“Back then it was a very different place.”
Those may be the kindest words Pip Hills uses to describe Leith in the late 1970s, from his book The Founder’s Tale. But with property prices in the centre of Edinburgh already making that part of the city impracticable, he ventured down Leith Walk to the run-down warehouses and whisky bonds around the Water of Leith in search of a more affordable option for the headquarters of the newly formed Scotch Malt Whisky Society. That’s where he discovered The Vaults.
“Some of the warehouses were very, very old and a few of them were still handsome,” he says. “Probably the finest was a four-storey building whose whinstone rubble walls were set behind a high perimeter and a gate. It was called The Vaults, the definite article indicating some pretension to uniqueness. The Vaults: not just any old vaults in a port stiff with vaulted chambers.”
Pip popped into the first-floor office of JG Thomson & Co, Scotland’s oldest wine merchants and a leading independent whisky blender, who owned the building at the time. His timing was propitious – the firm happened to be planning a move to new premises and would look favourably on any reasonable offer to buy The Vaults.
“I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stiffen, in the way that they do when the zeitgeist seems to be taking command of the ship,” says Pip. “I was just delighted with it – and I’m delighted to see that it hasn’t changed.”
ABOVE: a rare fungus thrives beneath The Vaults
Much of The Vaults’ history may be lost in time, but the vaulted cellars that still exist underneath the Members’ Room are thought to date back to before 1200. Within the cellars is a rare fungus, known only in the oldest wine cellars of Europe, and brought over with the claret from Bordeaux stored here in exchange for dried fish and coal. Over the centuries, The Vaults has survived and thrived and is now an amalgamation, culminating with the most recent addition, a fourth storey that was added relatively recently – in 1785. Wine merchant James Thomson leased the building in 1753, and it subsequently became home to JG Thomson & Co – and then to The Scotch Malt Whisky Society in 1983.
Restoring and renovating The Vaults is another story in itself, as the ancient building’s bones turned out to be creakier than the surveyors had initially predicted.
“I won’t go into the detail of the building’s restoration,” says Pip. “Five of us put up the cash to buy it. One of the five, Ben Tindall, undertook to act as the architect – and an excellent job he made of a horribly difficult project.”
We can be grateful to Pip and his fellow investors that whatever difficulties they encountered, the building was eventually reincarnated as the home of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and it remains so to the present day.
After 40 years of calling it home, we’re undertaking a sympathetic refurbishment this summer to make sure The Vaults is in perfect shape to continue to be our spiritual home for the foreseeable future. While work is ongoing inside the Members’ Room, we’ll be hosting members and guests in our Courtyard each evening from 5-9pm, and there will also be an indoor bottle shop available for members to pick up our bottlings.
If everything goes to plan, we’ll be opening our doors again in time for our annual Gathering at The Vaults in September, to raise a glass to the building that still takes pride of place on our bottles and at the centre of our SMWS badge.