Distillery Focus

Beyond Whisky & Ginger

At long last, whisky distilling has returned to the Port of Leith in Edinburgh
By Jason Thomson
The production area at Bonnington
The production area at Bonnington
Walking over Bonnington Bridge, with the sounds of the Water of Leith barely audible over the rumble of traffic, there are none of the usual signs that a whisky distillery is to be found nearby – let alone Halewood’s new distillery in Leith and flagship Scotch whisky production site. Looking ahead, there is only a busy road and flats, and on the right there is what looks like a husk of what could have been a pub, long since abandoned. The masonry carries the unmistakeable scars of a fire and the beams of the roof have long since collapsed into the ravaged interior. Turning right onto the grey cobbles of Graham Street, this new facility still manages to stay hidden within the urban landscape.

Navigating the uneven road, visitors are funnelled between metallic, new-build Edinburgh flats and a miscellaneous industrial estate servicing everything from car repairs to trade-priced electrical circuitry. Each side of the street is lined with parked vehicles – something that must cause no end of headaches for large lorries delivering malt and fresh casks to this urban whisky maker. It’s only when reaching the large, weathered purple gates at the end of the street that the signature signs of a fully working whisky distillery can be seen. Operating since 2020, the Bonnington Distillery marks the return to Edinburgh (and, perhaps more importantly, Leith) of Crabbie’s, one of the most successful brands to ever emerge from the area.
Cask repair at Bonnington

To certain generations, Crabbie’s once ubiquitous ginger wine will come to mind; to others, the company’s name will mostly be recognised for its much more recent alcoholic ginger beer. However, the history goes much deeper than these two crowd-pleasing products. It was in 1832 that John Crabbie set up as a merchant of alcoholic drinks. Partnering with William Cree, the duo went from strength to strength by dealing in a wide range of products – including whisky. They were based in the Port of Leith, a hugely busy and historically important trading location, and, as such, Crabbie and Cree were well placed to deal in everything from freshly imported ginger and fermented raisins (both essential for the now famous wine recipe) to whiskies from every corner of Scotland.

After Cree’s death, John Crabbie & Co (as the company was now renamed) purchased a former porter brewery on Great Junction Street. This soon became the base of operations for Crabbie’s blending, bottling, and other endeavours including gin rectification. Of these, it would be the blending and, more precisely, the need for a reliable source of grain whisky, that would lead to John Crabbie’s longest-lasting whisky legacy in Edinburgh.

Wise to the opportunities facing blended whisky, in 1852 John Crabbie purchased Westfield Distillery in Haddington and had it fitted with a Coffey still to produce grain whisky for blending. However, circumstances would force the distillery to close only a decade later. The timing of this was more than unfortunate: the demand for blends had only increased over the years. Making matters worse, grain whisky was now very difficult to source due to the Distiller’s Company Limited’s (DCL) near monopoly of the supply. Consequently, Crabbie banded together with several other whisky producers, including the well-remembered pioneer Andrew Usher, to set up the North British Distillery Company in Gorgie, in the west of Edinburgh.
Dr Kirstie McCallum

Launched in 1885, the grain whisky powerhouse that is North British is still going strong and produces vast amounts of whisky to this very day. John Crabbie died in 1891 and the business remained in family ownership until 1963, when it was sold to the still-growing DCL. Even after this, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Crabbie’s associations with both whisky and Leith started to lessen, with the operations being moved out to a facility in Broxburn by new owners Macdonald & Muir. In 2007, Halewood became the proud owner of the Crabbie’s brand. By introducing a range of independent bottlings and its new investment in Bonnington Distillery, the company is making moves to ensure that the whisky legacy of John Crabbie & Co is never completely lost to history.

However, in a fitting twist, it was the uncovering of lost history that almost put an end to the Bonnington Distillery before it ever had the chance to produce a drop of whisky. Due to the historic nature of the site, Edinburgh City Council deemed it necessary for an archaeological watching brief to be carried out during the groundwork. Jamie Lockhart, distillery manager for Bonnington Distillery, recalls the moment the team were just about to toast breaking ground on the new distillery. A call came through: the archaeologist had discovered what they thought to be the remains of Bonnington House, lost since the 16th century during the Siege of Leith.
Production areas at Bonnington Distillery, including the gin still

This was not the news the team had hoped for, and it ended up setting the project back half a year – as well as an “eye-watering” sum of money, according to Jamie. After this significant delay (and a one-day closure as they worked out Covid lockdown procedures), the team has now been producing spirit for over a year and a half. Although not a large site, Bonnington is hoping to make 500,000 litres of pure alcohol per year. This ambitious target is embodied by what Jamie calls ‘The Great Wall of Bonnington’ – a raft of casks stacked four high that envelops the distillery’s yard. It’s the first thing one sees when passing through the aforementioned purple gates and is a testament to the company’s ambitious production targets, especially in the unusual urban environment of Leith.

As previously mentioned, Bonnington Distillery is surrounded on all sides by residential properties, and the building has been designed to account for this. Jamie describes the whole building as “super silent” and points out that a large investment has been made to ensure that the distillery’s neighbours are not bothered by the noise of the distillery’s busy production schedule.

Bonnington has also been built with experimentation in mind, which is reflected in the spirit that has been produced so far. For two months of the year the team use malt that is peated to a hefty 50ppm – although this stock is mostly earmarked for blending. When commissioning the two stills, the Crabbie’s team dived into an extensive archive of communications from John Crabbie himself, which was included when Halewood bought the brand from Macdonald & Muir. The design the team settled on creates a spirit that doesn’t fit the traditional Lowland style, but the spirit has a hefty weight and a waxy feel. According to the company’s new master blender, it’s a house style that should work well for Crabbie’s maturing stock going forward.
Old bottles of John Crabbie & Co Scotch whisky

Master blender Dr Kirstie McCallum joined Halewood in January 2021 and is not only in charge of the spirits produced at Bonnington, but also brands across the whole of Halewood’s spirits portfolio. McCallum has over 20 years’ experience in the spirits industry, in a number of different roles that have helped uniquely shape how she looks at creating new products. After studying chemistry at Glasgow Caledonian University, McCallum had originally considered following in her mother’s footsteps (who works for Cancer Research in its drug formulation unit) into the pharmaceutical industry.
An old price list for John Crabbie & Co

However, a temporary job at the now-closed Port Dundas Distillery in Glasgow ignited a passion that would change all those plans forever. McCallum went on to work in various analytical roles for Chivas before moving to Burn Stewart Distillers. She was appointed as Burn Stewart’s head blender, becoming the youngest in Scotland at the time, before moving into the role of global brand ambassador. McCallum credits this unusual move with helping her shape the whiskies she would create in the future. Instead of simply working in a lab and analysing new samples, she said that the time spent in different markets dealing directly with whisky drinkers helped her see what people might want to drink in the future.
Jamie Lockhart, distillery manager at Bonnington Distillery

McCallum moved on to Glen Moray next, before ending up at Halewood. While expressing an affinity and love for every brand she’s worked with, McCallum said that having a chance to come in and help shape something and mould it from the very start is what convinced her to join Halewood. Looking at the casks maturing in the Bonnington warehouse, it’s easy to see that McCallum has already made her mark. At a glance, one can see everything from Chateaux Margaux Grand Vin wine barriques to ex-tawny port casks – alongside all the other usual suspects.
Maturing casks

McCallum says that Crabbie’s weighty spirit creates a lot of possibilities with the wood that can be used to create unique and interesting whiskies. She promises lots of “weird and wonderful stuff” over the coming years but is adamant that this will never be just for the sake of it. McCallum believes that any cask finish that is being done should add another dimension to the drams, rather than dominating the flavour profile. The use of unusual casks will also be carried over into John Crabbie & Co’s independent bottlings, of which whisky lovers will be seeing many more in the coming years. Thus, the almost-forgotten whisky legacy of John Crabbie is secured.