Whisky Month: Edinburgh’s Own Whisky Trail
05 May 2017
Scotland is rightly famed for its wonderful whisky distilleries, the highest concentration of which is found in the Highlands, drawing thousands of visitors each year. But did you know that Edinburgh has had its own vital part to play in the Scotch whisky industry, and continues to do so today? The fascinating story of Monks, Kings, smugglers, ‘gaugers’ and whisky barons is around every corner of our city, so this Whisky Month, we salute our city’s whisky-infused past!
After the construction of amazing Holyrood Palace, King James VI was clearly in need of a stiff drink; hence his treasurer's accounts from 1506 contain one of the earliest written references to Scotch Whisky:
‘For aqua vite to the King. . .’ and ‘For ane flacat of aqua vite to the King'.
‘Aqua Vitae’, meaning ‘Water of Life’ was the ancient name for whisky, which was distilled at the time as a medicine.
The Tron Kirk
As the 18th century drew to a close, high taxes on whisky production meant that illicit whisky industry by ‘smugglers’ dwarfed licensed distilleries by a factor of 50 to 1. Illicit stills were all over the city, with their smoke disguised by the thick sooty chimney smoke that characterised the era. One such distillery was discovered in the lower cellar of this Royal Mile landmark – not a very reputable sideline for a place of worship!
Many of the whisky industry’s most famous brand names started out as licensed grocers who began to blend whisky in the 19th century. One such was George Ballantine, who opened his first shop in the bustling trade district of Cowgate, which is situated under South Bridge. Ballantine’s reputation soon grew, as did his success. He soon moved to smarter premises in nearby Candlemaker Row, then later to a prestigious location just off fashionable Princes Street. Today, Ballantine’s is the second biggest selling Scotch whisky worldwide.
The Usher Hall
The advent of mass distillation in the mid-19th century ‘ushered’ in the era of the blended whisky. This new, more palatable spirit proved a runaway success, and Andrew Usher was one of the most successful blending pioneers. It was he who donated the £100,000 to build this fine music hall, though it was not completed until more than a decade after he died. Despite being built upon the proceeds of Scotch whisky, the hall did not have a bar until the 1980’s!
The Port of Leith
The Port of Leith, which can be viewed from Calton Hill, was once the thriving hub of the whisky industry. Having always been one of Scotland’s busiest ports, in the late 19th and early 20th century, Leith became home to a high concentration of whisky broking, blending, warehousing and bottling businesses, and home to many of the biggest names in whisky of the day. The old bonded warehouses can still be seen today, and the area is home to the Scotch Malt Whisky Society.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
Set up in 1987 to educate visitors to Edinburgh about the joys of Scotch whisky, the Scotch Whisky Experience is still going strong, and is now home to the world’s largest private collection of Scotch whisky, which has been called one of the ‘Seven Wonders of the Scotch whisky world’. It is held in a glittering vault that can be viewed as part of the attraction’s whisky tasting experiences.
This month the Scotch Whisky Experience is celebrating the Art of Blending – the process to which the popularity of single malt Scotch whisky owes much of its success. You can view a bottle of the world’s first ever blended Scotch Whisky – Usher’s Green Stripe – on display at the Scotch Whisky Experience, alongside material from Diageo’s historical archive. It’s also featured as number 62 in the Edinburgh 101 project, find out more here >
If you fancy a dram to celebrate Whisky Month why not check out our Top 10 Whisky Bars in Edinburgh.