Rediscovering a Fife town's forgotten whisky distillery

For such a small town, Burntisland has a large industrial past, from processing shale oil to being the site of a major aluminium works. But the coastal community was also once home to a large whisky distillery that is now almost completely gone and, for the most part, forgotten.

Friday, 11th June 2021, 6:16 pm
Andrew and his wife Grace welcome guests from all over the world to stay in the Airbnb part of their home.

For such a small town, Burntisland has a large industrial past, from processing shale oil to being the site of a major aluminium works.

But the coastal community was also once home to a large whisky distillery that is now almost completely gone and, for the most part, forgotten.

The Grange Distillery was first established as a brewery in 1767, with proprietors agreeing a deal with the council to pay £55 per year in tax for permission to supply beer and ale locally.

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The Old Burntisland Whisky is a rare dram.

It wasn’t until 1786 that it became a distillery, as local whisky consultant Mitch Bechard explains.

“At this time there were a lot of distilleries in Fife making spirit that was being sent down to England to become gin or vodka,” he said.

"When you look at one of the reasons why we have this lowland style of whisky, which is very light and very delicate, it is because a lot of these distilleries had really large stills so they could create a lot of liquid for shipping down south.”

This process carried on for years until a law was passed stopping it, so distillers in these huge operations in Scotland had to get creative.

The Grange Distillery Warehouse, Burntisland

The Grange moved into whisky making and continued distilling for 130 years.

It has always been linked to a local family – the Youngs – who owned the farm on which it stood.

It is not clear whether they operated or leased it, but what is well documented is the lengthy legal battle the family got into over the water supply for the distillery.

The distillery got its water from two burns, the Binn and the Lonsdale – or Lansdale – and this supply was set to be disrupted by the expansion plans for the Grange quarry.

The Grange Distillery House was once the distillery manager's home before being turned into offices.

“The old site of the Grange quarry was opened in 1887 by David Logan,” Mr Bechard explains.

“As the plans for the quarry expanded, this led to a furious 40-year legal battle about the rights for the water source, which the Youngs eventually won.

"In February 1899 David Logan was ordered to install a one million gallon reservoir to the cost of £600, which is still in existence today.”

The Grange was also thought to be the first distillery in Scotland to use a Coffey still, which was installed in 1883. Invented by Aeneas Coffey, this modified continuous column still made it a cheaper and more productive way to distil alcohol.

whisky

Whisky historian Alfred Barnard visited The Grange between 1884 and 1886 when he was travelling around Scotland. He noted the sheer scale of production for the time, stating the distillery was producing 650,000 gallons of whisky – between 6,000 and 7,000 litres a week.

After a rebuild in 1806, the Grange was licensed to William Young and Co. It’s this name that can be seen on ‘Old Burntisland whisky’ labels – a whisky so rare, it has sold for tens of thousands at auction.

In 1914 William Young, as a limited company, joined four other whisky companies – Clydesdale, Wishaw; St Magdalene, Linlithgow; Glenkinchie, Pencaitland and Rosebank, Falkirk – to form Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd (SMD), which eventually went on to become Diageo.

The Grange’s main market was America and the distillery’s location in the town made it ideal for shipping its wares. Prohibition meant production ceased in 1927, but the warehouses were used until 1987 when they were decommissioned.

Now all that remains of the distillery are the old manager’s house, the bonded warehouse, a cottage and another distillery house, which has been converted into flats.

Andrew Burton and his wife Grace Kinsella have owned the distillery manager’s house for the past five years and lease the top floor, two-bed flat for Airbnb guests.

It was the original features and sense of history that attracted Mr Burton and Ms Kinsella to their home, plus the space for their combined family of six children.

“We acquired the house after a lot of the really horrible work had been done by previous owners – things like repairing the roof and putting in new central heating,” Mr Burton said.

"They managed to keep a lot of the original listed features of the building like fireplaces, and the alcoves and some of the windows.”

Ms Kinsella uses the expansive home for her interior design business, Rosie Thistle, and they have welcomed Airbnb guests from around the world.

Mr Burton has spent some time looking into the history of his home and the distillery, including what happened to ‘Old Burntisland’.

“I’ve looked around quite a bit to see who owns the Old Burntisland brand and there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the brand itself still exists or that anyone has got it protected,” he said.

"We did think of doing a blend called Old Burntisland and having a bit of fun with that.”

With the current boom in the whisky market, the upturn in lowland malt production and ‘ghost’ distilleries Rosebank and Falkirk from the original Scottish Malt Distillers Ltd back up and running, is there any hope for a ‘reborn’ Grange Distillery?

Mr Burton explains that, for around 30 years, the site has been designated for housing by Fife Council, but the land would need deep excavation due to the water works that run underneath.

He said he would love to see another distillery there.

“We'd be really disappointed if the distillery disappeared under a mass of modern houses,” he said.

"This house is 220 years old and the site has been brewing or distilling since the mid-18th century. There are artefacts in here that are hundreds of years old, that people don't know about.

"If someone came along and wanted to open a micro distillery here, it would be really interesting.”