The History of Scotch Whisky in Edinburgh

Scotch Whisky Experience 30

[Image credit: Scotch Whisky Experience]

Whisky Galore!

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!

The Tron Kirk

* 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

Leith Shore Copyright Visitscotland Kenny Lam

(Image Credit: Visit Scotland Kenny Lam)

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

Ushers Green Stripe Whisky

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! 

 Usher Hall

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:

Holyrood Distillery 

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.

Holyrood Distillery

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.


Glenkinchie Distillery 

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 

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.

May is known as 'whisky month' in Scotland, so pour yourself a dram and celebrate Scotland's national drink aka The Water of Life and salute our city’s whisky-infused past!