It is thought the Steins (local farmers) learned the art of distilling from the friars at Kennetpans.
AQUE VITAE - WATER OF LIFE
The exact date of whisky making at Kennetpans is not known but by the 1730s it was the largest distillery in Scotland. Around the 1770s, the nearby distillery of Kilbagie was opened by James Stein, brother of John Stein, owner of Kennetpans. With the Stein’s thirst for innovation things were about to change. The scale of these two plants had never been seen before in Scotland. Production rose to such levels that the duty paid by the two distilleries was greater than all land tax collected annually in Scotland. Kilbagie was the first Scottish distillery to export spirit in bulk, effectively being the forerunner to a market now worth £4.25 billion to the Scottish economy. The first railway line in Scotland connected Kilbagie with the harbour at Kennetpans and one of the earliest canals in Scotland joined the two distilleries, both of which were the pioneering civil engineering projects of their day. John Stein of Kennetpans ordered Scotland's first Boulton & Watt steam engine. It would be no exaggeration to say the Steins were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland.
In 1751 John Haig married John Stein’s daughter, Margaret. The couple’s five sons were trained as distillers at Kennetpans and Kilbagie. They went on to surpass their cousins, the Steins, and were responsible for the well known Haig Brand (Haig dimple bottle 1888). From 1930s to 1970s the Haig brand was Scotland’s best selling whisky. To this day the Haig's Cameronbridge Distillery is the largest spirit distillery in Europe. Among those who have run the company was Field Marshall Douglas Haig of World War 1 fame. In more recent times, JFK’s father Joe became the American agent for one of the Haig brands.
Around 1780, John Stein of Kennetpans owned two of the largest distilleries in Dublin. John Jameson, originally from Alloa, Scotland, was related to the Steins and Haigs through marriage. John Jameson moved his family to Dublin where he later became general manager at Stein’s Dublin Bow Street Distillery before eventually taking full ownership and renaming the distillery John Jameson and Son. John Jameson’s son William took over Stein’s other Dublin distillery, Marrowbone Lane. To this day, John Jameson and Son is the leading Irish whiskey brand.
In 1786 the Scottish Distillery Act imposed extra duties on spirit sent to England. Sales to England collapsed to 1/13 of the previous year. James Stein attempted to bribe the Solicitor for Excise in Scotland to ignore the new act. £500 wrapped in paper on which was written “this will be repeated every year”. A huge sum of money, probably around £100,000 in today’s terms. Stein was reported and prosecuted but the case was not proven. James Stein replied by suing the excise for £80 000 (about £17 million today) for the loss of business due to the act.
In 1788 Kennetpans and Kilbagie, plus the other three distilleries owned by the Haigs and Steins were bankrupted by a change in law regarding duty increases and prohibiting any export to England for a period of 12 months. These five distilleries controlled 50% of the Scotch whisky production and had debts of £700 000 (£150 000 000 today). This in turn put a considerable strain on the Royal Bank of Scotland (how history repeats it's self).
By 1795 Kennetpans and Kilbagie were up and running again, both distilleries were bought back from the receivers at knock down prices. In 1826 Robert Stein of Kilbagie invented the continuous still, later to be adapted into the coffey still. This totally revolutionised whisky production enabling cheap mass produced whisky.
How many people driving over the Clackmannanshire Bridge, with Kilbagie on one side and the ruins of Kennetpans on the other, could imagine how these two sites helped shape Scotland as we know it today?
The importance of Kennetpans is known only to a very few yet without a doubt, it formed both the Scottish and Irish whisky industries as we know them today.