North British

The North British Lowland grain distillery is a joint enterprise owned by industry behemoth Diageo and Edrington Distillers. Like Scotland’s other grain distilleries, North British is a low profile name, despite producing an enormous quantity of Scotland’s whisky. 

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The North British Lowland grain distillery is a joint enterprise owned by industry behemoth Diageo and Edrington Distillers. Like Scotland’s other grain distilleries, North British is a low profile name, despite producing an enormous quantity of Scotland’s whisky. 

North British was established in 1885 when Scotch whisky blenders William Sanderson, Andrew Usher and John Crabbie pooled their resources with some smaller blenders to build a grain distillery to ease their reliance on the Distillers Company Limited cartel that was threatening to monopolise grain whisky production. 

A suitable 10-acre site was found a few miles west from Edinburgh’s city centre and the distillery was completed in 1887 at a cost of £142,000. Aside from the inevitable war-time closures, North British has been running ever since, and has been Edinburgh’s only grain facility since Caledonian distillery closed in 1988.  

In 1993, North British’s independence ended when the Edrington group, who controlled the Robertson & Baxter interest in the distillery, partnered with International Distillers and Vintners (IDV) for an £84 million buyout of the rest of the shareholders. IDV is now part of Diageo, meaning that North British is jointly owned by Edrington and Diageo and is finally in the same family as DCL, the company it was built to oppose. 

Following a subsequent expansion, North British now supplies base spirit for Smirnoff vodka, as well as grain whisky for Diageo’s Johnnie Walker and Edrington’s Famous Grouse blended Scotch whisky brands. The remainder of the North British whisky output is sold to other blenders, and the distillery’s by-products are recycled as cattle feed and biogas, which powers an electricity generator to supply the site.

According to the distillery’s website, North British distilled over 2.5 billion litres of spirit between 1887 and 2015 and production capacity now stands at around 70 million litres annually. By our back-of-a-fag-packet calculations, this means that it should pass the 3 billion litre mark around 2022 or 2023. 

Official bottlings of North British are vanishingly rare, with only the odd commemorative and staff-only bottlings until 2018, when The North British 1960 58-year-old was released with official blessing in collaboration with Douglas Laing. Hopefully the 3 billionth litre of production will occasion a larger release commercial bottling.

At least the 1960 provided more evidence that very old stocks of North British still exist. In common with the other grain distilleries, independent bottlings of top quality North British single grain whisky have begun trickling to market in the last decade and have gained a following among adventurous whisky fans who like a bargain. 

Happily, in the last few years that trickle has become a relative flood for North British, with both long-aged and - unusually - quite young independent bottlings now available at great value prices. As ever, the best examples can be found from Douglas Laing, Hunter Laing and Signatory Vintage.

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