History

English Spirit

Gavin D. Smith looks at the lost distillers of Merseyside
By Gavin Smith
When James Nelstrop opened St George’s Distillery in Norfolk during 2006 to make ‘English whisky,’ there was a widespread belief that this was a new departure. In fact, it was the restoration of whisky distillation in England, as the spirit’s production has a heritage ‘south of the border.’
When it comes to making alcoholic drinks we tend to associate the city of Liverpool with Cain’s brewery, which dates back to the mid-19th century, but during the Victorian era, Liverpool was also home to two distilleries which produced whisky.
Between them, Vauxhall and Bank Hall distilleries were turning out some 3.5 million gallons of whisky during the late Victorian period, both being located just to the east of the Merseyside city’s vast network of docks.
Much of our knowledge of the Liverpudlian distilling duo comes courtesy of the indefatigable Alfred Barnard, who toured them during research for his 1887 tome The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom. Barnard was also shown around whisky distilleries in London and Bristol, of which more in the next issue.
The writer dubbed Liverpool the “’Second City’ in the Queen’s Empire,” and key to its prosperity was an extensive maritime trading network. Barnard unequivocally declared Liverpool to be “The greatest port in the British Empire.”
Of the two distilleries then making whisky in the city, Vauxhall was the older and larger, having been founded in 1781 by Robert Preston & Co. In 1857 it was acquired by A Walker & Co, who already owned Glasgow’s Adelphi distillery and the Limerick distillery in the west of Ireland.
Vauxhall boasted two still houses, each containing a pair of Coffey patent stills, while 10 warehouses held some 8,000 casks of whisky. Barnard observed: “The firm store most of their grain in the public Warehouses, which are at a convenient distance from the Distillery and contiguous to the water-side.”
Barnard also noted that the grain whisky made by Vauxhall “...matures rapidly, and after five or six years’ maturation is said to be almost equal to old brandy.” At the time of Barnard’s visit the annual output of the distillery was around two gallons and no fewer than 150 people were employed.
Like Vauxhall, nearby Bank Hall distillery was also established by the Preston firm, trading in the late Victorian era as R W Preston & Co. Barnard wrote: “It is a modern work, built of stone,” and described “...the Still House, a lofty building of neat elevation, where are to be seen two of Coffey’s Patent Stills; these handsome machines are each capable of condensing and working 4,000 gallons of wash per hour. Beside these there are two handsome Pot Stills – a Wash Still, containing 4,000 gallons, and a Spirit Still. 2,600 gallons, for the manufacture of Malt Whisky.” The distillery also had a Methylated Spirit House, where, “...methyl is added to the pure spirit for manufacturing purposes.”
Bank Hall employed 90 men, and, Barnard states, “...the make of the Distillery is called ‘British Plain Spirit,’ Grain Whisky’ and ‘Malt Whisky,’ the largest proportion being Plain Spirit, and the annual output is 1,500,000 gallons.”
As with so many Scottish and Irish distilleries previously featured in this series, the Liverpool duo of Vauxhall and Bank Hall both failed to survive the inter-war economic slump, and are now a neglected part of Liverpool’s mighty industrial past.
However, the links between Liverpool and whisky have been restored to some extent with the inauguration earlier this year of a whisky-related course run by Vineyard Wines International Ltd, which trades as Vinea, and has premises on the city’s historic Albert Dock.
The course pays due regard to Liverpool’s whisky heritage while also celebrating and exploring single malt and blended Scotch. According to Vinea’s education officer Daniel Harwood, “Much of Vauxhall distillery’s output was ‘plain’ spirit for industrial uses, but many thousand gallons per year were filled into cask and sold as pure grain whisky...
The Bank Hall distillery produced many gallons for industry, some being delivered south to London.
“These full-bodied easy-sipping drams were shipped all over the country and along trade routes towards various destinations in or around the British Empire.
“Clearly Liverpool’s two now extinct homes of spirit production were not playing with the idea
of distillation.”