Catherine Salmond: Unique flavour of the Capital

Following the news that New McCowans Ltd has called in administrators, Catherine Salmond looks at the history of other Edinburgh favourites

IT all began in Leith in 1844 when local baker John Millar worked out he could increase his takings each month by selling sweets made in the back of his shop.

As well as conjuring up batches of bread and rolls, he would experiment with sugary treats, quickly earning himself a reputation in the port as customers flocked to buy his creations.

The rest is history and more than 160 years later Millar McCowan – as the company became – is world-famous, its Highland Toffee chew bars, eye-popping Whams, and blackcurrant and liquorice boiled sweets favourites across the globe.

So it came as something of a shock to the company’s sweet-toothed followers yesterday to hear that New McCowans Ltd – the 21st-century trading name – has called in the administrators. If a new buyer is not found its closure could mark the end of an Edinburgh sweet-making tradition and a brand countless generations have known and loved.

But, of course, Millar is not the only Edinburgh brand to have tickled our taste buds . . .

Biscuits and cereals

Next time you’re dunking a crumbly digestive biscuit into a steaming hot cup of tea, you can thank city baker Robert McVitie for the tasty moment. It was back in 1830 that he and his father William decided to open a shop on Rose Street, the basement of which was used for baking his tempting treats.

The McVitie’s brand was later passed on to Robert’s sons who continued to expand the company with larger premises in the city. Now one of the country’s biggest household names – although no longer produced in Edinburgh – McVitie’s is a hallmark of quality, with the likes of Jaffa Cakes, Hobnobs and Gold bars on its books.


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Also synonymous with Edinburgh is Nairn’s, with its world-famous oatcakes produced every day in the city’s Peffermill Road.

But as much as we may like to, it would be wrong to try to claim the brand exclusively as Edinburgh’s own as it was in fact started in 1896 in Strathaven.

The same is true for Scott’s Porage Oats, for although the company has had a connection with Edinburgh since it opened a factory in 1909 in Colinton – its legendary oats introduced there in 1914 – it was actually in Glasgow in 1880 that the company was born with the introduction of its Midlothian Oat Flour.



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It’s a favourite with generations across the country, and there are few tastes more distinctive than a glass of Rose’s Lime Juice cordial.

We have Leither Lauchlan Rose to thank for the drink, which continues to be a family favourite more than 140 years on from its creation in Commercial Street in 1868.

It was here that Mr Rose produced his first factory batch of Rose’s Lime Juice, the method for which he had patented the year before.

It was Mr Rose’s ingenious technique that allowed him to preserve citrus juice without using alcohol that was a real first and in 1901 the brand was introduced in the US.


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Another timeless classic, the ever-popular Crabbie’s range of drinks can too be traced back to Leith where its founder John Crabbie began producing in 1801.

The famous brand includes Cloudy Ginger Beer, Green Ginger Wine, and the current favourite, Crabbie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer.

The latter, now the official sponsor of Hibs FC, continues to be made to a “secret recipe” which involves shipping over ginger from the Far East, just as Mr Crabbie and his workers did all those years ago.



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With its rich brewing history, Edinburgh can lay claim to the birth of many a well-known alcoholic tipple, including McEwan’s 80/-, possibly the most popular of the McEwan’s ales.

The drink was created by brewer and Edinburgh Central MP William McEwan, who founded the Fountain Brewery at Fountainbridge in 1856. Two decades later, in 1873, the Evening News was born – yet another household Edinburgh brand.

McEwan’s is also famous for its Export, 60/-, Lager Cold and Scotch Ale. In 2007, the cask conditioned version of McEwan’s 80/- was controversially taken off the market, but it returned earlier this year to the delight of its fans.

Also owing much of its heritage to Edinburgh is Drambuie, which in 1910 was first bottled and distributed on a commercial scale from the Capital, even though only 12 cases were sold at first.


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The liqueur was the first to be allowed in the cellars of the House of Lords, and in 2010 to celebrate the centenary of it being bottled in Edinburgh, new-style packaging was launched.

Watch this space . .

Who knows if the likes of McVitie’s, Rose’s Lime Juice, or Crabbie’s will still be household names in decades to come. Whether we will still be chomping on Highland Toffee bars or slurping on a Millar chocolate lime certainly remains to be seen.

But there are countless Edinburgh companies working hard in 2011 to try to ensure their brands will stand the test of time.


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They include the city-based brewer Innis & Gunn, whose oak-aged beer is already generating a following across the UK and beyond.

Stewart Brewing, based at Loanhead, also joins the list of ones to watch, its Edinburgh No 3 and Embra ale growing in popularity in the city’s pubs.