[© Scotch Whisky Experience]
While Edinburgh is certainly not short of stories about spirits - the Headless Drummer at Edinburgh Castle, Sir George Mackenzie at Greyfriars Kirkyard, not too mention all the spooky shenanigans that have been reported on the city’s ghost tours – the city also has centuries-old connections with spirits of the liquid kind.
So, with glass in hand, settle down with us on a story of discovery as we explore how Edinburgh’s past has most defiantly left its mark on today’s tipples.
The History of Whisky in Edinburgh
Deriving from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’, or ‘usquebaugh’, meaning ‘water of life’, the first recorded mention of whisky in Scotland can be found in an early Exchequer Roll of 1494, the tax records of the day.
Initially known for its medicinal qualities, the popularity of whisky grew, so much so that it attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament, who were keen to profit from this burgeoning industry. The first taxes on whisky were introduced in 1644 which led to an increase in illicit whisky distilling across the country.
Smuggling became common practice for the next 150 years as the excisemen, or gaugers, played a constant battle of cat and mouse with illicit distillers. Undeterred, canny Scots came up with a variety of creative ways of hiding their precious bounty, including transporting it in coffins!
Illicit stills were common all over Scotland. In Edinburgh their smoke was disguised by the thick sooty chimney smoke that characterised the era. One such distillery was discovered in the lower cellar of the Tron Kirk on the Royal Mile – not a very reputable sideline for a place of worship!
* Did you know – Robert Burns, Scotland’s Bard was an excisemen! After falling on hard times in 1788 he took up the post of Excise Officer for Dumfries; in February 1792 he was promoted to the Dumfries Port Division, an appointment that carried a salary of £50 per annum. A job not without its risks, a pair of pistols which he would have carried for his personal protection can still be seen today in the National Museum of Scotland.
The continued flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose land some of the illicit whisky was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally, and in 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which authorised the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.
Smuggling disappeared almost completely over the next decade, paving the way for the Scottish whisky industry we know today. However, it’s worth noting that many present day distilleries stand on sites used by the smugglers over two centuries ago – a modern day continuation of a by-gone practice.
Two developments in the 1800s saw further popularity of the spirit – in 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Patent Still which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place, leading to the production of grain whisky, a less intense spirit than the previous malt whisky. This invention was first exploited by Edinburgh distillers Andrew Usher & Co who, in 1860, blended malt and grain whisky together for the first time to produce a lighter flavoured whisky - extending the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a wider market.
Secondly, in the 1880s the vineyards of France were devastated by the Phylloxera beetle, which wiped out the crops for wine and brandy production. Their disaster was the Scots fortune however - by the time the French industry recovered, Scottish whisky had taken the place of brandy as the preferred spirit.
Since then, Scottish whisky, especially blended whisky, has gone from strength to strength. The tipple is enjoyed worldwide, supports tens of thousands of jobs in Scotland and plays an important part in the Scottish tourism sector. Our love affair with the ‘water of life’ shows no sign of diminishing - we’ll drink to that - Slàinte Mhath!
Edinburgh’s Whisky Heritage
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?
With its proximity to the shore, Leith was the city's whisky district. Having been a centre for the storage of wine and brandy in the 16th century, with access to as many as 100 bonded warehouses, in the early 1820’s Leith was granted one of only six licences issued to ports in Scotland allowing them to store whisky under bond.
The Phylloxera beetle, which had ravaged crops for wine and brandy in France in the 1880’s, meant that the warehouses of Leith that had previously housed this product, were now lying empty. Seeing a gap in the market, whisky makers quickly moved in.
* Did you know - The Vaults in Leith, home to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, was originally a wine warehouse dating back to the 18th century.
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.
Today there are the still the remains of long-gone distilleries across Edinburgh, with the buildings taking on a new lease of life:
The Caledonian Distillery, Easter Dalry Wynd. Situated close to Haymarket Station, The Caledonian Distillery was built in 1855. The distillery closed its doors in 1988 with much of it being renovated and transformed into housing. Today, its 300ft chimney stack remains as a reminder of the building’s history.
Edinburgh Distillery (also known as Glen Sciennes Distillery), Sciennes Street. Originally believed to have been built in 1430, this brewery was renovated in 1849. It changed ownership and names several times over the following years, before being taken over by Andrew Usher & Co. in 1859 who called it Edinburgh Distillery. It closed in 1925 and is thought to be the last distillery in Edinburgh to have produced single malt. Most of the building was demolished and replaced with housing and offices.
Dean Distillery, Dean Village. Smaller than the city’s other distilleries, Dean Distillery opened in 1881 and was housed in a converted flour mill on the Water of Leith. Closed in 1922, part of the building remains today and is used as offices.
The Usher Brothers
Brothers John and Andrew Usher were born to the whisky trade. Their father, Andrew Usher Sr, had started out as a spirits dealer in Edinburgh in 1813 and the two brothers became partners in the family business, buying the afore-mentioned Glen Sciennes Distillery in 1859.
During the 1860s, the brothers began promoting new whisky brands for the flourishing UK market. Pioneers of creating blended whisky, they were also among the first to recognise the enormous opportunities for exporting whisky around the world.
The brothers left quite a legacy in Edinburgh – one that you can still smell on the city’s streets. Andrew Usher Jr co-founded the North British Distillery Company in 1880, which is still operating today.
But they also left their mark on the city in other ways - John helped establish The John Usher Institute of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, gifting funds to improve public health in the region. Andrew financed several building and harbour construction projects in the nearby coastal village of St Abbs, where he had a home. His most famous lasting memorial however was gifting £100,000 to The City of Edinburgh, for the purpose of creating a venue that ‘should become and remain a centre and attraction to musical artistes and performers and to the citizens of Edinburgh and others...’ Sadly, he never saw the hall that took his name, dying in 1898, 16 years before his dream was realised. The Usher Hall was opened by his widow in 1914 and remains one of the most impressive venues in the city. Despite being built upon the proceeds of Scotch whisky, the hall did not have a bar until the 1980’s!
Whisky in Edinburgh Today – the Story Continues
If you fancy exploring more about the art of blending and creating whisky in Edinburgh today, there’s no shortage of options:
Set within a 180-year-old building next to Holyrood Park and within easy walking distance of the city centre, Holyrood Distillery opened its doors to the public for the first time in July 2019.
As Edinburgh’s first single malt distillery for almost 100 years, they aim to combine craft traditions with bold new flavours. The award-winning visitor centre offers tours, tastings, events, a shop and a courtyard bar.
Situated just 15 miles from Edinburgh in the rolling farmland of East Lothian, Glenkinchie Distillery houses a museum about malt whisky production, an illicit still, a large scale model of a distillery and various other whisky-related displays to grab your attention.
The Scotch Whisky Experience
This 5-star visitor attraction tells the tale of Scotland's national drink. Set up in 1987 to educate visitors to Edinburgh about the joys of Scotch whisky, the Scotch Whisky Experience is now home to the world’s largest private collection of Scotch whisky, held in a glittering vault.
The Scotch Malt Whisky Society
Founded in Edinburgh in 1983, the Scotch Malt Whisky Society members club aims to educate, entertain and share their love of whisky.
The Johnnie Walker Experience
Opening in the summer of 2021, the Johnnie Walker Experience will feature rooftop bars, private dining areas, sensory tasting rooms, personalised tour and tasting experiences and live performance areas.
If you want to keep things seasonal, May is known as 'whisky month' in Scotland - a whole month dedicated to celebrating Scotland's national drink and saluting our city’s whisky-infused past!
The History of Gin in Edinburgh
Currently going through a boom in popularity, Scotland’s love affair with gin can be traced back to the 1700s and is largely associated with Leith. Not only was it already a thriving whisky industry in the area which meant there were skilled tradesmen in glass-making, coopering and warehousing, but as a dockside town which was relatively close to the Netherlands (Scotland’s most important trading partner at the time), there was easy access to spices and raw materials which were vital for gin production.
In 1777 there were 8 licensed distilleries in Edinburgh. There were also a huge number of unlicensed stills in operation too (thought to be around 400)!
Fast forward to 1826, and while gin was firmly established in Scotland, the liquid itself was still quite unpalatable. However, in 1826 Robert Stein of Edinburgh came up with an idea that would revolutionise gin production. His method of ‘continuous distillation’ increased the amount of potable gin that could be produced, as the fermented mash could flow continuously over the heat. The result was larger quantities of better quality gin, leading to the dry gin style that we know and love today.
* Did you know - Gin is made from juniper berries, but juniper is not a berry, it's actually a seed! Nearly all of the juniper used in gin-making is picked straight from the wild. During the plague years in the 14th century, doctors wore masks stuffed with juniper and people even began eating and drinking juniper, with the hopes it would fend off infection and disease.
Sales continued to thrive until the late 1950s when vodka took over as the drink of choice. Gin sales slumped and by the mid-1970s there were no gin distilleries left in Edinburgh.
It wasn’t until the late 1980s that gin sales slowly started to recover. In 2009 a change of distilling regulation led to the current small-batch premium gin revolution and, in what has now become full-circle, today there are a growing number of gin distilleries in Edinburgh. Here are our top recommendations:
Port of Leith Distillery
Established by two friends in 2017, Port of Leith Distillery is situated just a stone's throw from the Leith docks where gin production began all those years ago. They produce small batch spirits including sherry and Lind & Lime Gin. 2019 also saw the start of construction for their new, purpose-built distillery which will be over 5 floors and will become Scotland's first vertical distillery.
Since launching in 2010, Edinburgh Gin has been committed to the art and science of distilling and creating innovative, award-winning gins. Their delicious range of small-batch gin are all produced at their West End and Leith distilleries.
Opened in 2013, Pickering’s multi-award winning gin is based on an original 1947 recipe. Hand crafted at Summerhall Distillery, formerly the Small Animal Hospital of the Dick Vet School, you can also pop next door to the Royal Dick bar for a refreshing Pickering's and tonic straight from the gin tap.
Today, the spirit is fast becoming one of our city's favourite tipples, and over the past couple of years gin bars have been popping up all over Edinburgh. You certainly won’t struggle to find a good gin bar in the city. Why not have a look at our guide to 7 of the Best Gin Bars in Edinburgh.
Or, if you fancy exploring more about the mysteries of how your favourite drink is made (and possibly sampling some along the way) several breweries and distilleries in the city have opened their doors to guided tours – check out our guide to Distillery and Brewery Tours in Edinburgh.
The History of Brewing in Edinburgh
Although not a spirit, it would be remiss to leave out Edinburgh’s long and rich history when it comes to brewing beer. With a tradition dating back over 5,000 years, Scotland has long prided itself on producing top quality beers and ales.
History of Scottish Brewing
There is evidence from archaeological findings that some sort of fermented beverage was being brewed in Scotland possibly as early as the mid-4th millennium BC, although these they were likely little more than a cereal-based porridge with flavours added. The Picts were also fermenting drinks and preserving them with heather (a precursor to hops) as early as 6500BC.
The commercial brewing trade was developed by Benedictine monks in 12th-century Edinburgh and in neighbouring Dunbar, where they took full advantage of fresh spring water sources and locally grown barley. Over the centuries, Scotland gained a reputation for ales of high quality.
The mid-18th century saw the establishment of the large firms, with beers being produced for both consumption within Scotland but also for export to England, the Baltic, the Americas and the West Indies. This boom continued into the 19th century with even small towns having several breweries.
Scottish brewing reached a peak of 280 breweries in 1840. By 1910 this had dropped to 92. Restrictions on raw materials imposed during World War I along with the Temperance Movement also took a further toll, reducing the number to only 36 by 1940. There were just 26 breweries left in Scotland in 1960 and only 11 by 1970.
However, Scottish brewers have always been at the forefront of innovation and today there are more than 100 breweries operating across the country. The variety and quality of Scottish beers and ales on offer is greater than ever.
Edinburgh’s Brewing Heritage
At the industry’s height in the late 19th century, Edinburgh drinkers had a massive 41 city brewers to choose from. Rivalling the thriving breweries in London and Burton-on-Trent, they certainly made their mark on the industry. Some of the most well-known include:
The Caledonian Brewery opened in 1869, perfectly located next to the new Caledonian Railway Line on Slateford Road, where it continues brewing to this day and still uses natural whole leaf hops and open-fired brewing coppers.
Among the most successful firms were those of William Younger, who had started business in 1749 in Leith, later moving to the Holyrood area, and William McEwan who founded The Fountain Brewery in 1856. Recognising that Scottish ales were also proving hugely-popular overseas, they both owed much of their early success to strong export figures.
* Did you know? – By 1889 The Fountain Brewery was one of the largest breweries in the world, producing an astonishing 456 million pints a year!
In 1897, wanting to leave a lasting legacy to the city, William McEwan made the largest single private investment in the history of the University of Edinburgh, contributing to the cost of building the magnificent McEwan Hall. Used for graduations, concerts and examinations by the University, it remains an important building in Edinburgh’s history and culture.
In 1930 William Younger and William McEwan combined to form Scottish Brewers. The Abbey Brewery, previously Youngers Brewery, closed in 1956 and was converted to flats. 1961 saw McEwans and Youngers breweries merging forces, to become Scottish and Newcastle.
In 1973, due to the demand for bigger premises to increase capacity and production efficiency, the Fountainbridge brewery was rebuilt on recently-cleared land opposite its original site. The brewery remained active until 2005 when production was shifted to the Caledonian Brewery on Slateford Road, however the McEwan’s brand is still alive and prospering today.
Today, much of the former Fountain Brewery site has since been redeveloped and is now offices and housing. Other famous breweries, such as those at St Leonards and Craigmillar followed a similar fate many decades earlier.
Beer in Edinburgh today
Today, there are a number of microbreweries in operation in the Edinburgh area, producing bespoke lagers and ales of a high quality to a growing customer base. Why not check out these brewers, next time you’re in need of a cold one:
Since starting in 2004, Stewart Brewing have become one of Scotland's leading craft brewers, specialising in making craft beers of the very highest quality.
Housed in a 1900s horse stable in Summerhall, Barney’s Beers opened in 2012. While producing traditional ales, they also like to experiment with new flavours, such as Sherbet Pale and Marshmallow Milk Stout!
Edinburgh Beer Factory
Formed in October 2015, this family-run Edinburgh Beer Factory brewery is inspired by the Edinburgh-born ‘Father of Pop Art’ Eduardo Paolozzi, and love showcasing the art of brewing.
A short walk from the city centre, Bellfield Brewery produces tasty, award winning beers that everyone can enjoy as it is all certified gluten-free and vegan registered. Enjoy in their taproom and beer garden, fresh from the brewhouse.
Continuing the education of future brewers and distillers, the internationally renowned Institute of Brewing and Distilling at Heriot Watt University prepares candidates for entry into the malting, brewing or distilling industries, covering everything from brewing science and chemical engineering, to business studies and production management.
Scotland, and Edinburgh’s breweries are in safe hands, ensuring the continuation of this centuries-old story…..
Thirsty for more? On a warm summer's day there's nothing better than enjoying a cold beer while soaking up the rays and shooting the breeze with friends. Edinburgh has a variety of beer gardens to choose from - head over to our guide to Edinburgh's Brilliant Beer Gardens for some inspiration, sit back and enjoy.....