Leith Local History Society

William Sanderson & Son Ltd

Distillers, Leith

In 1852 Mark Sanderson, respected wine and spirit importer in Leith, sent his thirteen year old son William to his best friend Matthew Buchan, master wine and spirit merchant and cordial manufacturer in Bernard Street. There he was trained in these trades until Buchan retired in 1860.

In May 1863 he was living at 6 Quality Street, married, with an infant son, William Mark was setting out on his own close by in Charlotte Lane. His training and new laws now entitled him, having bought licences, to make and retail wholesale any British wine and also to add spirits to make cordials and liqueurs, He made such as rhubarb wine, ginger cordial and wine, Whisky Bitters etc, but his first recipe was for a whisky mixture of Glenlivet, Pitlochry and grain whiskies.

In the following years he honed his blending skills, made various whiskies, some to his own or buyer’s recipes and introduced long maturing in sherry casks. He promoted his business personally, starting with family and business friends in Scotland then spreading wider to Europe, Australia, South Africa and world wide. In 1876 he built and expanded to new premises next door on the corner of Charlotte Street.

In 1822 came the story of how William put sample of almost one hundred of his blends in small numbered vats and invited expert colleagues to choose the best. All chose the vat numbered 69. So VAT69 became Sanderson’s premier grade blend and deserving special marketing beyond wholesale in casks.

William, urged by his eldest son, William Mark, chose a Leith made, antique looking, wide shouldered, long-necked bottle, the unmistakable VAT69 bottle. In its prime in the 20th century the black label with the VAT69 boldly stencilled in white had ‘William Sanderson & Son Ltd’ in Willaim’s hand then ‘Distillers, LEITH, Scotland’. From the cap (with ‘Quality tells’ in William Mark’s hand) ran a red ribbon wax sealed on the shoulder with the Sanderson family Talbot hound crest. Round the neck a label showed in turn the arms of the royal warrants granted by Edward, Prince of Wales, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II.

The firm expanded in 9 Quality Street (inexcusably renamed Maritime Street in 1967). William Mark increasingly took over management and became a partner in 1892. His father became a local councillor, magistrate, a Leith Docks Commissioner, a director of the firm’s bank (Clydesdale), partner and later owner of Glengarioch malt whisky distillery Old Meldrum, and director of Lachnagar Distillery near Balmoral. In 1885 he became managing director of the new patent still North British Distillery in Gorgie, set up and owned by William Sanderson and other whisly merchants and blenders including Ushers, Crabbie and Robertson towards securing their firm’s sources of grain spirits.

In 1905 a test case in London claimed that pot still (malt) whisky mixed with patent still (grain) spirit was not whisky. The magistrates agreed. After appeal a royal commission appointed in February 1908, reporting in July 1909, defined the methods to be used and ruled that ‘Scotch Whisky is whisky as so defined distilled in Scotland’. But William Sanderson had died on 3rd April 1908, universally mourned, not knowing his firm was safe — for the moment. William Mark was now boss. In 1908 President Roosevelt had revived the ‘What is Whisky?’ row, but when his commission reported, the President was Taft, who ruled that grain spirit was whisky.

Excise duty was 11/- per proof gallon of whisky in 1900. Lloyd George raised it to 14/9 in 1908, then by steps to 72/6 in 1920 until 1939. During WWI the government cut whisky strength and amount, closed pot stills and turned many patent stills over to producing acetone for the war effort.

WWI hit Scotland hard, including Leith whisky families. Three of the William’s brothers, Mark Jnr, Arthur and Frederick were partners in Robertson Sanderson & Co. Arthur was managing director and partner with James Gray in control of Glenkinchie malt distillery. Gray and William Mark’s brother (TA Majors) joined Leith’s 7th Bn Royal Scots and both were killed on 28th June 1915 at Gallipoli. Arthur was ill and moved to England where he died later that year, as did two of Frederick’s sons. Wm Mark took Robertson Sanderson & Co into association, continuing to market their main blend ‘Mountain Dew’ (well established in Canada and USA). He bought Carstairs & Robertson in 1920, wine and spirit merchants to D & G McLaren. His elder son Kenneth had gone from school to the Black Watch. On discharge in December 1918 he went on a steep learning curve and in 1921 was made director of Glengarrioch Distillery Co Ltd. What with wartime restrictions, rising excise duty Prohibition and worldwide depression, the whisky trade was in a bad way. The senior management went on export drives vigorously promoting VAT69 at big international exhibitions such as Wembley 1924. William Mark, who was by now a High Constable of Leith and a Freeman of the City of London, died in 1929.

Kenneth became chairman and with others continued promoting VAT69 as before. In 1932, he arranged with a New York firm to act as US agent. When Prohibition ended in 1933, he made the first delivery since 1919 to NY in early December. It did well! But few pot stills were now functioning and the whisky trades future looked in doubt. Booth’s Distillers Ltd now suggested amalgamating with Sanderson’s, contributing three far north distilleries. Wm Sanderson & Son Ltd passed to Booth’s but was re-incorporated in 1935 with O Bertram in the chair, Kenneth as partner, R C Marshall as secretary, retaining the name and most of the independence. Kenneth Sanderson had now been elected member of the Worshipful Company of Distillers and Freeman of the City of London. In 1936-37 he had great success following another global tour. But war loomed ahead and Booth’s and Sanderson’s amalgamated with Distillers Co Ltd in 1937.

When WWII started, the whisky trade, remembering WWI, self imposed limited releases to the home market to conserve maturing stocks and the Government, as in WWI, cut production, closed pot stills and closed or converted patent stills to making chemicals. Tax per proof gallon, 72/6, rose by steps to 157/6 by the end of WWII. In 1941 Kenneth Sanderson had become managing director of the House of Sanderson and from 1946 onwards made intensive and successful marketing journeys round the world.

Government restrictions on distilling remained until 1954.

In 1954 Kenneth Sanderson became chairman and Kenneth Ross took over as managing director. In 1961 the London headquarters moved from Bath House, Piccadilly to 4 Stanhope Gate becoming the House of Sanderson’s main office.

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.

Wm Sanderson & Son Ltd, Leith was a family firm both on employer and employee sides.

Don’t lets talk about the war between Guinness and Argyll, or Saunders and Diageo — that’s another story.