#10.4 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond

Lost and found distilleries in the Lowlands


A Sunday trip with Justine around the Lowlands looking for lost distilleries (this time, requiring a car and a very knowledgeable friend!) 

(Missed the other trips in and around Edinburgh? Here they are: One/Two/Three)

There was a time when the Lowlands had less than a handful of single malt distilleries left, mainly Auchentoshan, in Glasgow, and Glenkinchie, near Edinburgh. Until it was purchased by Richard Prior in 2015, Bladnoch had a very tormented history, with many stop-and-go. Other very popular distilleries closed during the whisky loch, such as Rosebank (closed in 1993), Littlemill (1992), Inverleven (1991), and St. Magdalene (1983). While the first is in the process of being rebuilt, the other ones are gone forever.

Many grain distilleries experienced a very similar fate. During the whisky loch and in later years Caledonian (closed in 1988), Cambus (1993, now Diageo’s cooperage), Dumbarton (2002), and Port Dundas (2011) closed down, while the production got progressively concentrated in the few remaining, like Cameronbridge (Fife), North British (Edinburgh), Strathclyde (Glasgow), Starlaw (Livingston), and Girvan (Ayrshire).

Scottish whisky went through several ups and downs in its history, and already during the 19th century saw massive plants closing down. One of these was the Kennetpans distillery, near Alloa.

Hidden sign of a hidden story.

This distillery was funded by the Steins family in the first half of the 1700s, and was followed a few decades later by the Kilbagie distillery. The two plants were massive for the time. They were connected by a canal and a railway, and were the first exporting bulk spirit outside of Scotland. The family was related through marriage to the Haig, of Cameronbridge, and the Jamesons, of the famous Irish whiskey. Following an increase in duties on spirit in the late 1780s and after a bribe attempt, John Stein and his family fell in disgrace, and the Kennetpans distillery was sequestered, sold, and finally closed in 1825, probably made obsolete by the invention of the Coffey column still. For you history buffs, there is a great website dedicated to Kennetpans (see here or below).

We were totally unaware of this “ancient” history, until a Sunday in September 2021 when our friend Justine (Kask Whisky) proposed to go there. Had already done our weekend run, we happily joined her! The site is a few km from the village, kind of in the middle of nowhere. We left the car a few hundred meters away, and we slowly explored what is left of the building. It was not possible to get very close because of safety fences, and the thick vegetation partially covered the building. However, it was possible to get a sense of the size of the plant, which at the time must have been massive indeed! As it was still early afternoon, and having being lucky with a very sunny and warm day, we decided to stay a bit in the area and take our exploration further.

Lost distilleries, theory and practice.

The trend of distilleries shutting down slowed down in the late 1990s and it was actually reverted in the 2000s, in particular for single malt distilleries. In 2007 the gigantic Ailsa Bay distillery was commissioned and built in just 9 months (12 millions of alcohol liters per annum produced). This is owned by Grant & Sons and is on the same site as the Girvan grain distillery. Almost a decade later, it was followed by a plethora of new distilleries, opening all over the place south of the Highland line. We already talked about a few of those, such as Holyrood (Edinburgh, 2019), and the Borders (Hawick, 2017). Another one, the Falkirk distillery, had been in plans for almost a decade, and in 2020 finally started producing spirit. We drove there, and we were able to take a few pictures from the gate. We found the building quite beautiful, with the few remaining works mostly limited to the parking lot. We are definitely looking forward to visit it!

Open soon to visitors, please!

Not far from there, another distillery that will be firing its stills soon is the missed Rosebank, still in Falkirk. Ian McLeod (already owners of Glengoyne and Tamdhu) purchased the trade mark back in 2017 together with some old stocks, and the construction is happening as we write. On that day we could just see the skeleton of the building, which didn’t look much like a distillery yet. Now works are well ahead, as you can see from their social media accounts.

Rosebank or…when whisky makes building sites interesting.

Fourth and last stop of the day was the old St. Magdalene distillery, in Linlithgow. It closed down in 1983 and, similarly to Caledonia and Dean distilleries in Edinburgh, was made into flats a decade later. However, the structure of the building, including the pagoda roof and the warehouse, is still admirable from the street. Being in Linlithgow, we decided to stop at Du Vin Bouchers, a very nice wine and whisky bar, for cheese and drams. The bar is very cosy, and the choice of whiskies is excellent, in particular from the Dram Fool independent bottler range. They also host Jolly Toper tastings. As the day was getting to an end, Justine slowly drove us back to Leith, ending this day full of whisky history!

A bunch of flats that used to be St. Magdalene distillery.

Thinking about all this whisky history, made of ups and downs, and of spirit first flowing, then stopping, and now flowing again, many questions popped in our heads. One is, how many of these new distilleries would survive a potential whisky loch? How many distilleries are too many? And, once maturity is reached, will these spirits be different enough for each to find their ecological niche in the whisky landscape? These questions are just food for thoughts right now, and they are not definitely ours to answer. At the moment we feel extremely lucky to witness a new golden era of whisky, and being spoiled for choice! Long live the Lowlands malt, slainte!






#10.3 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond


Dramming in
Glasgow and Fife

Another couple of distillery trips right outside Edinburgh: Clydeside and Kingsbarn

(missed Part 2 or Part 1?)

Being in a new golden era of whisky, recent years saw a plethora of new single malt distilleries being built around Scotland and the rest of the world. A few new ones are in the Lowlands. Here, distilleries opened really all over the place: in Fife (remember our trip to Lindores Abbey?), in Edinburgh (someone said Holyrood?), in the south of Scotland (ehm-ehm, Borders), and in Glasgow. One of the most recent here, is the Clydeside distillery, which opened in 2017 and started producing new make spirit in 2018. We visited it back in November 2019, at a time we were getting more and more involved into whisky. We spotted an event in the SMWS website which included the distillery tour plus tasting and bites. What else could we ask?

Coincidentally, a couple of friends of ours were visiting, so we gladly involved them in the visit (we’re still unsure whether they really wanted to get involved, but they didn’t say “no”). Being a time when people used to go every day to the office, Teresa was already in Glasgow, and the three of us reached her in the late afternoon. At the time the distillery was not quite easy to reach by public transport from the city centre, so we grabbed an Uber. The distillery building is beautiful, a mix of modern and industrial architecture, right on the side of the Clyde river (well, the distillery name kind of gave it away, I guess…). There is a whisky shop inside the visitor centre, with a wide selection of whiskies.

The tour was very nice, we had to translate it in Italian for our friends, so we ended up not taking any pictures (and tbh, at the time the blog idea was not there yet…), but we enjoyed it nonetheless. We were very happy to try the newmake spirit at the end of it. Being a SMWS one, the rest of the tasting was quite great as well, and there we could try a single grain whisky distilled a couple of days Gianluigi was born! The bites were a bit underwhelming, so to calm our hungry stomachs we had to get a (very typical late night in Glasgow) kebab when we were back in the city centre, before our train back to Edinburgh. At the time they didn’t have any official release yet, but now that they have, we are waiting for the right occasion to go back to Glasgow and try something tasty!

Arriving at Kingsbarns!

Among the most prolific areas for new distilleries, Fife could almost be a region on its own now. We recently visited Lindores Abbey, but among the new distilleries we can count for Aberargie, Daftmill, Eden Mill, Inchdairnie, and Kingsbarns. We visited the latter in March 2020, right before the pandemic. The event was organized by the Fife Whisky Festival, and consisted in the projection of the Amber Light documentary, featuring Dave Broom, and the tour of the distillery. To attend this event Gianluigi had to turn down a free ticket offer for a Scotland rugby game at Murrayfield, where it was playing against France. His epidemiologist instinct suggested avoiding big crowds, since Covid was already spreading across Italy and, in his mind, it was just a matter of time for it to get to Scotland.

Reaching the distillery in a combination of train and buses turned out not being the cheapest, we ended up spending more money than what a rented car would have costed at the time. However, it paid off as the distillery is situated in a very beautiful spot of the Fife coast, nearby the sea and meters away from golf courses. The projection of the movie was not the best, due to the initial technical problems and a very low audio volume.

A very focused Teresa!

The distillery was built in 2014 on an abandoned farm originally from the 1800s, of which they retained the main structure (including the pigeon house and, as many newly built distilleries, they have a café, where you can have food and tasty cakes. The very enthusiastic tour guide walked us through the production stages, and tested our ability to recognize flavours and aromas in a dedicated area. We understood that the intention was to release single malt at a young age, therefore commonly to others they use lots of shaved, toasted and recharred (STR) casks. They started making newmake spirit in 2015 (the first cask is exposed in the visitor centre), which we could taste at the end of the tour, together with a first core range expression, Dream to Dram (46%, ex bourbon and STR casks), and the Family Reserve: a similar expression but bottled at cask strength. The distillery is owned by the Wemyss Family, which is an independent bottler as well, so we were also offered a Velvet Fig 25y/o malt from their range. We particularly liked the Family Reserve expression, however at the time we had a 10-day trip to Islay scheduled for the end of the month, so we didn’t buy it and we got a couple of Wemyss blended malts miniatures instead…fortunately we could find that bottle months later, since that trip to Islay never happened.

Shiny happy mashtun holding mash!

In spite of the young age, the drams we had were both very tasty. We recently attended a Kingsbarns vertical tasting at the Tipsy Midgie, in Edinburgh, which confirmed how promising their whisky is, when matured in a range of casks as well. Overall, getting to know these new distilleries is very exciting: all of them can offer a unique take on single malt, and unlike many of their older brothers, the new and family-owned ones have more freedom to experiment and provide innovation in the category. Being able to reach them (more or less) easily is definitely a big “plus”!

Until the next adveture, stay safe and sláinte!

Whisky Activities Links


#10.2 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond

Dramming by bus


Other whisky things to do easy to reach from the capital of Scotland. 

(missed Part 1?)

There was a period when we were poorly experienced drammers, and our search for new distilleries to visit was done through the good (although it could be improved) Visit Scotland map or with the map we got from the Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh. The brands we knew better were the ones we could find in grocery stores or the super classics (Oban, Lagavulin, Macallan, etc.), so we didn’t have much clue about many of the distilleries around Scotland. In this context, we started looking out for places to visit in daytrips. One of the first ones we spotted, and quite isolated with respect to others, was in a village called Hawick, the Borders distillery! So, on one sunny morning in November 2019 we decided to head south and go!

The same morning was actually the day of the Rugby World Cup final England – South Africa, so we already woke up early to find a pub showing it in the city and to get breakfast. We ended up at the Black Cat, in Rose St, where we fully enjoyed the game, including that two incredible Springboks tries.

Finished the game, we moved toward the Edinburgh bus station, to find out that our pronunciation of “Hawick” was definitely very wrong. The bus ride was about 2 hours long, including a 10-15 minutes stop in Galashiels to change coach. The landscape with rolling hills and lot of green was not as dramatic as others in the country, but it was beautiful nonetheless. Once in Hawick we went for a short walk to check out the village. It looked like a nice and quiet, nice to visit for a day or maybe two, but not much more. We then went to the distillery, situated in a late 19th century building that used to be an electric company, a great example of recovered industrial architecture. At the time it was very new: renovated in 2016, it started producing new make only in 2018. On the side they produce gin and vodka, and yes, we bought a bottle of the latter at the end of the tour, argh!!!

Nosing around before the tour.

Our guide for the day was David, which looked very invested in the project and gave us a very nice tour, delving into the details of their whisky and other spirits production. It finished with a tasting in a very cozy bar above the visitor centre. The taste included their new make spirit, Kerr gin and Puffing vodka, and one of two scotch whiskies, both sourced: the blended malt Lower East Side and the blended whisky Clan Fraser. Of course, we tasted one each, and although pleasant, we decided to wait for their own single malt. After the distillery we conceded ourselves a coffee and cake in one of the nice little cafes in Hawick, and we took the bus back to Edinburgh, to end a very nice day.

We found ourselves into a similar situation a couple of months later. It’s early January 2020, a friend was visiting us from Italy for a few days…A friend that, being from the north-east of Italy, appreciates spirits and is very curious about whisky. After the a quite lame Hogmanay’s celebration, we decided to take her to visit a scotch whisky distillery…Clearly just out of courtesy, not because we wanted to!

When your friend is busy…

We didn’t have enough time for a big trip, but still enough to go outside Edinburgh, so we figured out that Tullibardine or Deanston would have been good options. We picked the second option, for no special reason other than a better combination of train timetable and timing of the tour.

Quite a unique distillery building!

We woke up quite early to take the train to Stirling, and from there we took a bus that very conveniently left us in front of the distillery. Our friend had never seen a distillery, so we decided to do a standard tour (we caught up with the Warehouse tasting later on).

The building looked quite different from other, more classic distilleries. We understood why at the very start of the tour, when the guide covered the history of the distillery and told us that the building used to be a cotton mill until the mid-60s. Before moving to the production area, we could take a wee look at the turbine that produces power for the distillery from the river Teith.

The open mashtun!
Shiny stills.

The tour was quite informative and interesting, with two highlights: the huuuuge open-top mash tun (we were all impressed!) and a cask in the warehouse signed by the cast of The Angels’ Share movie…because yes, part of the movie was filmed here!

The Angels’ Share troupe was here!

We finally moved to a nice tasting room, where four drams were waiting for us: the classic 12y, the Virgin Oak, the 18y, and the 14y Spanish Oak Finish, all 43.6% except for the latter (57.9%). The drams were paired with delicious chocolate. To be honest, our palates were not that developed at the time to fully appreciate the quality of these whiskies. We definitely do now, and Deanston is one of our great favourites!

The tasting bottles.

After the tasting we browsed the shop (which btw offers a lot of 35ml bottles), but very briefly because it was already time to head back to Edinburgh. We would have hanged out a bit longer, but we’d decided to bring our friend to the SMWS in the evening to put a cherry on the top of her full-on whisky day. She still drinks whisky, so we consider her initiation to the water of life a great success. Stay tuned for another couple of car-free whisky adventures in the next post, meanwhile, as always, Slainte!


#10.1 Whisky in Edinburgh and beyond

Dramming in the Capital


Some whisky stuff to do in and around the capital of Scotland, starting from the “in” ones. 

One of the things that we liked the most about our last visit to Blair Athol was being able to do it in a single day trip, without using a car and therefore taking full advantage of the drams included in our distillery tour. Scotland isn’t a huge country, but sometimes travelling to distilleries is not as simple as someone might think by just looking at the map. First, living in an urban context such as Leith also means driving 20-30 minutes before you are even outside Edinburgh (we can’t bake our cake and eat it, we guess). On top of that, some distilleries are particularly off the beaten path, such as Bladnoch, Ardnamurchan or Nc’Nean, and reaching towns such as Campbeltown is not the easiest either! This has its own advantages though, like the beautiful landscapes you cross to drive there, and that you will hardly find a swarm of casual tourists or whisky fans during your visit.

Despite all this, since we moved here we have been able to do a few whisky-related activities in a single day. Some of them are in the city itself, like the Holyrood distillery, the Leith and Edinburgh Whisky trails offered by Kask Whisky, the recently open Johnny Walker Experience (which we haven’t visited yet) or the Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile. Others are just beyond the city (Glenkinchie distillery), or within an hour-or-so of public transport. In this series of posts, we will tell you about our whisky adventures in and around the Scottish capital city!

First off, The Whisky Experience, just a few feet away from the Edinburgh Castle, the very first whisky-themed activity we have done since we moved to Scotland. Gianluigi did the tour twice: the most basic one with a couple of friends (and where he tasted Ardbeg 10 for the first time!), and a few months later with Teresa, this time opting for a fancier experience with a dram per region. As beginners, this was a gentle and not-to-cheesy introduction to the world of Scotch whisky, we would say tailored for tourists. Also, their Amber restaurant serves very good food and their whisky bar is quite exceptional (and not expensive despite the location). Few meters away, you’ll find the Ensign Ewart pub, which deserves a mention for their whisky offer, tastings and the break-even prices on some rare bottles, and Jeffrey Street Whisky, which offer interesting tasting experiences.

Since then, our whisky journey took a while to take off, but in July 2019 we finally visited what at the time could have been considered the Edinburgh “home distillery”, Glenkinchie.

Gianluigi under the famous Pencaitland sun.

Part of the Diageo empire, it is located in the village of Pencaitland, about half-hour away from the city center by car. Unfortunately, the distillery can’t be easily reached with public transport, but they offer a shuttle service …good solution? Maybe, if you like to throw your money in the bin: the shuttle costs £20 per person independently of the number of people in the party (or others taking the same trip), so if you’re alone it might work. In our case we were five, so it was more convenient to just get a car through the Enterprise Car Club carsharing for 3h, which costed around £25, definitely more convenient…well, probably a cab would have been more convenient than the shuttle anyway, eheh! Almost three years have gone, so we cannot give a lot of details about the tour, also considering the big renovation works connected to Johnnie Walker (as for Clynelish and Cardhu). We remember it as a pleasant experience, with two drams at the end: the Glenkinchie 12y and the Distillers Edition. The available experiences are much more now, and sooner or later we will check them out. We hope to still find the very detailed scale model showing the whisky production process from barley germination to distillation – excellent for beginners.

Gianluigi showing off one of the Whisky Experience gifts!

The wave of new distilleries didn’t spare Edinburgh, meaning that we now have two home distilleries, Holyrood and Bonnington, and a third one, the Port of Leith distillery, is being built. Holyrood is open to the public, and we waited for Gianluigi’s brother and his girlfriend to be in town to visit, in February 2020. Scotland in February hasn’t the best weather usually (a few hours later Gianluigi and Edo will assist to one of the dullest, wettest and coldest Calcutta Cup games in a few years, at Murrayfield Stadium), so checking out Holyrood seemed a quite fitting activity. We chose the Whisky and Gin tour (now £15.50pp) instead of the Whisky Tour and Tasting (now £25.00pp) because some people in the party were more gin drinkers (yeah, we know…). It was a very cheerful and fun experience, including a sensory room to test our ability to recognize aromas.

Double act at Holyrood: gin…
…and whisky stills.

In the gin production area, we learnt that they buy neutral grain spirit and re-distill it with juniper and their chosen botanicals. The whisky production area was quite nice, with very tall and thin stills. We found their experimentation with various barley and yeast strains extremely interesting. At the tasting we could choose one each of their sourced whisky (now discontinued), gins and gin liquors. Flights were also available. Definitely a very pleasant experience, which we might do again when the time is right.

Finally, last but not least, the historical whisky tours offered by Justine of Kask Whisky, the Edinburgh and Leith Whisky trails. Edinburgh has an incredibly important, as well as hidden in plain sight, whisky history, which Justine uncovered for us during these tours. We’d say that they are more oriented to whisky nerds like us, however Gianluigi’s parents (which are definitely not whisky nerds and don’t speak English) quite liked the Edinburgh Whisky Trail, which started near the Haymarket station (at the Caledonia distillery site) and ended in one of the prettiest neighborhoods in the city, Stockbridge.

Memory of the Caledonia distillery.

The whisky history of Leith is even more obvious, it is really hard not to spot the signs, from the Cooperage on the Shore, to the (former) warehouses (now flats). However, Justine is able to take a deep dive in the history of this part of town, and show how it was connected to the whisky industry. As the icing on the cake, Justine’s tours end with a tasting of old, sometimes very old blends. Definitely a must-do for every whisky geek out there!

Old blends at the end of the Edinburgh Whisky Trail…and a special guest too.

For people interested in whisky tastings there is also a good choice. While we already mentioned the Ensign Ewart and Jeffrey Street Whisky here and in our Dramming at home post, another option is the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, in particular the venue at Queen St (open to non-members), where they have weekly tastings guided by their very competent crew. For other tasting experiences, it is also worth to keep an eye on the social media profile of Jolly Toper, One Malt at a Time, and East Coast Whisky. Finally, a recent addition is Tipsy Midgie, offering a plethora of tasting experiences (distillery-focused, chocolate pairing, etc.). As a result of our first tasting we booked another two, just to give you an idea, eheh!

A tasting in the Pip Hills Room at the SMWS Queen St.
The unbelievable whiskybcollection at the new Tipsy Midgie bar!

If this has not satisfied your appetite for whisky stuff, stay tuned: in the next couple of weeks we’ll tell you about a few of our daytrips from Edinburgh…until then: slainte!

Whisky activities links

Whisky bar links