Glenkinchie: The Parable of a ‘Lowland Lady’

There are few regions in Scotland that boasts of a more prosperous distilling history than the rolling lowlands of East Lothian. During the 18th and 19th century, the region brimmed with bucolic distilleries that were famous for producing unpeated and light whiskies featuring sweet grassy notes and gentle body. No wonder then, that these expressions were often affectionately referred to as the ‘Lowland Ladies’.

Sadly, the ‘roaring’ 1920s spelt doom for several of these distilleries. The pot stills that once hummed aloud gradually started to simmer down. And, it wasn’t long before that these historic distilleries finally witnessed lockout following the advent of blended whisky which favoured single malts with a more consistent taste.

Glenkinchie serves as a rare survivor of the five remaining Lowland distilleries that has successfully managed to keep the show going in spite of all the pitfalls. The distillery derives its name from the location – a small ravine along the Kinchie burn near the Pencaitland region of East Lothian. Glenkinchie is only 15 miles away from Scotland’s hilly capital, Edinburgh, quietly nestled between the lush Lammermuir hills and the coastal retreats of the Firth of Forth.  

The Early Jitters

Initially, Glenkinchie began its journey as Milton distillery which was established by the Rate brothers in 1825. The distillery’s name was changed to ‘Glenkinchie’ when the owners recorded the same as a legitimate establishment in 1837. The project got a relatively fluent start, but Glenkinchie’s prosperity was short lived.

In 1853, the Rate brothers went into bankruptcy and like many other floundering distilleries of the era, Glenkinchie too faced the inevitable. The entire establishment was sold off to a farmer named Christie who eventually turned it into a saw-mill. In fact, some of the empty distillery buildings were even used as cowshed for the surrounding farmlands.

The Heydays

For a few decades, Glenkinchie remained under the veils, until 1880s when a group of wine merchants, investors, brewers and blenders bought the buildings and started to revive the long lost glory of the distillery. The plant was strategically rebuilt to sustain the demand for blended whiskies which remained at a constant high during those times.

In a way, this resurgence can very well be accredited as a fresh start for the distillery because from this point onward it started to expand into its current form. In 1914, Glenkinchie teamed up with several Lowland distillers like Clydesdale, Grange, Rosebank and St.Magdalene to form an organization named Scottish Malt Distillers. After further expansions, in 1925, the organization joined hands with Distillers Company Limited (DCL) to form a powerful Scotch whisky syndicate which eventually evolved into Diageo.

Unlike its contemporaries, Glenkinchie managed to maintain a steady pace with production even during the war in 1939. After a few more decades of successful distilling, the distillery stopped malting its own barley in 1969. The malting floors were eventually transformed into upscale malt whisky museum by a former distillery manager named Alistair Munro. In the meantime, the distillery kept on churning malt whisky for the next two decades until 1988, when United Distillers – the Diageo predecessors, launched six ‘Classic Malts’ which included a 10 year old expression of Glenkinchie along with five more from Cragganmore, Dalwhinnie, Oban, Lagavulin and Talisker.

Today, despite enjoying ubiquity, Glenkinchie reserves only 10% of its overall 1.6 million liters of production for exclusive single malt bottling. The rest is still used by other blends. There’s no denying, the brand still manages to be an unsung contributor for the industry and that too in relative obscurity.