnard as being remarkably clean, he also notes it was only the second Scottish distillery to be entirely lighted with electric light.

It was closed in 1925 and is thought to be the last place in Edinburgh to have produced single malt.

the Water of Leith

Dean Distillery

(Dean Village, Edinburgh)

Located close to the Dean Bridge, Dean Distillery was housed in a converted flour mill near the Water of Leith.

Far smaller than it’s contemporaries, Dean Distillery only produced around 73,000 gallons annually, which was sent south to be consumed in northern England.

It was finally closed in 1922.

Though Edinburgh has had several successful distilleries over the past few centuries, its true contribution came from Leith and the port that the capital incorporated in 1929 that really helped to make its mark on the whisky world.

Joseph Trotter added: “Edinburgh’s biggest contribution to whisky industry was not its distilleries but the blending houses and enormous bonds and brokerages that swelled around the Port of Leith, sending Scotland’s best-known product around the Empire on a monumental scale.

“The names of Leith’s streets are testament to the merchants who erected their whisky temples in the area.”

 

About The Author

Sean Murphy

Driven by a passion for all things whisky-related, Sean writes for The Scotsman extensively on the subject. He can also sometimes be found behind the bar at the world famous Potstill bar in Glasgow where he continues to enhance his whisky knowledge built up over six years advising customers from all over the world on the wonders of our national drink.

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