As early as the twelfth century the mariners of Leith brought wine from abroad for the use of the Abbot and Canons of Holyrood. In the days of the early Stuart kings, after Holyrood had become their court, the king’s wines all came via Leith. In the days of Mary Queen of Scots claret from France was the chief wine imported into Leith. This trade continued to grow for about two hundred and fifty years until the time of the Napoleonic wars, when wine increased greatly in price owing to the duty imposed on it by the Government. Sherry from Spain and port from Portugal then began to be imported in increasing quantities.
Wine storage in Leith dates from at least the early 16th century. At its peak there were around 100 warehouses storing wine and brandy. The oldest building associated with the wine trade in Leith is the Vaults between Giles Street and St. Andrew Street. The oldest date on the Vaults today is 1682, when the great building, much lower then than now, was either reconstructed or rebuilt. Messrs. J. G. Thomson began business here in 1785 and raised the Vaults to their present height. In the late 1880s, due to the collapse of wine harvest in Europe, most of the warehouses were “converted” to whisky storage. Around 85 bonded warehouses stood in Leith in the 1960s. Jointly, these matured around 90% of all Scotch whisky. One of the largest warehouses, Crabbies on Great Junction Street, stored whisky for some of the foremost whisky distilleries. Crabbies also had a famous Green Ginger manufactory alongside its bond. The last bond in Leith, on Water Street, closed around 1995.
One of the wine firms was Messrs. Bell, Rannie and Company, who began business in 1715. Amongst their old ledgers were found the wine bills run up by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Another, Cockburn’s of Leith was founded by Robert Cockburn in 1796. They are the oldest surviving wine merchants in Scotland. Cockburn’s has had many famous customers; among them, Charles Dickens and Sir Walter Scott, who on one occasion ordered 350 dozen bottles of wine and 36 dozen of spirits. In 1822, the company was awarded a Royal Warrant after supplying wines to King George IV for a state banquet.
Most wines were imported in the cask. When the wine arrived at Leith it was first clarified and then bottled. Offshoots to the wine industry were several vinegar works.
The first legal distillery in Leith was most likely that of Robert Kemp who in the 1799 had distilling premises in Yardheads as did the partnership of Balenie & Kemp who had a large pot-still malt whisky distillery at Bonnington, known as the Leith Distillery. The most extensive of the Leith distilleries was erected in 1852, covered 1½ acres, had not fewer than 40 vats for British wines and cordials able to hold from 5000 to 1200 gallons each and employed 40 women in the warehouse department. Throughout the twentieth century Leith became a centre for whisky with a number of broking, blending, bonding and bottling concerns and home to many of the major companies in the whisky industry.
By the late 19th Century 3 breweries were operating in Leith. The export of whisky from, and the import of wine into Leith, gave it a large trade in coopering. At one cooperage buoys for the Northern Lights Commissioners, as well as casks, are made, and, at another, 900 casks can be easily completed in a week by the employees who numbered about 100.