English Heritage

Gavin D. Smith concludes his look at lost distilleries
By Gavin D. Smith
In the last issue we explored the history of whisky distilling in the somewhat unlikely location of Liverpool, and we conclude this series with a look at the whisky-making heritage of Bristol and London.

Like Liverpool, Bristol and London were both historically major ports, and Bristol had a very long-standing involvement with the wine trade.

The city’s whisky distillery is thought to have been established around 1761, and was located in Cheese Lane, just north-east of the River Avon in the St Philips district.

Ownership was variously in the hands of Thomas Castle & Co and Thomas Harris & Co, and subsequently members of the Board family, who created the limited liability Bristol Distilling Company in 1863.

Although the Cheese Lane plant was the only one producing whisky, Bristol was a notable centre for distillation, and in 1789 local historian William Barrett wrote of “…many great works (distilleries) being erected at amazing expense in different parts of the city.”

By 1825 the city boasted five distilleries and was sending boat-loads of spirit to London and other destinations.

A large barley field was situated next to the Cheese Lane distillery to provide grain for distillation, and when Alfred Barnard visited during the mid-1880s, annual output was in the region of 637,000 gallons, which sold principally in Leith, Belfast, London and Bristol.

Barnard wrote that “The ‘make’ is Grain Whisky and plain spirit, the latter being sold to Rectifiers for the manufacture of gin…” Interestingly, he notes that “…the former is sent to Scotland and Ireland to make a blended Scotch and Irish Whisky, for which purpose it is specially adapted, and stands in high favour.”

The still house was particularly unusual, with Barnard observing that: “At the western end of the house is the large Coffey’s Patent Still, to which is attached a patent Rectifying Still, an invention of Mr Board’s, and patented in 1882.

“It consists of a large Old Pot Still, united to a Coffey’s Patent Still, which rectifies the spirit produced by the Coffey Still, by means of the waste heat from the spent wash, thereby keeping a low and uniform temperature, resulting in a rectified spirit superior to that produced by fire or steam.

“Its advantage is, that there is no loss in the operation, and works so regularly that it requires no attention.”

The Bristol Distilling Company survived in the hands of the Board family until 1917, when the plant was acquired by the Distillers Company Ltd (DCL), who seem to have used it solely to produce industrial spirit before closing it down a few years later.

Meanwhile, in London the Lea Valley Distillery Co Ltd was located on a site between Waterworks River, Warton Road and Carpenter’s Road, in Stratford, and the distillery appears to have been established not too many years before Barnard’s visit, as it is first listed in a local directory for 1886/87.

For many years Lea Valley was the very heart of London’s industrial power base, being home not only to the Lea Valley Distillery Co Ltd but also the Three Mills Distillery, which produced spirit to be rectified into gin until well into the 20th century.

Lea Valley made both malt and grain whisky, and Barnard wrote that: “When the Distillery was built, the whole district was a country suburb, and land was very cheap; now, with the exception of a few fields at the back of the works, every inch has been built over and almost absorbed in the great City.

“Lea Valley is the only Malt Distillery in England, and it was certainly a bold experiment to make a trial in the very heart of the Kingdom, so far away from the hills and mountain streams…”

The distillery was equipped with three steam-heated pot stills and a Coffey ‘patent’ still, and Barnard noted the annual output as the annual output as 305,000 gallons of grain spirit and 155,000 gallons of malt spirit, making
Lea Valley a major whisky-producing enterprise.

It is believed that Lea Valley distillery was offered to The Distillers Company Ltd in 1902/03, but DCL refused to purchase it, and by 1910 at the latest, the distillery had ceased to operate.

Indeed, research shows it does not have a listing in the local business directory for 1903/04.

Today, a whole new chapter is unfolding in the evolution of the Lea Valley area, which lies at the heart of the major developments taking place to house events for the 2012 Olympics.