O Caledonia

Gavin D. Smith looks at one of Edinburgh's former distilleries.
By Gavin D. Smith
Scotland’s capital city of Edinburgh has variously been home to some 10 distilleries since the late 18th century, and Auld Reekie’s whisky-making tradition continues today through the North British grain distillery in Weatfield Road.

Until 1988, however, Edinburgh boasted another, larger, older, grain distillery in the shape of the Caledonian Distillery.

‘The Cally’ as it was known, was founded in 1855 by Graham Menzies & Co, who already owned Sunbury distillery, beside Edinburgh’s Water of Leith.

Around this time, there was a veritable explosion in the production of grain whisky in Scotland, with output rising from some 4.2 million gallons in 1851 to 7.5 million gallons just six years later. Menzies & Co was keen to be part of this boom and chose to build a major new distillery to the west of the city centre. It was initially known as the Edinburgh Distillery, but was soon renamed the Caledonian, and was equipped with a notably large Coffey still to produce grain whisky.

Its chosen location owed much to the availability of water supplies from the nearby Union Canal, but another form of transport was also in the minds of Menzies and his colleagues, namely the railway.

The Caledonian was almost certainly the first distillery in Scotland to be built in a location designed to take advantage of the fast-developing rail network, and branch lines from both the neighbouring Caledonian Railway and the North British Railway lines ran into the new distillery.

When six other major grain distilleries decided to band together and formed The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL) in 1877, Menzies & Co initially maintained their independence, though a formal agreement was negotiated with the new company.

Then, in 1884, an amalgamation between Menzies and DCL took place, and The Caledonian remained in the DCL fold for the rest of its active existence.

It operated under the auspices of the DCL subsidiary Scottish Grain Distillers Ltd from 1966.

Although it was principally a large-scale grain distillery, in 1867 the Caledonian’s vast Coffey still was supplemented by a large pair of pot stills, used with grain mashes “...to meet a growing demand for the variety of whisky known as Irish,” as David Bremner noted in his 1869 book The Industries of Scotland.

This was part of a national trend, intended to slake the thirsts of the many Irish immigrants who travelled to Scotland during the 1860s to work on the manifold construction projects which were generated by the country’s economic boom.

Alfred Barnard visited ‘The Cally’ during 1886, and this great enthusiast of Victorian modernity and efficiency was clearly much impressed by what he saw.

The Caledonian boasted an annual output of some two million gallons of spirit per year, making it second in scale only to Glasgow’s Port Dundas distillery.

A century later, however, size was no longer everything in Scotch whisky circles, and just as many DCL owned malt whisky distilleries faced the axe during the 1980s due to over-production, so the grain side of the operation suffered significant cutbacks, too. The Caledonian was deemed surplus to requirements and closed down in 1988, with large-scale demolition and redevelopment of the valuable site following in due course.

However, the Caledonian distillery still maintains a presence in the west end of Edinburgh, off Dalry Road and close to Haymarket railway station, with its ‘listed’ red-brick chimney dominating the local skyline.

Up close it becomes apparent that while much of the old distillery has been cleared and replaced with a largely residential development, a number of structures, including several stone-built warehouses, have survived and found new functions.

Most significantly, the distinctive, original still house, bearing the date 1855, has been sympathetically restored and converted into a number of exclusive apartments.

Independent bottlings of Caledonian grain whisky are as rare as the proverbial hen’s teeth, but if the whisky is now hard to find, you could always buy an apartment and live in the former still house!