Crabbie Bonnington Distillery, Leith

The first spirit came off the stills at the new John Crabbie & Co’s Bonnington Distillery just before the Covid-19 outbreak caused pretty much everything in Edinburgh to close down. Nevertheless, this is an exciting time for Crabbie’s and, indeed, for whisky production in general here in Scotland’s capital. With Holyrood Distillery opening in the summer of last year and construction of the Port of Leith Distillery now underway, Edinburgh is well and truly asserting its rightful place on the Scotch whisky map.

For those proud citizens of Leith, of which I am one, Crabbie is a name inextricably linked to the port. Head to my local and you’ll be sure to find a number of folk who used to work at the old Crabbie’s plant on Great Junction Street. Take Lucky John for example; ironically known as such due to his dire luck on the horses. He remembers the space between the two walls in the bonded warehouse fondly where, along with his fellow workers, he’d hide the empty bottles of whisky which had inadvertently ‘gone missing’. Initially, the bottles would cause a loud crash when dropped over the gap at the top; by the time he left, that crash had become the quietest of clinks.

The history of John Crabbie, both the man and the company, is so extensive it warrants more than just a blog post. In brief, though, the company goes back all the way to the turn of the 19th century when John Crabbie’s father, Miller, established the blending business in 1801. John Crabbie used Leith as the base to grow the business after purchasing a brewery in Yardheads, the other side of which faces on to what is now known as Great Junction Street. And it was here that the Crabbie’s bonded warehouse, which all Leithers remember, was located.

In the early 60s, Crabbie’s was purchased by Distillers Company Limited and then, in the 1980s, the business was acquired by Macdonald and Muir. The latter owned the bonded warehouse around the corner in Water Street where Crabbie whisky was also stored.

In more recent history, in 2007 the Crabbie brand was purchased by Halewood International (owners of Whitley Neill gin, The Pogues Irish whiskey, Aberfalls distillery in Wales and the soon-to-be-in-production whisky and bourbon Bankhall distillery in Blackpool. Yes, you read that correctly; Blackpool).

At this time, most people associated the Crabbie name with ginger beer (or perhaps green ginger wine). However, since acquiring the business, Halewood has been set on reviving the Crabbie name as a whisky brand and their initial Crabbie whisky releases used spirit sourced from other distilleries. The company set up their wee, experimental distillery in Granton whilst construction on the Bonnington Distillery took place. And like all good whisky projects, the completion targets were of the moving kind. Now, after what David Brown, the managing director, likes to call the ‘archaeological phase’, the distillery is up and running under the management of Marc Watson.

So this is a sample of the first spirit to come off those stills at the Bonnington Distillery. Taken prior to lockdown (not 25th April as the label might suggest), this batch will be used to fill casks intended for a longer maturation period than others due to its higher abv (72%):

Crabbie's Whisky

CRABBIE NEW MAKE SPIRIT – 72% abv

Nose: the obvious gristy, cereal notes initially; orchard fruits – red apple and pear – appear after a short while; there’s a hint of butterscotch sauce; there’s a fresh lemon note throughout; there’s a slight damp note in the background which I would normally associate with an aged whisky so I’m not entirely sure how to describe this!

A fair bit of water brings out a strong note of freshly cut, slightly damp grass (maybe that’s what the damp note was all along?!) followed by notes of undiluted lime cordial.

Palate: this has quite a thick texture but it needs some water to bring out more flavour beyond the fresh lemon note.

With water, the texture becomes much more oily; there’s a hint of ice cream soda followed by a slight menthol note; there’s also a hint of something else which I think might be aniseed.

As much as I enjoy tasting new make in order to gain an insight into how the spirit will develop as it matures, I usually find it really difficult to pick out the individual notes of its character. So, this was certainly more accessible than I was expecting and, with a teaspoon or so of water in a 25ml measure, this is dangerously drinkable! Based on this, I’m really looking forward to tasting the first Crabbie whisky release from its Bonnington Distillery.


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