From Spain to Scotland
As we celebrate ‘Sherry Week’ and the huge role that the Spanish wine has played in the whisky world, Gavin D Smith digs into Leith’s history with wine in general, and sherry in particular
Port of Leith’s remarkable vertical whisky distillery is now up and running, and its owners have been continuing the ancient port’s long connection with Spain by bottling Bodegas Barón oloroso sherry.
Port of Leith explains that: “Sourced from Bodegas Barón, a 480-year-old producer with a very modern outlook, the un-matured version of this oloroso wine will be used to season our oak casks in Sanlúcar de Barrameda…before we ship them to Scotland to fill them with whisky. Sherry plays a crucial role in transforming the character of many of Scotland’s best-loved whiskies, and this sherry will enhance ours. So, we thought it should be savoured and enjoyed while we wait for our whisky.” Port of Leith also offers a tawny port, sourced from Martha’s Family Estate, which has been operating in the Douro Valley since the mid-18th century.
Leith was once Scotland’s busiest port, and its relationship with wine is a venerable one. The Society’s own Vaults have, of course, an extremely lengthy association with wine, as well as with whisky.
In his excellent 1983 volume Knee Deep in Claret, Billy Kay declares that: “When Agricola attempted to extend his Empire north of the Forth and Clyde in 85 AD, it is likely that his main supply depot for arms, food and wine, was somewhere near the shore of what is now the town of Leith. Wine and Leith then have an intimate relationship…”
In his 1922 volume The Story of Leith, John Russell writes that: “As early as the twelfth century…the mariners of Leith brought wine from abroad for the use of the Abbot and Canons of Holyrood. In the days of the early Stuart kings, after Holyrood had become their court, the king’s wines all came via Leith.
“In the days of Mary Queen of Scots, when there was so much coming and going between Scotland and France, claret from France was the chief wine imported into Leith.
This trade continued to grow for about two hundred and fifty years until the time of the Napoleonic wars, when it increased greatly in price owing to the duty imposed on it by the British Government. Sherry from Spain and port from Portugal then began to be imported in increasing quantities.” Indeed, between 1825 and 1840, sales of sherry in Britain quadrupled.
The principal embarkation port for sherry cargoes destined for Leith was the strategic Spanish city of Cádiz in Andalucia, the sherry-producing heartland of the country, and Leith boasts its very own Cádiz Street.
When Sir Francis Drake attacked Cádiz in April 1587, during a campaign Drake himself named ‘Singeing the King of Spain’s beard’, the plunder with which he returned to England included some 3,000 kegs of sherry from Jerez.
The wine met with the approval of Queen Elizabeth I and her court, helping to increase its public popularity in the process.
From the early 17th century, Scottish merchants were establishing themselves in Spain and becoming involved in shipping sherry to Britain, which was far and away its leading export market. As well as the liquid itself, Spain also provided a source of corks for the merchants of Leith and other British ports.
Billy Kay explores the close connections between Scotland and the port of Cádiz and the sherry ‘capital’ of Jerez, noting that the company of Sandeman & Co expanded its interests from port in Oporto to sherry in Jerez during the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, Ayrshire-born James Duff emigrated to Cádiz and became the British government’s consul there. His wine shipping interests operated under the name of Gordon, Murphy and Co. In 1815 the Leith firm of Jas. Cathcart & Co advertised “…Sherries which our friends Messrs Gordon & Co of Xerez have shipt to this country.”
The advert offered ‘First quality sherry’ at £65 per butt, ‘second quality sherry’ at £55 per butt, and ‘third quality sherry’ at £45 per butt. Duff’s firm duly passed to members of the Duff-Gordon family, and successive Gordons continued to trade out of Cádiz , owning a sherry bodega notable for the lavish hospitality offered to travellers from Britain.
“At Jerez, where the sherry we drink is made, I met a great merchant – a Mr Gordon of Scotland – who was extremely polite, and favoured me with the inspection of his vaults and cellars – so that I quaffed at the fountain head.”
ABOVE: The wine cellars at The Vaults date back hundreds of years
The Scottish-born poet Lord Byron visited Jerez in 1809 and wrote that “At Jerez, where the sherry we drink is made, I met a great merchant – a Mr Gordon of Scotland – who was extremely polite, and favoured me with the inspection of his vaults and cellars – so that I quaffed at the fountain head.”
By the late 1830s, there were more than 40 registered British firms involved in the sherry trade, with Leith at its heart, and Cathcart & Co of St Andrews Street, Walker, Thompson & Co, and Bell, Rannie & Co of Constitution Street became three of the major 19th century importers of sherry and other wines into the port.
In The Story of Leith, John Russell writes that: “In our own day [the early 1920s] Leith is one of the chief wine-importing ports of the kingdom, and houses a large number of wine firms, well known as importers of wines of the finest qualities, and most of them long established.
“For instance, in the old ledgers of Messrs. Bell, Rannie, and Company, who began business in 1715, now over two centuries ago, are to be found the wine bills run up by Bonnie Prince Charlie for his gay and brilliant assemblies in ‘Forty-five times’.”
As early as 1822, Leith had been granted a licence to hold whisky under bond, and the whisky trade grew substantially during the subsequent decades, with around a dozen distilleries operating at various times within Leith and the neighbouring city of Edinburgh.
Port of Leith distillery co-founder Ian Stirling says that: “We will be waiting on the finalised spirit character before exploring cask options.
“However, initially we are only using oloroso casks, but in future we will be expanding our cask programme and we have secured a supply of tawny casks from our port producer. Every one of our casks will come from a producer we know and admire.”
Lovers of heritage and fine drink are surely celebrating the restoration of the old trading alliances between Scotland, Spain and Portugal, and looking forward to a tangible taste of those alliances when Port of Leith’s first sherry cask-matured whisky ultimately comes of age.
ABOVE: Port of Leith distillery co-founder Ian Stirling