The North British is a distillery that has survived and prospered throughout its history. Since the closure of the nearby once epic-sized Caledonian distillery in Haymarket. North British has been the sole producer in Scotland’s capital since 1988. A fact easily dismissed by some because it focuses on grain production despite producing a tasty drop of whisky.
New distilleries are coming to Edinburgh with a handful of projects gaining traction and sparking into life including the Port of Leith distillery. About bloody time in all honesty. The city has lagged behind its bitter rival Glasgow for too long for a variety of reasons. Time will tell what the future holds for the new concepts that aim to tap into the thriving tourist appeal of the city. The whisky will come eventually, all in good time they say and hopefully when it’s ready and not a moment before.
For the time being, North British continues the solitary sentry duty where it has always stood for many years albeit on a much-reduced site after the sale of the former maltings and warehouse complex. That’s the cost of land in Edinburgh where every inch is prized and warehousing deemed an expensive indulgence when you can establish a new site just over 20 miles away at Muirhall.
North British itself was born out of frustration and need. A quartet of whisky businessmen – John Crabbie, William Sanderson, Andrew Usher and James Watson – wanted to break free of the grip of the Distillery Company Limited, or DCL as its commonly referred to. This producing giant was formed in 1877 with an initial composite of 6 Lowland distilleries that sought to control supply and ultimately the asking price for its whiskies. Blenders and stockists of the time would have to pay the price or try to find stock elsewhere. Frustrated, the aforementioned foursome took the initiative and founded their own distillery in 1877 with production starting in September of that year.
Clearly, the market was ready for an alternative. By the following year, production had increased to an almighty 3.6 million litres to try and cope with the demand. This boost wasn’t enough and within a couple of years, North British had doubled its production to try and support the rising tide of a whisky boom. Even when the bubble burst towards the end of the century – thanks to some unhealthy practices elsewhere – consumer confidence crumbled but North British endured. The distillery remained independent until 1993 when it joined with International Distillers & Vintners to form Lothian Distillers.
Today, North British is one of a handful of grain distilleries to survive. In recent decades the dark art of distilling grain has become centralised in central sites such as Girvan or Cameronbridge that produce on an epic scale. Grain has always been industrial by nature and continuous, but nowadays it has reached a whole new level. The lesser sized distilleries of Strathclyde and Invergordon continue producing their own style that can also be enjoyable given time. However, storm clouds are gathering around Invergordon with recent improvements resulting in a fifth of its workforce facing redundancy whilst the remaining staff are being told to accept a substantial pay cut. Whatever the outcome, Invergordon will be out of action for some time whilst the work is carried out and an agreement reached.
We don’t knock grain here at MALT, we embrace it like all forms of whisky including Jura; yes even that stuff. If anything we should cover more grain regardless of where it’s from. This release comes from the healthy inventory of Cadenhead’s. Distilled in 1985 before being bottled in 2018, this North British resided in a sherry butt for its 32 year maturation. Resulting in an outturn of 582 bottles at 55.2% strength, this will set you back around £102 from the Edinburgh Cadenhead shop.
Cadenhead’s North British 1985 – review
Colour: rubbed brass
On the nose: a gentle arrival of marzipan and caramel backed up with a dollop of spice. Insert the throwaway phrase of wood spice or delve a little deeper with a mortar of allspice, Star Annise, cinnamon and green peppercorn all nicely bashed? This smells old in a good way. Milk chocolate almost malted milk biscuits followed by toffee apples, hazelnut praline, wood chips and a resin varnish quality. It needs time in the glass to open up. Let’s try some water and more patience. In a word; better. Less wood dominance more of that orange citrus appeal more tangerine in its lightness with lemon peel and apricot.
In the mouth: a real blast of wood almost rye-like in places. It has a level playing punchy field of flavours without too much substance. A very drying finish. Rubbed brass on the arrival then rhubarb, red grapes, a decayed cinnamon bark and those orange crunch sweeties in a box of Quality Street. Water reveals a lightness and departure from the wood with pineapple and melon.
This North British release is a divisive grain. The cask hasn’t taken the helm suggesting it must have been a 3rd fill or even worse. Instead, we have a status quo formed over 3 decades. It’s an easier drinker and you can feel the age if not the harmony. Best with a splash of water to really showcase its wares. I have this suspicion that over the course of a bottle this could grow on me and for the benefit of water it goes up a point.
Thanks to the team at Edinburgh Cadenhead’s for the opportunity to try this release.