Vat 69 in Queensferry

King George IV was the monarch to formally pass the Excise Act 1823, which introduced the first licences to legally distill whisky in Scotland.

Vat 69 bottling plant came to Queensferry in 1969 by Sandersons via the Distillers Agency Limited (DAL) and brought employment to many local residents and their families.
The plant was not always called Vat 69. Neither was it the first Distillery in Queensferry.

The Glenforth Distillery Co. was a large mass of buildings which lay at the end of Gote Lane near the harbour. It lay behind the Queensferry Arms Hotel, adjacent to the rear of the Staghead Hotel and was established in 1843 by Mr James Wylde, of Gilston, Fife, who was also proprietor of the Staghead Hotel. He employed 20 persons and made around 2,000 gallons of whisky weekly. From 1863 until 1867 it was owned by John Stewart, a Distiller in Kirkliston.

Below, Glenforth Distillery to the right of the white window at the start of the harbour wall.

The buildings from those days were demolished in 1939 following a fire, but part of a retaining wall still remained, which is now incorporated in the Orocco Pier Hotel. This can be seen in the image below where the brown block is at the side of the Orocco Pier, the large white building.

John Stewart and Co, were Distillers in Kirkliston from 1855 until 1878, when the distillery was bought by the Distillers Company Ltd. John was retained as Managing Director. Stewart & Co were one of six founding members of the Distillers Company formed in 1877 to set prices for grain whiskies. John Stewart also traded from a bottling warehouse on the Loan in Queensferry, owned by the Distillers Company Ltd. Around 1895 the warehouse was increased in size due to an expected rise in the bottling and export trade.

In 1869 the North British Railway obtained the title deed to build a railhead at Port Edgar which included the power to construct and operate a direct rail / ferry crossing between it and North Queensferry. Nearly ten years later, in 1878, this service began. In 1890 the Forth Rail Bridge was opened which had the immediate effect of making the rail/ferry crossing redundant. This railway continued to be used by the Navy (below) and later Vat 69.

The situation of the warehouse was ideal, with the railway line running along beside it. With its own private halt, trains were prepared for dispatch to any point in the UK.

Image: Vat 69 buildings showing the rail in front. Courtesy Queensferry Museum

The Port Edgar Rail tracks can still be seen today. The old railway is now a footpath/cycle track

Foot/cycle path below

The forest area known as the Vat Run is a Community run mountain bike track and a Forest Kindergarten. (image to follow)

King George 1V visited Hopetoun House in 1822 on his Royal Tour of Scotland and a link with Queensferry was established. The King George IV blend, old Scotch Whisky, named in the King’s honour, was registered in the 1880s by The Distillers Company Ltd and bottled in the premises on the Loan.  Over 2 ½ million gallons of whisky were blended and more than 15 million bottles filled at South Queensferry. It was a whisky created predominantly for export and the brand continues to be held by DCL successors.

In 1882 William Sanderson & Son of Leith created the Scotch blended whisky Vat 69, which was hugely successful winning 3 Royal Warrants and a Queens Award for export.

So, why ‘VAT 69’? In 1882, William prepared 100 casks of blended whisky and hired a panel of experts to taste them. It is believed the batch from the cask (or vat) number 69 was judged to be the best, hence the name VAT 69.  It is a blend of about 40 malt and grain whiskies. Vat 69 Reserve carries no standard age statement because of the combination of the malts and grains.

1924 The Distillers Agency Limited was formed as a separate company to take over co-ordinating blended whisky subsidiaries, namely the Highland Distillery at Knockdhu and the South Queensferry Distillery. It was run as a separate company with its own blending, bottling and warehousing in South Queensferry.

In 1967 Wm Sanderson & Son Ltd won the Queen’s Award for Industry in recognition of their outstanding achievements in increasing exports (by 20.1% over the previous year – 87.4% of output exported to over 180 countries). It was success, not failure, which led to moving out of Leith in 1969 to Distillers Group’s expanded high output bottling and blending plant at South Queensferry. Sandersons is now owed by Diageo, headquartered in London.

The Vat 69 building was not without mishap. On 24th April 1949, there was a severe fire. Locals were entertained with the sight of a river of alcohol running down the loan. 156,000 gallons of export whisky were destroyed. This kept the building closed until October 1952, undergoing complete reconstruction. Then again there was another fire on 7th November 1965. Children were called out of school to witness this fire.

Image: 1949 fire Image: 1952 fire, you can see the rail line.

The building was demolished in 1985, and stood where Scotmid, the Medical Centre and surrounding buildings are. East Coast Tyres and nearby premises are situated in part of the original Vat 69 buildings.
Queensferry  Museum holds whisky bottles from  the local Vat 69 bottling and blending plant.

Vat 69 is quite famous, having been mentioned in several novels such as Raymond Chandlers ‘The Lady of the Lake’, Steven Kings ‘The Shining’. Also appearing in films such as ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘12 O’Clock High’, ‘Our Man in Havana’ and Japamese, Pakistani and Bolywood movies. It even appeared on TV in ‘Fawlty Towers’, ‘The Saint’, ‘Yes Minister’ ‘Dr Who’ and ‘Band of Brothers’.

In 1914 Sir Ernest Shackleton took supplies of VAT 69 on his Imperial Trans Antarctic expedition.

Many people have fond memories of life while working there. One local man, whose father worked in both King George 1V and Vat 69, remembers a time when singer Marlene Dietrich visited and he was taken out of school, dressed up in his Boy Scout Pipe Band Uniform and played the bagpipes for her from the roof of the distillery. Marlene Dietrich performed in the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, in 1964 and 1965.

Some local residents remember working in the Cooperage and the Bottling Hall others remember good Christmas Parties.

Queensferry History Group

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