FROM THE VAULTS
Leith’s liquid history
PHOTOS: MIKE WILKINSON
As the Gathering gets underway this month at The Vaults in Leith and at the Society’s many other Members’ Rooms and partner bars across the world, we revisit our tour of Leith in 2019 with SMWS member and whisky historian Justine Hazlehurst to uncover some of the area’s fascinating whisky stories
It’s usually the case that we don’t appreciate what’s around us until someone else with more knowledge and insight points it out. We scurry along the street to grab a sandwich or make our way home. We keep our eyes trained on the ground to avoid an uneven stretch of pavement, or worse. We rarely take the time to pause and look up. Thankfully today, I have SMWS member Justine Hazlehurst on hand to force me slow down and open my eyes to what’s around me. The result is quite an education.
I’m in good hands. Justine is a former teacher who has turned her passion for whisky into developing a walking tour of Leith to explore the area’s rich whisky history. And what a history it is.
THE SPIRITUAL HOME
Where better to start than in The Vaults itself, the spiritual home of The Scotch Malt Whisky Society? Beneath the Members’ Room where we’re sitting, the vaulted cellars are thought to date back to before 1200. The dates are lost in time, but what is known is that 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.
ABOVE: Justine and Richard take the tour
ABOVE: A sign at The Vaults dating the building to 1682
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. The building was leased by the wine merchant James Thomson in 1753 and subsequently became home to JG Thomson & Co, which became one of Scotland’s leading independent whisky blenders. JG Thomson continued to trade from The Vaults until 1983, when a certain Pip Hills popped in on the off chance to ask if the building might be for sale. Happily for all of us at the SMWS, the answer was yes.
“The Vaults was at the centre of a whisky industry that was absolutely huge in Leith,” says Justine. “A lot of the main players were based here, and there were about 90 bonded warehouses in the area at one point, as well as distilleries themselves, grain stores, cooperages, bottling and blending facilities, and of course the offices and marketing departments as well. It was all happening here.
“The fact that Leith was a port meant it started off importing wine and brandy. Then with the devastation of the French vineyards by the phylloxera beetle from the 1850s through to the 1870s, these warehouses ended up being full of casks of whisky.”
Justine points out an example of one of Leith’s many ‘ghost signs’
BOOM AND BUST
From The Vaults, Justine leads the way from the Shore along various backstreets, pausing to point out intriguing features such as the carving of Bacchus, the Roman god of agriculture, wine and fertility. He continues to keep watch over the offices of what was Robertson, Sanderson & Co on Maritime Street, formerly known as Quality Street.
“The Sanderson name might be more familiar as William Sanderson, whose most famous creation is Vat 69 – so called because he conducted a blind tasting here in Leith of around 100 blends, with the most popular one sample number 69,” says Justine.
Elsewhere she points out an example of one of the area’s many ‘ghost signs’, a faded reminder of a long-lost business, in this case the neglected edifice for one of Leith’s many wine, spirit and tea dealers.
Around the corner on Constitution Street is the palatial building constructed by the Pattison Brothers, whose names are forever associated in the whisky world for being one of the main forces behind both the boom of the late 19th century, and the subsequent crash that devastated the industry for decades afterwards. They were certainly colourful characters – one of their strokes of marketing genius was to train 500 West African grey parrots to say ‘Buy Pattisons whisky!’ before giving them away to publicans across the country.
They barely had time to enjoy life in their luxurious new offices, however. The building dates back to 1898, and by December that year the company had collapsed.
The offices were part of a wholesale auction of assets carried out the following year, and by 1901 both brothers had been found guilty of fraud and imprisoned.
Nearby is what was once an eight-storey bonded warehouse, with its lettering still providing a clue that it was home to the Abbot’s Choice brand. It’s now a sprawling antiques business, but step inside and you’ll find plenty of reminders of its whisky history, including some ceramic bottles of the company’s curious ceramic monks – twist the head off to pour a dram.
ABOVE: Abbot’s Choice whisky bottles can still be found in the antiques shop where a bonded warehouse used to stand
Abbot’s Choice whisky branding just about visible on the side of the old bonded warehouse
STEP BACK IN TIME
The final stop happens to be Justine’s local pub, the Bowler’s Rest, the kind of bar tucked away on a back street that you’d never know existed – and even if you did, you might be tempted to keep walking. But just as Justine has opened my eyes to a hidden Leith, she’s also able to introduce me to a fantastic little pub, untouched by the gentrification that has crept across the old port’s other watering holes.
This is where Justine likes to bring her tour to a suitably whisky-inspired conclusion, with a tasting of various blends that date back to Leith’s bygone era of whisky production – in today’s case, with bottles of Vat 69 from the 1960s, with Leith still on the label before bottling moved to South Queensferry in 1969, Crawford’s Three Star Special Reserve from the 1970s and Old Guns, bottled for export sometime between the late 1970s to mid-1980s by the Leith-based Low Robertson and Co.
“The way the whisky market’s gone, single malts from this era are beyond most people’s budgets, but tasting old blends is still possible and for many people will be the only way they can afford to taste whisky this old,” says Justine. “There is also the intriguing possibility that in a bottle like this of Old Guns there’s an element of Port Ellen whisky in it, because from 1967 until it closed down it was licensed to Low Robertson.”
To appreciate that, you have to know your history. Thanks to Justine, I’m a little bit wiser and more aware not only about Leith’s architecture, but the liquids that inspired it.
Find out more about Justine’s walking tours of Leith by visiting www.kaskwhisky.com
This article first appeared in Unfiltered issue 44 from August 2019, all titles and information correct at the original time of publication
Justine and her vintage bottlings in the Bowler’s Rest pub in Leith