US tobacco firm revive a Leith classic

World-famous tobacco once produced in the Capital could finally be returning to its shelves.

By The Newsroom
Monday, 18th July 2016, 2:35 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 4:37 pm
John Cotton Business centre, an iconic tobacco factory refurbished as offices. Contact is John Alexander, MD of letting DJ Alexander which owns the building and carried out the £150,000 makeover. Picture; Ian Georgeson,

The Standard Tobacco of Pennsylvania has recreated John Cotton products, which it says seasoned smokers find indistinguishable from the original.

The US company is in talks with Scandinavian Tobacco Group in a bid to distribute the resurrected blends – which were made in a factory near Easter Road – across the UK.

The Food and Drug Administration is moving to ban all tobacco products commercially marketed in the United States after February 2007.

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Examples of john cotton tobacco tins. Picture; contributed

So cracking the UK market is seen as key to the future of the business.

John Cotton started life as far back as 1770 and remained independent until taken over by the Gallaher Group in 1962.

The new owner changed the cigarette brand from ‘John Cotton’ to ‘Edinburgh’, although this never became as popular as ‘Bristol’, the best-selling cigarette named after the city which was once tobacco capital of the UK.

In its heyday, John Cotton products were sold from its shops in Frederick Street and Princes Street.

Jjohn Cotton tobacco tins. Picture; contributed

The John Cotton tobacco factory was for many years a landmark in Leith.

Today the main part of the former Sunnyside factory – which includes the original chimney – survives but now operates as a business centre.

Dan Z Johnson, president of Standard Tobacco of Pennsylvania, came up with the idea of recreating extinct brands as he sat on a friend’s roof terrace in New York smoking “truly awful” tobacco.

He entrusted the task to blender Russ Ouellette, who began smoking a pipe in 1975 and was exposed to the John Cotton’s pipe tobaccos very early on.

Examples of john cotton tobacco tins. Picture; contributed

“The blends each had certain characteristics that were indelibly imprinted upon my taste-memory,” he said.

“When I was approached by the Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, which had recently acquired the John Cotton’s trademarks, we decided that those three blends were the low-hanging fruit as it were, since they were the most popular blends sold on this side of the pond, before disappearing from American shores.”

John Alexander, who owns the former factory, delved into its history books while carrying out a £150,000 refurbishment of the top floor.

Following completion of the project, the 5000sq ft of office space now accommodates all the back-office staff of DJ Alexander Lettings, of which Mr Alexander is also a director.

Jjohn Cotton tobacco tins. Picture; contributed

He said: “Before we started work the floor was a rabbit warren of cellular offices which we completely gutted and turned into open-plan space.

“Now it has all the merits of contemporary business accommodation but this has led to the original steel beams and the hoist becoming prominent again, so in an abstract way the floor has been returned to what it must have been like in tobacco factory days – albeit much cleaner and with desks and computers in place of production lines.”

Mr Johnson believes his plans to return John Cotton to UK shelves will depend on how EU exit negotiations pan out.

He said: “There is a possibility of getting our stuff into the UK following Brexit but that depends on how long to takes to rewrite all the trade regulations.

“We would like nothing more than for John Cotton products to return to the shelves in tobacconists in Scotland. It would make this entire project worthwhile.”