It’s a reflection of whisky history and themes that North British is the last sole remaining distillery based in Scotland’s capital city. Once upon a time Edinburgh played host to several distilleries but these have been lost during the notable attrition that removed many from urban areas such as Glasgow and Inverness. Whilst plans are afoot for Edinburgh to bring back distilling single malts, Glasgow is already one step ahead. For now, with the Holyrood Park Distillery still some way off, North British remains the bastion of capital distilling.
Except that North British is actually a grain distillery and does not offer tours to the public. This makes it all the more remarkable that a grain distillery has survived within the city limits that are home to speculators and an endless stream of developers. Grain distilleries by their very nature are more industrial in size and scope, requiring a constant supply of raw ingredients to sustain their epic levels of output. Yet North British has stood the time since 1885 on the west side of the city whilst others such as the Caledonian distillery – itself of epic proportions – closed in 1988 and has been since converted into residential accommodation.
North British was founded by the foursome of John Crabbie, William Sanderson, Andrew Usher and James Watson. What brought these businessmen together was the craft of whisky and as blenders the requirement to find an alternate source for their recipes. Forming the North British Distillery Company, this independent venture was an attempt to break free from the shackles imposed by the Distillers Company Limited. Known as DCL, this group were comprised of 6 Lowland distilleries and effectively operated as an oligopoly controlling prices for whisky. In the competitive and potentially hugely profitable realm of blended scotch, such a practice was very damaging for its competitors.
Edinburgh was already an important whisky destination with its port of Leith playing host to many blending firms and spirit merchants. The location of North British was founded in the Gorgie area of the city and offered access to its train network and the nearby Union Canal. The site at the time was less populated than it is today and offered the potential for growth and expansion. Production commenced in September 1887 and by the following year its annual production had reached 3.6 million litres. Demand was so high for its spirit that changes were implemented shortly afterwards and its production capacity doubled.
The upward curve continued even with the harsh economic conditions of the 1920’s and 1930’s with the notable gaps due to the onset of both World Wars. By 1961, North British was producing area 13 million litres thanks to further improvements and additional warehousing was built to house its growing inventory. A remarkable feat was that the ownership of the site did not change until an amalgamation with International Distillers & Vintners that created Lothian Distillers in 1993. Further change descended in 2002, when given the pressures locally on its sizeable footprint, Lothian Distillers decided to sell off chunks of its real estate to residential developers. This accounted for the Maltings and Warehouses on Slateford Road, before in 2003 the Westfield warehousing site was also sold. Seeking a new site for the majority of its warehousing and maintenance requirements, a new facility was established outside the city at Muirhall, which is approximately 24 miles away.
Grain whiskies divide opinion and in recent times there has been a move to centralise production with the closure of many longstanding and distinctive grain distilleries. Many of these produced an older more characterful style of grain whisky and arguably the last remnant of this style is North British itself. There has been much speculation in recent times that the distillery will be switching from its core maize ingredient to the cheaper wheat alternative and that some of its character will be lost. At the time of writing, August 2017, this has not yet taken place due to the price variations between these 2 types of grain. Any changes would be only revealed after a sizeable period of maturation so it’s a wait and see approach.
Thankfully whilst the majority of North British’s output goes towards blends, the single grain market is considerable enough to warrant a series of independent bottlings that vary hugely in terms of price and age statement. It is via this realm you can truly discover the richness that North British offers with a density of honey, caramel and vanilla flavours with hints of oak and all-spice. The quality of its spirit and therefore whisky is a testament to its enduring legacy.