THE FORGOTTEN DYNASTY
Most historians describe the Steins as a great whisky dynasty, probably one of the greatest understatements you will ever read.
Yes, the Steins revolutionised both the Scottish and Irish whisky industries, but without a doubt the family were also one of the greatest Scottish industrialists of their time.
The distilleries founded by the Steins were the largest manufacturing undertaking of any kind to emerge during the first decade of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland and Ireland.
The earliest reference to the Steins in the Clackmannan area dates back to around 1200. The family was obviously one of substance owning farmland at Craigton and also Greenyards on the far bank of the river Forth.
It is also thought the Steins extended their land holding at the reformation, upon the dissolution of Kennetpans Abbey, where they learned the act of distilling from the friars.
It is believed to have been Andrew Stein (1672 – 1741) that first established a commercial distillery at Kennetpans c1720s. Certainly by 1733 Kennetpans was the largest distillery in Scotland now run by Andrew’s son, John Stein senior (1697 – 1773).
Later John’s son, John (1745 – 1825), was to take over Kennetpans and for some unknown reason he also set his sights on the Irish market.
Both would become vast manufacturing plants even by today’s standards.
John had 12 children some of whom continued with the family’s distilling traditions.
James founded a large distillery at Kilbagie one mile distant from his father’s Kennetpans Distillery, Robert founded the Kincaple Distillery at St Andrews, Andrew purchased the Hattonburn Distillery at Milnathort and John Stein junior eventually took over his father’s interests at Kennetpans.
DRIVE AND INNOVATION
The Steins did not just fit in with the traditional distilling methods. They brought whisky manufacturing to a scale never seen before in Scotland.
They were true innovators open to any new technology they thought would benefit distilling. Two of the Steins greatest achievements were they founded the export market for Scotch whisky and the invention of the continuous still, they have never received the level of credit deserved for either.
An extract from the Philosophical Magazine published in 1798 states ‘The improvements that have taken place in the common distillery business in Scotland within these few years are such as cannot fail to excite the wonder of men of science’.
With distilling on such an unprecedented scale came problems keeping these vast plants supplied with the raw materials required. This lead to massive changes to farming in the surrounding areas of these great distilleries.
The whole of Central Scotland’s infrastructure had to be re-examined and the Steins commissioned huge engineering projects from building roads to canals and tramways. They also established major shipping interests.
The Steins drive for profit also managed to get them into difficulties over the years, whether with Customs or the London gin merchants; they often found themselves in tight corners not always of their own making (see Gin Trade).
They were always looking for an edge so when the level of duty was based upon the expectation that a still could only discharge once or twice a day, the Steins designed new shallow stills that could be discharged much quicker. The Steins Canonmills distillery could discharge at a rate of 94 times in a 24 hour period. This gave a huge advantage on the duty paid (or not paid?).
The Steins frequently attempted to avoid regulations, for example often distilling on the Sabbath when excise officers were not on duty. Similarly, when excise officers attempted to use hydrometers to measure the spirit strength accurately, James Stein of Kilbagie immediately accused the excise officers of trespass and had them escorted from his premises.
The matter was taken to the Court of the Exchequer which approved the use of the hydrometers, but admitted legislation did not allow the strength of spirit to be recorded or marked on the barrels and did not even permit the destruction of spirit found to be under proof. I am saddened to see bureaucracy has never changed over the years!
Other instances of the Steins being economical with the truth was when John and James plus other partners in crime found themselves being prosecuted by the Crown for under declaring duty payments on timber shipments landed at Alloa between 1786 – 1791. I would imagine their fleet of ships gave them plenty of other opportunities similar to the timber incident.
GREAT INDUSTRIALISTS OR DISTILLING MAFIA
With any large business enterprise it takes a certain type of person with drive, determination and even ruthlessness to succeed. The Steins were not short on any of these.
The Steins were regarded as royalty when it came to distilling, and they always tried to control the market place by pushing family interests even to saturation point. It is without a doubt the Steins bankrolled the Haigs and Jamesons to enable them to flourish (at a cost). This was shown when William Haig of the Seggie Distillery went into liquidation owing John Stein of Kennetpans £42,000 (equal to £8million today).
They also controlled other non family distilleries in Scotland through complex agreements involving supplying credit and capital. If anyone stepped out of line the Steins were completely ruthless as Duncan Montgomery of Inverkeithing Distillery found out to his cost. The Steins purchased the mill upstream of his distillery and cut of his water supply forcing him into sequestration and if all other avenues failed, they were not averse to giving the odd bribe or two .
After the boom of 1815 exports to England stagnated. The Steins, and by now their financially independent cousins, the Haigs, were unscrupulous to protect their control of this trade. They paid their relatives John Stein of Kennetpans (by this time Robert of Kilbagie was by far the leading distiller in the Stein family) and John Philp of the Dolls Distillery not to register for the English market.
Similar offers were made to other distillers such as Robert More, owner of the Underwood Lock Distillery, who received £10,000 (£2 million now) not to supply English customers. They tried to rationalise the industry by buying up and dismantling struggling distilleries. These practices made the Steins / Haigs increasingly unpopular with other large Scottish distillers.
It would appear it was not only distilling the Steins were involved with and they even ventured into banking, with disasterous results. In 1800 The Workington Bank was founded by Messrs Wood, Smith and Stein & Co. Little is known about this bank and only a few copies of their bank notes exist today.
It was not a good time for country banks . As agriculture was going through a boom and bust period, coupled to the fact Workington’s major customers were connected to the manufacture of arms and the iron trades, a brief period of peace with France did not help. The Workington Bank went into recievership in 1812 with debts totally £120,000 (approximately £20,000,000 today).
An Action of Insolvency was raised by the Commission of Bankruptcy in London on 11th August 1812 against ‘John Stein, Thomas Smith, Robert Stein, James Stein and Robert Smith, who carried on Business as Bankers, Insurance Brokers and Merchants in Fenchurch Street, in the City of London, under the firm of Stein, Smith and Company, and in the Royal Exchange, in the City of Edinburgh, under the firm of Scott, Smith, Stein and Company, and of whom the said John Stein, Robert Stein and James Stein also carried on business as distillers’.
THE DISAPPEARANCE OF THE STEIN WHISKY DYNASTY
We are unable to trace the Stein’s involvement in distilling after the closure of John Stein’s Sudbury Distillery in 1856.
I find it hard to believe a family of the Stein’s drive / stature would turn its back on the industry that had given them so much. Had their involvement just run its course, or did they teach their cousins too well and it was now the Haigs’ turn to dominate the industry?
Whatever the reason, in the one hundred years that they dominated the market, they certainly left their mark on one of Scotland’s and Ireland’s most important industries.
So the next time you taste your favourite dram it may be worth a toast
Our Prime Minister David Cameron is a direct descendant of the Steins of Kilbagie and Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond’s first job was in a Stein Brick work.
Do you know what direction the Steins took?