Scotch Whisky's New Old Face
Urban Scotch whisky distilling is back...
FOR ALL its remote Highland heritage, Scotch whisky used to be distilled in every corner of Scotland, writes Tom Bruce-Gardyne for WhiskyInvestDirect.
Wherever possible it was done on the side, some hid down glens but others hid in plain sight in industrial Scotland's fast-growing towns and cities.
By the late 18th century Edinburgh boasted as many as 400 stills. Only eight were licensed.
A century later, in the twilight years of Queen Victoria, blenders took what had been a hairy-arsed, outdoor spirit, and polished it into many different brands for shipping overseas during the modern world's first burst of globalization.
With Europe's vineyards including Cognac devastated by phylloxera, Scotch began to wean the English middle classes off their brandy & soda and hook them onto a whole new vice. As demand grew, yet more distilleries began to sprout up all over Scotland – this time legally registered and approved.
This great boom period was captured by Alfred Barnard in his magnum opus The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, published in 1887. In his introduction to a recent reprint, Richard Joynson describes the book as "the foundation of today's Scotch whisky heritage" and its author as "a man with a mission – and a tape measure."
Barnard was certainly meticulous in scribbling down every detail down to the last rivet in the still of the 162 distilleries he visited. Like any good Victorian, he also relished the romance of Highland whisky and those tales of illicit stills and moonshine flowing through the glens, but Barnard loved its urban side too.
Barnard's odyssey in fact began in Glasgow with the mighty Port Dundas – "one of the largest distilleries in the world," he told his Victorian readers. Add in the other five Glasgow distilleries, including Yoker, Adelphi and Dundashill, and it seems this one city was producing around a quarter of all the whisky in Scotland.
Such distilleries had a ready market on their doorstep, but given the notoriously cyclical nature of the whisky industry, could they keep going through good times and bad, or face being bulldozed into history and buried beneath housing or a supermarket?
This was to be the fate of all the urban distilleries described by Barnard because, in a city, a moment's idleness and you'd be gone. If you were tucked away in the Highlands and Islands, in contrast, you could sit out a recession in mothballs until the roof collapsed and possibly longer still.
Now in the early 21st Century, the urban distillery is back. In Scotland it began with the Glasgow distillery that fired up its stills in 2015, and released its first single malt this March. Liam Hughes, its northern Irish MD and now "adopted Glaswegian" says "It was always a mystery to me why the distilling history of Glasgow had almost been forgotten."
Hughes was inspired by a visit to Brooklyn, the artsy borough of New York that now has seven distilleries. His creation in Glasgow's Hillingdon may resemble an industrial shed, but those who make the trip apparently love it for the fact it isn't a shiny new distillery. And judging by the fruity, highly drinkable new-make spirit, Hughes is definitely on the right track.
Next comes the imposing Clydeside distillery in the old Pump House that began distilling a week before Christmas. With the Morrison family, formerly of Morrison Bowmore, behind this Glasgow venture, the twin-stilled distillery has a capacity of 500,000 litres of pure alcohol per year, and aspires to produce a top ten single malt.
Who's to say it can't? The Clydeside is certainly a beautiful distillery to visit and learn about the city's rich distilling history.
Facing the Pump House on the south side of the Clyde, a third distillery – to be called Clutha and owned by independent bottlers Douglas Laing & Co – has just received planning permission. And by the time it begins distilling, Edinburgh will also have two, possibly three distilleries in operation, starting with the long-awaited Holyrood Park Distillery.
Holyrood Park is a venture between David Robertson, formerly master distiller at Macallan and a Canadian couple, Rob and Kelly Carpenter. Work began in May and the doors are expected to open to the public next Spring. But it may be pipped at the post by the new John Crabbie distillery in Leith, owned by Halewood Wines & Spirits. Latterly that name has been best-known for Crabbie's ginger wine, but John Crabbie was one of the first whisky pioneers in the city.
Also hoping to open next year, the neighbouring Port of Leith distillery will be Scotland's first vertical distillery. Forty metres high and part of a £10m investment, it's aimed at offering both a "landmark" where visitors can see each stage of the distilling process and efficiency savings on the still's 400,000 LPA capacity.
Of course, the number of urban Scotch distilleries is unlikely to return to Victorian levels, and the volumes will never match what Barnard saw. But there is an old "new" face to Scotch whisky – a gritty and urban contrast to the "misty glen" branding that has dominated for the last 100 years.
Award-winning drinks columnist and author Tom Bruce-Gardyne began his career in the wine trade, managing exports for a major Sicilian producer. Now freelance for 20 years, Tom has been a weekly columnist for The Herald and his books include The Scotch Whisky Book and most recently Scotch Whisky Treasures.
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