Back in the 19th century when Edinburgh’s Port of Leith was at the epicentre of the whisky blending universe, one of the best-known names was that of importer, distiller, blender and bottler John Crabbie & Co, also famous for its eponymous Crabbies Green Ginger Wine.
Now, after a long absence, Crabbie’s have returned to Leith, distilling single malt whisky and offering some fine independent releases while they wait for their own whisky to come of age.
Since 2007 Crabbie’s has been in the ownership of Halewood Artisan Spirits, who have given the brand a new lease of life, courtesy of its high-profile alcoholic ginger beer. However, the company decided it wanted to reconnect Crabbie’s with whisky and its Edinburgh birthplace and to that end established the pilot Chain Pier distillery in Granton, three miles from Leith, in 2018.
This became the first distillery to make malt whisky in the city since the closure of Glen Sciennes in 1925, and gave the team the chance to experiment on a small scale with a variety of recipes and cask types.
All along, however, the plan was to create a full-blown plant in Leith close to where Crabbie’s original Bonnington distillery had been situated, and a site in Graham Street was acquired. The whisky and gin-making facility created there was duly christened Bonnington distillery.
The first spirit flowed from the pair of copper pot stills in March 2020, and the man charged with overseeing production is distillery manager Jamie Lockhart. “We hope to have our first release out in about 14 months,” he declares.
“We have a young team of seven distillers and we’re doing 12 mashes per week, meaning we can make half a million litres of spirit per annum. That’s a big amount from a small site. We’re aiming for a style of whisky as it might have been in the time of John Crabbie, and each year we will make heavily peated spirit for two months.”
He explains that “We are at the point of playing around with what we get off the stills and see how it works in different woods,” and the on-site warehouse contains Pedro Ximinez and Oloroso sherry casks, and rum, port and Chateau Margeaux wine casks, as well as the more obvious ex-bourbon barrels.
Jamie notes that “We filled cask number 4,000 in October, which was sooner than we’d expected, and I’m very happy now with our ‘new-make.’ The red wine casks are working really well with the unpeated spirit and the port casks with peated spirit.”
For those keen to sample the whisky being made at Bonnington, a tasting room will be open by appointment in 2022, and eventually a visitor centre will be developed.
If Jamie Lockhart is the man tasked with ensuring a plentiful supply of high-quality spirit flows from Bonnington, the person whose responsibility it is to help re-establish the Crabbie’s brand of whisky is master blender Dr Kirstie McCallum.
She points out that: “We wanted more body than in a traditional Lowland single malt – between a Lowland and a Highland. The new-make spirit is quite sweet, with biscuit and honey notes.
“We’re doing more with special editions and limited releases, hopefully, four to six per year, to get something out there to show what Crabbie’s is about. We are an independent bottler, after all, and I can play about, take whiskies and finish them in different casks and so on.
“One experiment we’ve done is to finish a Highland single malt from bourbon wood in a Ramandolo sweet white Italian wine cask. It’s a work in progress at the moment and I’m carefully monitoring it, but all being well, we’d hope to release it around June.”
Kirstie’s first limited edition is a 22-year-old single malt from an undisclosed Orkney distillery that might just be Highland Park. After initial maturation in bourbon wood, it has been finished for six months in a Palo Cortado sherry cask.
“We also have 10, 12 and 18-yer-old limited releases to come,” she notes, “with finishing taking place In Barolo and Tokaji dessert wine casks to name but two. And In January, to coincide with Burns’ Night, we’re launching a three-year-old matured in a virgin oak cask from the Chain Pier pilot distillery in Granton – the first single malt distilled in Edinburgh to be bottled for around 100 years!”