Edinburgh’s Port of Leith a Distilling History

Trade token of John White of Leith, a dealer in tea and gin dated 1796

The Port of Leith

From the late 13th century until 1707 when it was overtaken by Glasgow, Leith was not only Edinburgh’s port it was the gateway to Scotland and Scotland’s busiest port. Indeed well into the twentieth century Leith ships traded with the Baltic, the Low Countries, France, America and the Mediterranean, carrying coal, grain, fish and hides and returning with spices, cloth, whale oil and wine.  It is believed that in the seventeenth century Scottish juniper was exported to the Low Countries (modern day Holland and Belgium) from Leith to make genever.

Leith was a hub of the wine and spirits trade. As early as the twelfth century, wine was imported into Leith for the use of the Abbot and Canons of Holyrood. When Holyrood became the official court of the Stuart kings, all the royal wines came via Leith. By the mid eighteenth century the chief wines imported into Leith were claret and burgundy from Bordeaux, champagne from Bordeaux and Dunkirk, sherry from Cadiz, and port from Oporto. A number of industries to service this important trade such as coopering, glass making and warehousing for storage were established in Leith. At that time Leith was only second to London in term of wine imports.

Distilling in Edinburgh and Leith

Alongside the wine trade a thriving home grown spirits industry had also developed. By 1777 there were eight licensed distilleries in the City of Edinburgh and it is believed almost 400 unregistered stills. Some of the numerous spirit dealers, who were often publicans and several of them distillers were:

  • Hugh Colquohon in Princes Street
  • James Douglas in Abbeyhill
  • John Galloway – rectifier – in Rose Street
  • John Haig in Fountainbridge (of the famous Haig distilling family)
  • Archibald Scott in Potterrow
  • Ferrier & Dallas – importers and dealers in foreign wines and spirituous liquors – in Carubbers Close

The first legal distillery in Leith was most likely that of Robert Kemp who  in the 1799 had distilling premises in Yardheads as did the partnership of Balenie & Kemp who had a large pot-still malt whisky distillery at Bonnington, known as the Leith Distillery. It is not clear if this is the original Kemp from Yardheads. By the early 1800’s the Leith Distillery in Bonnington was owned by John Haig almost certainly the Haig from Fountainbridge in 1790. The Haig family and their relatives, the Steins and the Philps, had long been involved in distilling and previously had another distillery further up the Water of Leith at Canonmills. These families are still prominent in Scottish distilling.

The other major distillery in Leith was the Lochend Distillery. Between 1833 and 1848, the Lochend Distillery was owned by John Philp (cousin of Haig) but, following his bankruptcy, it went through several owners before being taken over by the Bernard family in 1852. The Lochend Distillery produced a wide range of spirits and cordials. Gin and brandy were rectified and whisky was distilled there. A list of Lost Distilleries gives the following references to Edinburgh and Leith distilleries and the dates they were founded:

  • Abbeyhill (1825-6)
  • Blackhall (1780)
  • Calton (1825)
  • Croftanrigh (1846)
  • Caledonian (1855)
  • Canongate (1795)
  • Canonmills (1782)
  • Dean (1881)
  • Edinburgh (1849- founded as West Sciennes). Changed name to Newington (1851), Glen Sciennes (1856), to Edinburgh Distillery 1859
  • Leith (1798) – also known as Bonnington
  • Leith (1825) – also known as Lochend and Yardheads
  • Sunbury (1806) – briefly known as Edinburgh c.1850

Many of these distilleries would have not only be rectifying grain spirit for use in gin they were also exporting grain spirit via Leith to London gin distillers. The Haigs and Steins, who dominated the legal distilling industry in Scotland, first dabbled in the gin trade in 1777, exporting 2000 gallons of grain spirit to London. By 1782 this had risen to 184,000 gallons. Legislation of 1823 transformed Scottish distilling by halving duties and permitting volume production of a better quality of spirit. Licensed production of malt and grain spirit increased greatly and much of this soon found its way south of the Border for rectification into gin despite screams of protest from English distillers and maltsters who considered the tax regime unfair. In the 1820’s a price war began between the gin and the whisky producers and whisky producers were forced to lower their prices even selling below cost price. Successful lobbying on the part of English distillers saw an increase in taxes on Scottish spirit.

Scottish distillers reacted by coming up with a new way of distilling. In 1826 Robert Stein invented a method of continuous distillation, which meant that spirit could be produced much faster and in much greater quantities than in pot stills, which had to be cleaned and re-charged between batches. An Irish Excise man turned distiller, Aeneas Coffey who patented a twin-column version of Stein’s still in 1830, perfected Stein’s invention. Not only was the Coffey still more efficient, it could also use a variety of cheap grains rather than malted barley. Vast quantities of comparatively inexpensive neutral grain spirit could now be produced. Initially much of it was exported to England for redistillation into gin and directly influenced the development of gin itself in that it allowed London distillers to move away from the heavy, sweet style of gin known as Old Tom and make a new type of sugar free, more aromatic gin known as London Dry. We can be sure that much of this spirit left Scotland via Leith.

Gin and Genever In Leith

In the sixteenth, seventeenth and even eighteenth centuries The Netherlands was Scotland’s most important trading partner. From the Port of Leith went out wool, salmon, coal and other products whilst in return a huge range of luxury goods were exported – spices brought in by the Dutch East India Company, tea and coffee, tobacco, brandy and genever. Large amounts of Dutch genever continued to be imported into Britain throughout the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with official figures for 1782 showing a figure of 2.5 million gallons. Unofficially the figure would have been much bigger as vast quantities were smuggled. Indeed Newhaven, next to Leith was a great centre for smuggling with fishing boats making the short journey across the North Sea and landing items such as brandy and genever to avoid the taxes payable.

As gin became the fashionable spirit in the nineteenth century Edinburgh distillers, like their London counterparts would have produced gin, originally a direct copy of Dutch genever, to cater for the demand. Like the London distillers they had everything they needed close at hand – sugar, spices and grain. At this time all the London distillers also made a huge variety of cordials and fruit liqueurs based on redistilling French brandy with natural ingredients. There’s no doubt that Leith distillers did the same.  The Crabbie & Co premises established in 1852 on the south side of Yardheads had not fewer than 40 vats for British wines and cordials able to hold from 500 to 1200 gallons each, it employs in the warehouse department about 40 women, and paid, a few years ago, to the exchequer the large sum of £300, 000. Crabbie’s Ginger Wine is still produced today although no longer in Leith.

In the nineteenth century Leith possessed many productive establishments, such as ship-building and sail-cloth manufactories….. glass and corn-mill … many warehouses for wines and spirits … and there are also other manufacturing establishments besides those for the making of cordage for brewing, distilling, and rectifying spirits, refining sugar, preserving tinned meats, soap and candle manufactories, with several extensive cooperages, iron-foundries, flourmills, tanneries and saw-mills. Not to mention the famous Rose’s Lime Juice factory established in 1867 by Lachlan Rose to manufacture a non alcoholic citrus cordial that was issued to British ships to prevent scurvy.

After 1870 supplies of French brandy dried up because of the phylloxera plague. English distillers were unable to source the brandy they needed for liqueurs and cordials and turned their attention increasingly to gin. Scottish distillers focused even more on whisky, the other spirit that was to benefit from phylloxera.  In 1883, however there were still 6 distilleries at work in Leith.

Throughout the twentieth century Leith became a centre for whisky with a number of broking, blending, bonding and bottling concerns and home to many of the major companies in the whisky industry.

With the advent of huge global drinks companies most of this activity has moved elsewhere. But the legacy remains.

Ref: Geraldine Coates 2010

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3 Responses to Edinburgh’s Port of Leith a Distilling History

  1. Zil says:

    While the Chief put Sunshine on Leith 🙂

  2. Pingback: Edinburgh Gin | YetAnotherGin

  3. I delight in, lead to I discovered just what I used to be having a look for. You have ended my 4 day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

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