The Drambuie Liqueur Company Ltd


More about The Drambuie Liqueur Company Ltd

Status Operational
Established: 1908
Owner: The Drambuie Liqueur Company Ltd
Capacity: Not supplied
Visitor Policy: Not generally accessible
Tel: Not supplied
Scotland's most famous liqueur and one of the most recognised of the great classic liqueur brands, Drambuie has a fabulously complex flavour profile and a heritage which stretches back to the 18th century and the son of a deposed King of England.


Morrison Bowmore Springburn Bond
Carlisle Street
G21 1EQ
United Kingdom

Before we come to the legend of Drambuie it is important to understand the historical context, in particularly the plight of the Jacobites. As is so often the case, religious differences lie at the centre of the Jacobite's cause and this turbulent period of English and Scottish history.

James II of England and Ireland (and VII of Scotland) had recently converted to Roman Catholicism when he succeeded his brother to the throne in 1685 and declared that his subjects were free to practice whatever religion they liked. The Protestants who had previously enjoyed the crowns patronage saw this as a step towards the establishment of Catholicism as the national religion. Three years later in 1688 his second wife, the Catholic Mary of Modena, had a son, James Edward Stuart, born heir to the throne.

The new Stuart King's less than diplomatic support of Catholicism and the birth of a Catholic heir to the throne made James unpopular to both his Protestant subjects and Parliament alike. The King's opponents, led by leading English political figures (the 'Immortal Seven') took the unprecedented step of inviting the Dutch Protestant William of Orange, who was married to James' daughter Mary (from his first marriage to Ann Hyde), to invade and establish a Protestant alliance between England and the Netherlands against Louis XIV's Catholic France.

William's 1688 invasion fleet was bigger than the Spanish Armada of a century before but met no resistance from James' army, indeed the King himself quickly decided to flee to France. What became known as the Glorious Revolution culminated on 11 February 1689 with Parliament declaring that by fleeing the country James had abdicated as king and his daughter Mary was declared queen to rule jointly with William who adopted the name William III of England and Ireland (II of Scotland).

This led to a constitutional monarchy and the 'Bill of Rights', the crowning of William and Mary as King and Queen of Scotland and the Irish Battle of the Boyne. Meanwhile there were many who still regarded James as their rightful King, and his son heir to the throne. Support for James was strongest in Scotland where the Stuart family had ruled for over 300 years since Robert II was crowned King of Scots in 1371. These supporters called themselves Jacobites after the Latin 'Jacobus' for James. Feelings amongst Scottish Catholics were made stronger when in 1690 the Scottish Parliament replaced the Episcopal with the Presbyterian Church and in 1692 after The Massacre of Glencoe.

William ruled alone after the death of Mary in 1694 until his own death in 1702, after being thrown from his horse. William was succeeded by Anne, Mary's sister. None of Queen Anne's children survived so the English Parliament decreed she be succeeded by her Protestant second cousin George, Elector of Hanover, who stood 53rd in line of succession. This naturally upset the Jacobites as their man, James Edward Stuart, the dead queen's deposed Catholic half-brother was obviously her direct descendent. Like most Scots, the Jacobites also objected to the union of English and Scottish parliaments in 1707.

In 1715, at his family estate at Braemar, The Earl of Mar raised the standard of James VIII (James Edward Stuart) before 600 Jacobite Supporters leading to the inconclusive Battle of Sheriffmuir and the failed Rising of 1719.

James Edward Stuart was 31 years old and his followers were keen for him to have an heir, so in September 1791 he married the beautiful Polish princess Maria Clementina Sobieska, godchild to the Pope. On 31 December 1720 she gave birth to Charles Edward Stuart.

Charles Edward Stuart grew up in Rome, Italy, where his father's court had been given residence by Pope Clement XI. In December 1743, his father named him Prince Regent, granting him authority to act in his name. Due to his good looks, he became commonly known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. Eighteen months later, Charles (Charlie) raised backing without the knowledge of his father, to lead a rising to restore his father to his thrones. He set out with two ships: the Elisabeth, an old French man-of-war with 700 troops, and the Du Teillay, a small frigate which carried him and twelve companions. The convoy ran into a British warship, HMS Lion and after an exchange of cannon fire both warships were forced to return badly damaged to their respective ports leaving Charlie to continue his voyage, successfully landing on the remote Scottish Island of Eriskay on 23 July 1745. Although lacking the French troops he had hoped to have by his side he still believed he could muster a Jacobite army in Scotland so he continued on to land on the mainland.

The Jacobite cause was still supported by many Highland clans and when on the 19 August 1745 Charles raised his father's standard at Glenfinnan, he did so in front of 1,300 supporters and in doing so started the rebellion of '45'. Charlie marched first to Perth and then on Edinburgh which quickly surrendered (although government troops held out in the castle overlooking the city). On 21 September 1745, he defeated the government's Hanoverian troops at the battle of Prestonpans and by November was marching south at the head of around 6,000 men who easily took Carlisle. Meanwhile George II recognised the threat to his throne and ordered six battalions of foot soldiers and nine squadrons of crack dragoons (mounted infantry) led by his son, the Duke of Cumberland, and General Wade back from France where they were fighting the French in Flanders.

When Charles' Jacobite army reached Swarkestone Bridge in Derbyshire, despite his own protestations to continue, Charles' council decided to return to Scotland due to a lack of support by English Jacobites. The Scottish retreat was pursued by the Duke of Cumberland, who finally caught up near Inverness. An overly confident Charles lined up his Jacobite army of now demoralised and exhausted clansman to do battle on the open windswept upland of Drumossie Moor, five miles to the east of Inverness. It is here on the 16 April 1746 the legendary Battle of Culloden, the last to be fought on British soil, took place on.

Charlie took up a bad position with 5,000 men on flat, open, marshy ground where his forces were exposed to superior Hanoverian firepower and Cumberland's 9,000 disciplined Red Coat troops, many of which were Scottish. Indeed, more Scots fought against Charlie than with him. When Charlie ordered his men to charge they did so into musket and cannon fire. Those not cut down in battle were subsequently slaughtered by Cumberland's troops, earning him the nickname the 'Butcher'.

We recently visited the battleground where the Drambuie Liqueur Company has contributed relics towards a National Trust visitor centre. Here, state of the art computer graphics re-enact the course of the battle, including a room where visitors stand in no-man's-land, between the two armies projected on screens which encircle the room. However, more moving is a brisk walk across the rough, boggy moorland where red and blue flags mark the lines of the two opposing armies.

Bonnie Prince Charlie fled the field of battle with a price of £30,000 on his head, (the equivalent of over £15 million today). His subsequent flight has become the stuff of legend. It's worth remembering that at the time treason such as helping 'the Prince' was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered, so the fact that Charlie was not betrayed during the course of the five months he was on the run is astonishing. All over the Highlands, houses were torched and people shot after being accused of harbouring him.

Charlie was continually on the move, only staying a few days in each place and frequently doubling back on himself. He sailed to the Outer Hebrides and then returned to the mainland by way of the Isle of Skye. 'The Skye Boat Song' records how Flora MacDonald disguised Charlie as her maid and took him aboard a small boat to the Isle of Skye. Soon after Charlie left her, she was arrested for aiding him and briefly imprisoned in the Tower of London. Against all odds and a land and sea search by government troops, Bonnie Prince Charlie was eventually rescued in September 1746 by L'Heureux, a French frigate, which took him back to France.

Against advice and the odds, the headstrong young Bonnie Prince Charlie had journeyed to Scotland, without supplies or support, with the intent of overthrowing a kingdom. Sheer strength of character and self-belief were his only weapons. Amazingly, he almost succeeded.

The Stuarts cause lost, Charlie was forced to spend pretty much the remainder of his life in exile, where by all accounts, he became a drinker and womaniser. Could have been worse.

Bonnie Prince Charlie's Elixir

Legend has it that Captain John MacKinnon of Strathaird, a senior officer in the MacKinnon 'Clan Army' kept Bonnie Prince Charlie hidden in a safe place while on Skye and that the prince sought to reward his protector and rescuer with one of the few things he still possessed to give - the recipe for his personal elixir.

During this period in history it would not have been unusual for such an aristocrat to have a tonic or elixir specially formulated by his apothecary. In Bonnie Prince Charlie's case this was a recipe for a highly concentrated tincture of essential oils intended to be used one drop at a time to flavour spirits. Due to its French origin it is thought this elixir was originally intended to be mixed
with brandy.

In late April 1746, some two months before he met John MacKinnon, Prince Charlie was in the Outer Hebrides under the protection of the Skye boatman, Donald MacLeod of Gualtergill. When MacLeod was later questioned about the state of the Prince's health at the time he replied: "He had a little bottle in his pouch out of which he used to take so many drops every morning and throughout the day, saying if anything should ail him he hoped he should cure himself, for that he was something of a doctor. And faith...he was indeed a bit of a doctor, for Ned Bourk happening ance to be unco ill of a cholick, the Prince said 'Let him alane, I hope to cure him of that' and accordingly he did so, for he gae him so many drops out o' the little bottlie and Ned soon was as well as ever he had been."

Some say it was not Bonnie Prince Charlie himself that the gave the recipe to John MacKinnon but a French officer. Others say it was his personal physician, and indeed a medicine box containing over hundred different bottles containing essences, tinctures and solutions, along with hand-written recipes and tiny measuring scales was abandoned as Charles fled Culloden and this is still displayed at the Royal College of Physicians in Edinburgh. Indeed vintage advertisements for Drambuie would seem to corroborate the drinks origin - one from 1908 says the recipe was brought to Scotland by "a follower of Prince Charles" while one from 1916 states that the recipe was brought from France by a "gentleman of the bodyguard of Prince Charlie". However, by 1920 Drambuie advertisements claims that the drink was given to the MacKinnons directly by Prince Charlie and that it has been made by successive generations of the same MacKinnons.

However the Prince's recipe came into the MacKinnons hands it was passed down through MacKinnon generations for nearly 150 years. During this period just enough was made for their own use with the occasional bottle gifted to friends and fellow clansman.

Bonnie Prince Charlie's recipe becomes Drambuie

Alexander Kenneth of Corryie Lodge was a senior MacKinnon of the original MacKinnon clan and sometime prior to 1872 he gave the recipe to a close friend, John Ross, who ran the Broadford Hotel on the Isle of Skye, reputedly saying "I found this in a desk, can you do anything with it? It is his son, James Ross, who after taking over the hotel developed and improved the recipe. He and his wife, Eleanor, made the liqueur in an outhouse attached to the hotel using the elixir recipe to flavour whisky, which they then sweetened with their own combination of sugar, honey and glycerine.

The Ross family served their liqueur to friends and guests at the hotel and it was one of these who is said to have uttered, 'An dram buidheach', meaning 'the drink that satisfies', so coining the name. In 1893 James Ross registered the trademark for the anglicized version Drambuie, Eleanor designed the labels and they started selling their liqueur commercially. The hotel was positioned on the road leading to the Kyle ferry to the mainland so attracted a good passing trade and many of these visitors would have left carrying bottles of Drambuie.

James died prematurely in 1902 and Eleanor tried to keep the business going by bringing in a manager from Tongue, but ultimately realising she could not cope, sold the hotel. In 1908 she moved to Edinburgh, where all her children lived. One of her children, John Ross II became friends with Malcolm MacKinnon after meeting him at a St. Oran's Highland Church, then popular with expatriates from the Highlands. John took Malcolm to Eleanor's home where he met the family and sampled Drambuie.

Malcolm's surname was purely coincidental and he was from a different MacKinnon family from the descendants of Captain John MacKinnon, but the tasty liqueur aroused his interest. Malcolm, generally known as Calum, was 25 years old and he had, also coincidentally, moved to Edinburgh from Skye to work at W. Macbeth & Son, a firm of whisky blenders and merchants. Calum appears to have quickly progressed in the business and by the time he met the MacKinnons, had joined James Hunter MacBeth as joint partner in the company.

Around this time, Duncan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye whisky approached the family wanting to purchase Drambuie. Meg and John Ross were opposed to this but it spurred Calum to make an offer. The family would keep the recipe and Eleanor would make up the recipe of spices while Calum would use his knowledge of whisky to improve the blend and bottle the liqueur. He would sell the finished product at MacBeths and pay two shillings royalty per bottle to the Ross family.

So it was that in 1908 Calum started making Drambuie in a cellar on Edinburgh's Union Street. His equipment was primitive and at the beginning it is said to have taken him a week to make sufficient just to fill a dozen bottles. An advertisement from the 27th June that year in Scots Pictoral Magazine describes Drambuie as "The Skye Liqueur" and states "A Link with 1745" "Drambuie has behind it a history unequalled by any of the highest class foreign liqueurs of the present day. This very ancient and exclusive liqueur was first made on the Island of Skye in 1745, where it was introduced from France by a follower of Prince Charles Edward. It is esteemed as much for delicacy of bouquet as for its valuable tonic and digestive qualities."

In October 1912 Macbeth & Son bought the recipe to Drambuie outright from the Ross family but by 1914 the company was in financial trouble. It is at this point that another name who would play a crucial role in Drambuie's history enters the story. John Ross's sister, Meg had a close friend called Georgina Davidson. Better known as Gina, Meg had introduced Gina to Calum and it was Gina who approached MacBeth's creditors and begged them to allow Calum to take over Drambuie. With the storm clouds gathering over Europe, this was a bold move but July 14th 1914 Malcolm MacKinnon became sole owner of Drambuie and MacBeth but separated the two entities with the establishment of 'The Drambuie Liqueur Company Limited'. Three weeks later Britain declared war on Germany. The very next year Gina and Calum were married.

It was a true family enterprise with Drambuie the main focus of the business. Gina collected the requisite herbs, spices and oils and carefully mixed them according to the treasured recipe. However, the MacBeth business was not ignored and provided a ready market for Drambuie. MacBeth's owned well-established brands of blended whisky - most notably John O'Groats and MacBeth and Calum persuaded regular customers of these whiskies to additionally order a few bottles of Drambuie. In was in this manner that in 1916 Drambuie became the first liqueur to be allowed in the cellars of the House of Lords. Drambuie's neck label was immediately redesigned to include 'As supplied to the House of Lords' on either side of the House of Lords portcullis emblem.

During the First and Second World Wars, Drambuie was shipped to the officers' messes of Highland Regiments serving overseas and this helped establish export sales which continued to build after they were over. The war effectively closed trade from the continent and so making Drambuie practically the only liqueur available in the UK. By the end of the war shortages ensured that the price of a bottle of Drambuie more than doubled from 7 to 16 shillings.

Malcolm's older brother, John, joined him as a Director in 1927 and the following year James Davidson, Gina's brother, was appointed as the company's first Export Manager. Shortly afterwards her other brother, William, became Advertising Manager and both were given directorships in the 1930s. To complete the family picture Malcolm and Gina had had two children, their son Norman who was born in 1923 was groomed to lead Drambuie. When Malcolm died at the age of 62 in 1945, soon after the cessation of war, his brother-in-law, William Davidson, took over the running of the company with his son and daughter also eventually joining the company.

By the 1960s Malcolm's widow, Mrs Gina MacKinnon had become chairman of the company with her brother as vice-chairman, while the day to day running had passed to Norman MacKinnon's hands as Managing Director. Gina also travelled relentlessly as Drambuie's ambassador and was particularly effective in America where her snow-white hair helped earn her the nickname 'canny Scots granny with the $2 million secret'. In June 1964 Georgina MacKinnon was awarded the OBE by the Queen for her service to British exports. She also continued making the base of Drambuie in her castellated 300-year old mansion home just outside Edinburgh until she died in 1973. The concentrate was then driven under lock and key to the company's Easter Road where just four small vials were sufficient to make up 1,200 gallons of Drambuie.

When Norman MacKinnon died in 1989 his son, Malcolm (who, like his grandfather, was to be familiarly known as Calum) and Duncan, the third generation of the family, took over the running of the company, which their father had successfully led for over forty years. Today The Drambuie Liqueur Company Ltd is still owned by the brothers but is run by a management team.

Welcome to Difford's Guide

All editorial and photography on this website is copyright protected

© Odd Firm of Sin 2023