If you’ve been following Cask 88 for a while, you’ll have seen snippets of our magnificent whisky library on central Edinburgh’s Castle Street. Not our primary premises, but perhaps the one we’re proudest of. Its decorated and eclectic walls are often visible as the backgrounds of some of our favourite photos and videos. If you’re not able to come and visit us in person, the best way to get a peek is in our Q&A video. Some of our delightful sales team make themselves comfortable in the whisky library and take the time to explain the ins and outs of buying casks of whisky. It’s a great way to learn about how we can help you go from Cask to Glass, so go on and have a look if you haven’t already. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
A Move to Leith
All right, where were we? Ah! The Cask 88 Edinburgh office. Well, our team has been slowly growing over the last few years, and the office on Castle Street was getting a bit bijou for us all. Also, with all those priceless old whiskies and taxidermied faunae on every shelf, we got to worrying that an errant elbow could cause significant amounts of damage. We needed a new place to spread out our elbows a bit.
With our love of whisky as our guiding light, there was only one place we could have gone – northwards; to Leith! Yes, we’ve heard the chat. We’ve seen Trainspotting. We know that Leith has… a reputation. But times have changed – it’s possible that the popular conception of Leith is a bit old fashioned. Or perhaps not old fashioned enough?
The Old Port of Leith
The port of Leith was the primary pathway for goods coming in and out of Edinburgh for centuries, and in 1822 the port was given a special dispensation to store whisky under bond – something that only 6 Scottish ports were allowed to do. The port of Leith’s many warehouses were thus frequently stuffed to the gills with whisky, alongside imported wine, brandy and other fun-time beverages. Leith was a happening place to be for anyone in the alcohol trade.
This useful feature assisted distillers in the area, since they’d not have far to send their whisky to mature, and the shipping from the port would allow their whiskies to access England and international markets easily. Yardheads distillery (also known as Lochend distillery) operated in Leith from 1825, while Bonnington distillery (also known as Leith distillery) opened its doors in 1799. But with over 100 bonded warehouses all clustered together at its height, Leith also began to attract a new kind of whisky entrepreneur to the area.
The Blenders’ Quarter
For most of the 1800s whisky was seen as a commoner’s drink – not nearly as refined or civilised as the brandies and cognacs imported from the continent. This perception persisted until the second half of the century when a new craze rehabilitated whisky’s reputation and made it acceptable in polite society: the art of blending.
The great variety of whisky casks maturing under bond in Leith’s warehouses was a godsend to grocers and spirit merchants in the city – they discovered that by judiciously mixing some different malt whiskies of various characters together, they could create blends that heightened every malt’s strengths, while compensating for their deficiencies. These blended malts had their flavours tied together by combining them with a portion of grain whisky – a new kid on the block at the time.
The whisky blenders who developed these techniques were masters of publicity, and confident to go with it. As a demonstration of their own blend’s quality, they’d sign their own names onto the bottles – happy to become the guarantors of an excellent dram. The blends became household names, and are still recognisable to us today, over 150 years later.
Haig’s, Crabbie’s, Dandie Dinmont, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, Vat 69 – these Leith blends held strong for over a century, and the legacy of their need for grain whisky still stands in Edinburgh. The North British distillery was a joint venture between blending titans, Mr. Crabbie (Crabbie’s), Mr. Sanderson (Vat 69) and Mr. Usher (Green Stripe) – the latter known as the father of blended Scotch.
The North British Grain distillery still blankets Edinburgh in delicious production smells when the wind blows correctly. That may be what put us in the mood to bottle some of the North British Single Grain whisky itself – and it became the 32yr old in our new Unfiltered series.
“In the following years [William Sanderson] honed his blending skills, made various whiskies, some to his own or buyer’s recipes and introduced long maturing in sherry casks. He promoted his business personally, starting with family and business friends in Scotland then spreading wider to Europe, Australia, South Africa and world wide. In 1876 he built and expanded to new premises next door on the corner of Charlotte Street.
In 1822 came the story of how William put samples of almost one hundred of his blends in small numbered vats and invited expert colleagues to choose the best. All chose the vat numbered 69. So VAT69 became Sanderson’s premier grade blend.
– Extract from the Leith Local History Society
Skyline of a Thousand Casks
Did these blenders make money? Oh, my, yes. Hand over fist. Blended Scotch caught on, especially once the Phylloxera plague of the 1880s devastated the supply of whisky’s main competitor: brandy. Suddenly, everyone was drinking blended Scotch.
Walks through modern Leith will take you past some beautiful old buildings, a great number of them paid for by whisky money. The blenders of the 19th century knew that the sun was shining on Leith, and it was a grand time for ostentatious displays of wealth and status. The legacy of this is visible in modern Leith, if you know what you’re looking at. It’s a beautiful part of a beautiful city.
For a full overview of this fascinating time in Leith’s history, I have to recommend excellent walking tours by Justine Hazelhurst of Kaskwhisky. She accompanies you down the narrow side streets, hemmed in by the buildings that whisky built, and follows up with exquisite tastings of some inspirational classic whiskies – blended and malt alike. Tell her Sam sent you.
A New Era for Leith Whisky
Leith is no longer an active harbour, nor are there bonded warehouses full of whisky, or blenders to combine those whiskies together. In the 20th century the urban landscape changed and such concerns moved to other places.
But in the 21st century the times are once again a’changin’. Whisky is buoyant, customers are getting ever more interested in the provenance of their drams, and Edinburgh is once again becoming a city of distillers.
Holyrood distillery has opened on the Southside, Crabbie’s new Bonnington distillery has opened and brought a sleeping titan back to Leith, and the new Port of Leith distillery has broken ground on the old docklands. The headquarters of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society is bottling all kinds of exciting single casks, and welcoming ever more members from around the world to their beautiful building in the old wine vaults.
It feels like whisky will flow from Leith again, and we’ve decided to put ourselves very firmly in the heart of that action.
The casks of whisky may be gone, but the Grade A listed warehouses remain along the length of Commercial Quay. That’s where we found space for our new office, poetically situated at no.88 Commercial Street. The building was formerly owned by MacDonald and Muir, blenders of Bailie Nicol Jarvie – a blend that was famous for having a higher proportion of malt than any other. We can only hope that working within these walls will lend us the same maturity that Bailie Nicol Jarvie gained.
This is where we find ourselves now – with one eye looking back at the whisky history of historical Edinburgh’s premier port, inspired by the stories of the innovative, adventurous and fabulously wealthy whisky merchants who made their homes and fortunes here.
With our other eye, we look to the future – at the possibilities that modern Leith offers to the aspiring 21st century whisky merchant. We’re eager and determined to make our name among the greats.