1885 to present day

The North British Distillery Company was established in 1885 on the western outskirts of Edinburgh by Andrew Usher, William Sanderson and John Crabbie. In 1885, the lease for the 10-acre site was £50 per year.

The three businessmen, all independent blenders and sellers of their own whisky brands, joined forces to build and operate a distillery that supplied their own grain spirit. Financed by the trade for the trade, the distillery ran under a cooperative agreement for the next hundred years.

The distillery was built for

£142k

Grain Spirit Production

The distillery became operational in September 1887. In its first 20 years of operation, the shareholders received a total of 440% on their investments – a very respectable return!

In 1905, a legal challenge was raised against grain whisky, stating that to be called whisky, the product must be made from malted barley and processed through a pot still. It took three years to successfully defend grain spirit’s right to be called whisky, and its status was eventually confirmed by law in 1908.

3.6

Million litres of alcohol produced in the first full year of production

The War Years and Between

During WW1, the distillery was used for munitions purposes, with the long term plan of using it to make acetone.

A telegram was sent to the North British Chairman from Prime Minister Lloyd George, dated February 1916. Acetone was used to make cordite – an explosive replacing gunpowder in the late 19th century. The war ended before production started, but it was 1920 before the distillery started producing grain spirit again.

In 1935, a year before electricity was introduced, mashing and distilling were not allowed to be done concurrently. To solve the problem, mashing was undertaken from Wednesday noon to Saturday, with the stills working Monday to Wednesday morning!

Following the start of the Second World War, the distillery was again closed down in December 1939 due to lack of raw materials. It would be 10 years before it restarted in 1949 and the North British Lunch was instigated to mark the end of the war relief effort. The North British Lunch continues to this day as an annual gathering of executives from companies across the Scotch Whisky industry.

During the Second World War, production levels were inevitably impacted, but they had fully recovered by 1955. In 1961, annual distillation had expanded to 2.85 million gallons of alcohol, requiring further investment in warehouses.

After 100 years

Edinburgh’s other grain distillery, The Caledonian, closed in 1988, making North British the capital’s only producer.

The first significant change to the ownership structure came in 1993. Retaining the North British trading name, Robertson & Baxter combined forces with International Distillers & Vintners to form a joint venture called Lothian Distillers, which bought out all of the other shareholders.

Recent history

At the turn of the 20th century, the company sold its maltings and warehousing sites at Slateford Road and Westfield Road. It now operates on two sites, with the majority of its maturation warehousing concentrated at Muirhall in West Lothian. North British is now owned as a joint venture between Diageo plc and The Edrington Group.

Whilst it took just over 100 years for North British to produce 1.5 billion litres of alcohol, modernisation enabled the company to reach the 2 billion litres milestone just ten years later in 2008, and achieve 2.5 billion in 2015.