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The History of Scotch Whisky and Edinburgh's Vaults

15th Jul 2021
The History of Scotch Whisky and Edinburgh's Vaults

There’s an old saying: today’s rain is tomorrow’s whisky. At time of writing, we’ve been subjected to some very heavy rain in Edinburgh, so we’ll have lots of whisky to look forward to in a few years’ time!

The History of Scotch Whisky

Believe it or not, whisky wasn’t always Scotland’s national drink. Until the late 18th Century, the taverns of Edinburgh were flowing with red wine – specifically Claret from the Bordeaux region of France. This is because of the Auld Alliance – a pact between Scotland and France dating back to the Scottish Wars of Independence. But this was more than a military alliance – it was a trade agreement too. As a result, lots of cheap French wine was flowing into Scottish ports.

But this came to an abrupt halt with the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in the early 19th Century. By then, Scotland was part of the United Kingdom and Scottish troops played a full role in the conflict. You can’t trade with a country you’re at war with, so the party was over. British foreign policy had disrupted Scotland’s trade with Europe – who would have thought it?!

This coincided with a period known as the Highland Clearances, where tenant farmers in the North of Scotland were evicted by landowners who reckoned they could make more money from sheep. Thousands of these displaced Highlanders came flooding south looking for work in the cities. They brought with them a version of what we now know as Scotch Whisky.

Nowadays we’re used to fine malts distilled by famous names, but most of the whisky experienced by Scots in this period was rough, nasty stuff. The taxes on whisky were prohibitively high and it was very difficult to get a license. As a result, most whisky was distilled illegally, by amateurs with varying levels of skill.


Whisky In The Edinburgh Vaults

So if you were an illegal whisky distiller, looking to set up an illicit still somewhere in the heart of Edinburgh but also secret, hidden and away from the authorities – where better than the South Bridge vaults?

We know about at least one gang that did exactly that. They concealed the entrance to the vault, knocked through a trap door from underneath and even broke into the water supply of a nearby building! They were eventually caught, which is how we know about them.

But for every gang that was caught, hundreds more got away with it. Eventually the authorities realised they were fighting a losing battle, reduced the taxes and made it easier to get a licence. The better distillers went legit, and the rest found other ways to make money.

Today we can look back with gratitude as we raise a wee glass of the amber nectar, in the knowledge it has been expertly distilled with centuries of expertise.

To find out more about whisky and its links to the vaults, you can come on one of our Tour & Whisky Tastings or Historic Underground tours.

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