Crabbie’s Distillery: A Whisky Titan Rises Again

Under Lockdown, with Toddy

I write this to you now, surrounded by pillows and blankets – a full pot of hot ginger, lemon and honey brew sitting to my side. Once I pour it over a dram of my chosen whisky in a mug; I’ll have a Toddy to fight off any evil.

Do you remember how different things were when we could all go outside? It feels like an age ago, now. Before all of this Covid-19, we at Cask 88 used to frolic, arm in arm, through shimmering fields of barley. We would gather together for days of song, dance and laughter, and descend en masse to Scottish distilleries, ready to plunder their secrets and whisky. 

Stuff of the skaalds now, but we will be heading out into the world of Scotch again as soon as we can be sure that we’d not be doing the bidding of this nano-pint sized tyrant.

Luckily, we still have the memories of our February visit to Crabbie’s new distillery in Edinburgh to reflect upon. If you’re feeling particularly stuck-in, then join us for this nostalgic romp through the resurrected distillery of one of Scotch whisky’s oldest dynasties.

I’ll be referring back to our visit to Edinburgh’s other new distillery – Holyrood – throughout this blog, so feel free to refer back to it yourself!

 

Crabbie’s and Co

A modern bottle of Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine – the iconic elephant so beloved by John Crabbie on the label. (Image credit: Crabbie’s)

       

John Crabbie and Co is the name of an Edinburgh Institution, inaugurated in 1801 by Millar Crabbie, and upgraded to pre-eminence by his son, John Crabbie. Known best, these days, for their ginger wine and alcoholic ginger beer – Crabbie’s once had a blending Empire that supplied the world with excellent whisky; right from the start of commercial blending in the 1830s. Crabbie’s were responsible for many distilleries all over Scotland, and eventually setting up Edinburgh’s North British grain whisky distillery to end reliance on DCL Cameron Bridge. The Heart of the Empire was in Leith, that bustling maritime hub of trade and haulage. Here it was that Crabbie’s exotic spices arrived in Scotland, and allowed him to become a pioneer of exciting flavours. The products he created also left those docks, travelling to the ends of the earth.

Crabbie’s whisky was well known and well regarded worldwide until a good way into the 20th century, but empires flux and wane, and in the 1960s, Crabbie’s passed out of family ownership into the hands of their rivals, DCL. 

Crabbie’s green ginger wine, with its crowd-pleasing influences of fresh ginger and fermented raisins remained popular, keeping the Crabbie’s name in circulation, but their connection with whisky had long faded by the time the 21st century rolled around.

 

The New Crabbie’s

Now, though, on the 100th year since Leith joined itself to Edinburgh, Crabbie’s whisky is once more on the rise as a brand new distillery rises, not far from the family’s original site in Leith. The Halewood company have taken the reins, and have invested over £7m in distillery, continuing the Crabbie’s legacy of building what they need. Like at Holyrood, there’s still a while to wait until Crabbie’s new whisky is mature and ready to go: the first distillation on this site was on the 14th of January 2020.

Two of the distillers at Crabbie’s, Kirsten and Charlie – getting on with it, despite gawking onlookers.

We were treated to an exclusive preview look at the active distillery. Visitor experience facilities are currently far from being complete – but the important work of the distillery is firmly underway. Some distilleries decide to put on a show, where the curated appearance of the distillery from a guest’s perspective is paramount. Crabbie’s have pushed against that, following a ‘distillation first’ principle. The distillery will be set up to do what it does best, and guests will be squeezed in around that. Visitors will be treated to the actual sight of a distillery doing its work, worts and all (HA!).

 

A Steampunk Vista

The view from the mashtuns, past the washbacks, to the stills and beyond. Observe Mr. Fraser Hynd, happy as a kid in a sweetshop.

The distillery is laid out in a long hall, the mash tun, washbacks and stills all sharing the same breezy and cavernous space, giving this small distillery a grand sense of scale. This is added to by the empty industrial shell of high ceiling and brick walls that the distillery corridor leads into. These walls currently contain a whole lot nothing – but will in future house all the visitor centre amenities. With every part of the distillery exposed, and with long sight-lines, you can see the whole process in action, as workers scamper about attending to the machinery. The steampunk air of a distillery is strong here, in burnished copper, snaking pipework and bathysphere-like vessels of hot liquids.

 Looking at the setup from a certain angle, I can imagine the whole thing playing host to a very decent rock gig.

 

Spirit still and wash still – reassuringly simple and free of fuss. An honest day’s work of sweat and grime, as well. I don’t think they were expecting visitors today – when the distillery opens for real, they’ll likely have their faces on!

The two stills loom over everything else – not the largest in Scotland, but perfectly respectably chunky. Pared down, they embody simplicity. They have eschewed boil balls and other accoutrements in pursuit of a certain character to their spirit – the core tenet of any good distillery.

The character of a whisky primarily comes from its cask, but the base character of the distillate is the raw material the cask works with. Even before it hits the wood of the cask, Crabbie’s spirit is supposed to evoke the spicy qualities of fresh ginger and the heavy fruit esters of raisins – partly to evoke the character of Crabbie’s infamous green ginger wine, partly to act as a perfect partner to their ginger wine if the whisky ever gets mixed in to make a Whisky Mac cocktail. The Whisky Mac having been invented at Andrew Usher’s Peartree pub in Edinburgh in the first place.

Whisky Mac: 50% green ginger wine, 50% whisky, your choice. A sweet, gingery, deviously alcoholic cocktail – completely delightful when handled cautiously.

 

Potently Potable

While Holyrood distillery are perfectly content to use Edinburgh’s Pentland-sourced tap water for their production, Crabbie’s decided to take a gamble to introduce a unique quirk to theirs. They spent tens of thousands of pounds on a borehole in the hope that they would gain access to an aquifer beneath their Leith distillery. The bet paid off in full, and they struck liquid gold. Crystal clear water that had lain untouched for over 1,000 years, perfectly potable from the moment it was brought to the surface. Not only will Crabbie’s make a substantial saving on water costs, but they can claim a totally unique source of hydration for their own whisky. Not a bad selling point, that.

 

Looking Beyond the Whisky Horizon

To those who love whisky, and particularly for fans of Lowland malts, the sight of new Edinburgh distilleries charring their casks, firing up their stills and yeasting their washbacks (ok, that last one sounds gross) is very exciting. The more variety we have in our whisky, the better off we are – and each distillery is going to leave some very distinguishing marks on the wider industry.

Edinburgh’s famous for being a city of thinkers & entrepreneurs. Now we welcome back a new generation of distillers to keep those great minds inspired. (Image credit: Shutterstock)

Edinburgh also deserves this – as Scotland’s ancient and venerable capital, it’s only fitting that it also is host to producers of Scotland’s iconic and equally venerable national drink.

New casks from Edinburgh distilleries will likely be very tradable commodities, and though their future flavours are uncertain, we know from experience that whisky only ever gets better and more valuable the more time it spends maturing. 

These new and untested whiskies of today may become the prestige drams of the 2030s, the 2050s… the 2100s, perhaps even! In this business, it often pays to look beyond the visible horizon. 

Who knows – we might find ourselves drinking these whiskies in a world that no longer knows the debilitating sting of Coronaviruses. A person can dream.

 

Coming Up

Once we’re all allowed back out, it will be time to re-engage a cancelled plan. The next Cask 88 visit was planned for Loch Lomond distillery – producer of exceptional malt AND grain whiskies. Our March visit was disrupted by viral invaders, but hopefully we’ll be able to re-organise in the near future. We and our true love shall surely meet again, on the bonny bonny banks of Loch Lomond.

 

A Few Extra Fotaes

In the future: a swish visitor centre. Right now: a possible venue for an amazing party?
One of the first casks filled at the new distillery, kneels at the foot of its creator.
Things get hot and steamy within the spirit still.
The final stage before the whisky casks get filled – the run of the distillation is stored in these tanks.

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