Crabbie’s is synonymous with green ginger wine and alcoholic ginger beer, but its long and important whisky history is too often overlooked. Now, Halewood Artisanal Spirits is reviving the brand and working on ensuring its future is bright as its past.
When you think of the name Crabbie’s, I guarantee one drink springs to mind. Ginger beer, right? But the company behind the iconic green bottles, John Crabbie & Co, was once one of the most respected names in whisky.
A whisky giant
Beginning in the mid-19th century, for decades the brand was a key player in the former Scotch epicentre of Leith, which was home to around 90% of all maturing Scotch until the 1960s. But both Leith’s dominance and Crabbie’s contributions aren’t well-known. Even Kirstie McCallum, master distiller for Crabbie’s whisky, saying that she wasn’t that familiar with the brand’s history when she started back in January.
Some put the origins of the brand as being 1801 when John’s father Miller Crabbie became a merchant in Edinburgh. But John Crabbie actually set up his own business dealing in alcoholic drinks around 1832, partnering with William Cree for a time until his death, and trading in malts from the likes of J Haig. In 1839, the first record of ‘Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine‘ appears in a sale to MacDonald of Glenalbyn.
Around 1852, Crabbie acquired a former porter brewery on Great Junction Street in Leith, close to Yardheads distillery. Until 1884 it was the hub of Crabbie’s blending and bottling, where he traded with more than 70 whisky distilleries (records show during his life he worked with the likes of Bowmore, Jura, Glen Grant, Laphroaig, Talisker, Balmenach, Benrinnes, and more), as well as producing gin, fruit cordials, and his famous Ginger Wine.
Crabbie was an early adopter of the art of blending malt and grain whisky, acquiring Westfield distillery in Haddington, East Lothian in 1852 and using its Coffey still to produce grain whisky. When Westfield closed just a decade later, Crabbie wasn’t deterred and sought to break the near-monopoly The Distillers Company Ltd (DCL – essentially now Diageo) had on grain whisky. He co-founded and became the first chairman of North British Distillery, which still stands today.
Downfall to rebirth
John Crabbie died in 1891, by which time his business was exporting whisky to Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. From there comes the part of the story that will be familiar to anyone who has read the history of a Scotch whisky brand. The changing of hands! Family involvement lasted until 1963 when DCL, having the last laugh, purchasing John Crabbie & Co. in 1963. Macdonald & Muir (later the Glenmorangie Company) then bought it in the ’80s, temporarily ending the Leith association by transferring production to its headquarters at Broxburn in West Lothian.
Crabbie’s Green Ginger Wine continued to be made on the premises at Great Junction Street until the 1980s, but while this side of the business remained strong, any identity rooted in whisky was firmly a thing of the past by the time the brand was sold to Halewood Artisanal Spirits in 2007.
The owners of Whitley Neill Gin, and more, restored the connection in 2015 when it bought the site and later announced a £7m malt distillery would be built, bringing the Crabbie name back home to Leith. An experimental, smaller distillery was set up in Granton whilst construction of what has become Bonnington Distillery took place. The latter is now making whisky and recently I got a chance to see it in action.
Inside Bonnington Distillery
The name comes from a location that was said to contain the ‘lost mansion’ Bonnington House, and by chance just as construction was wrapping up remains of the 17th-century building was unearthed by an archaeologist Crabbie’s hired. As was evidence of an 18th-century distillery, furnaces from a bronze foundry, and remnants from the Siege of Leith, when French troops were camped in the port in the 16th-century. Wonderful, right?
Not for Crabbie’s. It set back progress by six months and cost £500k in change to work out all the preservation and bureaucracy. Even when the first mash was made in December 2019 further bureaucratic nonsense delayed a distilling license so that production didn’t start until March 2020. Any idea what happened then?
Yes, the bloody world ended thanks to COVID, and the team, fearing the worst, spent 20 hours over two days distilling all the wash on-site, only to find out that they would shut down for a grand total of one day. Since then small, dedicated team has finally been able to do its thing undisturbed, manning the semi-automated distillery, which means plenty of hands-on work. Don’t let the modest-looking site deceive you though, it will soon be able to produce half a million litres of pure alcohol a year.
The John Crabbie way lives on
My tour began in an open space containing silos and a two roller Alan Ruddock mill that processes a tonne of barley an hour, twice a day. Every week Crabbie’s does 12 mashes of 2.2 tonnes of barley. Local farmers take the slurry for now, but there are plans to introduce biomass and fertilisers to make this part of the process greener. Crabbie’s even spent tens of thousands of pounds on a borehole to gain access to an aquifer beneath their Leith distillery and were rewarded with crystal clear water untouched for over 1,000 years and a totally unique source of hydration and dilution.
Peat heads will be excited to learn that 50ppm of peated barley from Muntons is distilled for two months a year, with blending primarily in mind. Fermentation uses Pinnacle distillers yeast and goes from 48-115 hours in stainless steel washbacks, depending on how much is being mashed.
The stills are based on designs gathered from the old John Crabbie archives, and are designed to create a heavy, waxy spirit, so there’s little reflux thanks to big wide bulbs and flat lyne arms. Typically cut points are at 76% ABV then 62% ABV, but two different receivers in the spirit safe allow for different cuts of high and low cuts, allowing greater variety and room to experiment. Just past them is a smaller still called Judy, the first Holstein Halewood Artisanal Spirits bought which is now used to make Crabbie’s range of gins.
As for maturation, it’s fair to say that you can expect some interesting cask finishes in the future. I spotted virgin oak, ex-bourbon, Calvados, Tokaji, Cognac, and Tequila in just the short time I was there, as well as some Chateau Margaux wine casks which are particularly cool as we know that in 1918 John Crabbie sourced the exact same type. A century later they became the first casks filled here at Bonningtons (on the 24 March 2020, to be precise). The casks are filled at 63.5% ABV at a rate of 3000 to 3,500 a year, and eventually coopering will happen on site.
From John Crabbie to Kirstie McCallum
While the name and heritage belongs to John Crabbie, the future of the brand is in the hands of accomplished whisky maker McCallum. Formerly of Glen Moray and with 20 years of experience in the spirits sector, it was a real coup for Halewood Artisanal Spirits to land her. The temptation was obvious, however, to McCallum. “To work for Halewood means a chance to work with a breadth of the spirits, from Welsh and English whisky to bourbon and, of course, the opportunity to take on a great name in Crabbie’s. But it’s also a chance to help shape and mould a brand new distillery”.
McCallum will do that in her signature style, which means lots of experimentation particularly when it comes to cask finishing (as we saw). You might think that would make her someone who felt restricted by the Scotch Whisky Associations’ regulations, but in fact, the opposite is true. She describes herself as “a firm believer in the heritage and tradition of Scotch,” adding that “there’s enough room for innovation in the current legislation” and that she “doesn’t want to see that disappear”.
Working with such a legacy might be wonderful for the marketing team, but for production that can mean a lot of pressure. McCallum is too assured and experienced to feel it, however, and says that having a name like John Crabbie behind the brand “can only lead to good things”. She continues, “I’ve got access to archives and his actual book of blend recipes, it’s wonderful. One of these days I want to replicate one of those blends!”.
An old name gets new life
While the distillery was being built, the Crabbie whisky portfolio was revived initially with releases using spirit sourced from other distilleries, fitting as John Crabbie was a cracking independent bottler by all accounts. This includes Yardhead (remember the name?) and made to be the kind of whisky bartenders would love. “Yardhead is a very versatile whisky that helps dispel the myth that you can only drink whisk a certain way,” says McCallum. “I’m of the belief that if you’ve paid for it, you enjoy your whisky how you want. If you like it with Iron Bru, then go ahead!”
While the history is compelling, it’s Crabbie’s future that has my attention. McCallum is an engaging communicator for her brands and a skilled producer, as evidenced by the fantastic new make I tasted. Waxy, honeyed, and full-bodied, rich in notes of raspberry, black pepper, vanilla, and Hobnobs, it’s got all the hallmarks of a whisky that will mature superbly, while representing a departure from the signature Lowland style. “You would expect Lowland spirits to be quite light, fruity, and floral,” McCallum says. “But there’s a lot of body behind the spirit we’re making at Bonningtons, which makes it unique”.
To those who love whisky, Lowland malts, and the ongoing return of great whisky to Scotland’s capital, this is everything you could want. Fittingly, Yardhead pairs perfectly with ginger wine. So, do yourself a favour and grab a Whisky Mac bundle and raise a glass to the breathing of new life into an old name.