Whisky, that philosophic wine, that liquid sunshine

It is a well-known truth, in this office at least, that archaeology and whisky go well together. Or, perhaps more accurately, that archaeologists and whisky go well together. With a few exceptions (you know who you are, gin drinkers), it is not at all uncommon to find yourself in the company of an archaeologist with a fine appreciation for a single malt (or two, or three). With that in mind, it’s a bit of a wonder that we haven’t thought to write a blog post combining the two before now (honestly, archaeology and whisky are two of my favourite things, what were we thinking).

It won’t surprise any of our readers, I think, to hear that alcohol bottles are one of the most common artefacts we find on 19th century sites (here in Christchurch and throughout New Zealand). Despite the temperance movement in the late 19th century and the many discussions and testimonies about the evils of the demon drink, alcohol remained a popular product. As with the gin bottles we discussed a while back, however, it can be difficult to know exactly which types of alcohol were originally contained in these bottles – unless we have a label or embossing (and even then, these bottles were reused over and over again for a variety of products). Fortunately for this post, as it happens, we’ve been lucky enough to find a few examples that do have labels, each with their own story to tell about whisky consumption in Christchurch.


“Black  beer” bottles of various sizes found in Christchurch. While a large number of these were probably used for beer, the larger quart sizes in particular would also have been commonly used for spirits like whisky and gin. Image: J. Garland.

Johnnie Walker.

Old Johnnie Walker. Established in Kilmarnock in the mid-19th century, John Walker (and then John Walker and Sons) has making whisky for far longer than some of you might be aware. It’s advertised in New Zealand newspapers throughout the latter decades of the 19th century. This particular bottle, found on a site in Rangiora, has been cut with a hot wire around the shoulder of the bottle to create a preserving jar out of the base (the jar like shape of the cut base would be used to store fruit or preserves and sealed with wax). Image: C. Dickson (left), Southland Times 16/04/1887: 4 (right).

Genuine pure whisky will never injure the system.

Advertisements for whisky in the 19th century were many and varied. This one, for Teacher and Sons, makes the oft-used claim that “Genuine pure whisky will never injure the system; it is the common inferior stuff which is the curse of the world.” Image: Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser 3/06/1904: 2.

removing the drunk from whisky

In which an enterprising chemist with only the best of intentions claims to have removed the “drunk” from whisky, but not the exhilarating powers. Amazingly, his discovery doesn’t seem to have taken off. Image: Dunstan Times 30/08/1909: 2.


This label has a bit of a story behind it. We sent it off to the good folks at Whisky Galore, who managed to trace it to the Saucel distillery in Paisley, Scotland – one of the biggest distilleries of the late 19th century (apparently producing over a million gallons a year in the 1890s), but one that has now been completely erased from the landscape. The distillery was established c. the 1790s and continued through into at least the early 20th century (it was taken over by the Distiller’s Company in the early 1900s). It was bought by James Stewart and Co. in 1825 and, although it was resold in 1830 to Graham Menzies, continued to carry the Stewart name for quite some time. There are several advertisements to be found in New Zealand newspapers in the 1860s and 1870s for Saucel or ‘Stewart’s’ whisky from Paisley. Image: J. Garland (left), Taranaki Herald 05/03/1864: 4 (right).

squirrel whisky

Squirrel whisky! We do not recommend. Image: Tuapeka Times 8/07/1908: 1.


Another old establishment, the Kirkliston distillery was established in 1795 in West Lothian, Scotland. It had a series of owners during the 19th century, including Andrew Stein, who installed a Stein continuous triple still, John Buchanan and Co. and, eventually, John Stewart and Co., who bought it in 1855. Stewart and Co. installed a Coffey still, taking the distillery back to large scale grain distilling rather than using pot-stills. John Stewart and Co., and the Kirkliston distillery, were one of the six Scottish whisky manufacturers who formed the Distillers Company in 1877 (see below!). The Kirkliston distillery was apparently also a large producer, with estimates of 700 000 gallons a year in the 1880s. It’s quite often mentioned in New Zealand newspapers, especially in the 1860s and 1870s. Image: (from top right down) C. Dickson, Press 4/01/1865: 2Otago Daily Times 1/09/1865: 1Press 16/11/1864: 5 and Dickson, C. (right).

doctor's special

See? Whisky is totally medicinal. Image: New Zealand Herald 29/07/1925: 12. 


Thom and Cameron may be the most common whisky manufacturer we’ve come across in the archaeological record (this is not to say that they were the most commonly consumed, just that their bottles may survive better in the ground that most). They were established in 1850 and had premises in Glasgow, although I’m not sure if this is where the distillery was or not. They made a variety of whiskies, including Glenroy, Rob Roy, Hawthorn, Old Highland Whisky, Special Reserve Whisky and, my personal favourite, Long John Whiskey (named after Ben Nevis whisky distiller John Macdonald, who was apparently quite tall). A description of their distillery in 1888 mentions “immense vats of American oak’, including some that held 10 000 gallons. Image: J. Garland (left), Press 03/10/1895: 1. 

Thom and Cameron

We also found the fragments of a Thom and Cameron jubilee whisky jug on a site on St Asaph Street last year. The jug, which depicts a particularly sour faced looking Victoria (she has definitely got her eye on you), would have been made in 1887 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 50 years on the throne. Image: C. Dickson (left) and The Sale Room (right).

idle men need duff's whisky

Idle men need Duff’s whisky. Now you know. Image: Auckland Star 9/09/1933: 8.

Distiller's Company

This flask has a metal capsule seal with the mark of the Distillers Company Ltd, or D. C. L. These guys were formed in 1877 by six Scottish distilleries. By the early to mid-20th century, they had become one of the leading whisky (and pharmaceuticals) companies in Scotland. Image: J. Garland (left), Press 22/04/1916: 5. 

heddle leith

We don’t know much about this one, unfortunately. James Heddle was a whisky, gin and cordial manufacturer or distributor based in Leith, Scotland during the latter half of the 19th century. We have advertisements for his products in New Zealand during the 1870s, including for lime cordial, old tom gin and scotch whisky. Image: C. Dickson (left),  Wanganui Herald 16/05/1879: 4Press 22/03/1871: 4Press 13/01/1925: 10.


As well as importing bottles of whisky, people imported casks and bottled the spirits here. This bottle label says “SCOTCH WHISKY, bottled in New Zealand by B. Perry, OCCIDENTAL HOTEL.” The Occidental was a well-known and well-loved establishment on Hereford Street in Christchurch that was still running until just before the earthquakes. Benjamin Perry, who was proprietor of the hotel during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, holds the distinction of being one of the only licensed victuallers in the city to never be in breach of his liquor license. We couldn’t find any specific reference to whisky being bottled at the hotel (although we did find other references to whisky at the hotel…), but we did find a notice in the paper in the 1910s advertising for washed whisky bottles, presumably for that very same purpose. Image: J. Garland (left), Sun 27/07/1918: 11 (top right), Press 17/01/1903: 8.

ruining the whisky punch

And, last but not least, whatever you do, don’t ruin the whisky punch with water. Image: Evening Star 23/01/1884: 2.

Jessie Garland


Papers Past. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz.

Townsend, B., 2015. Scotch Missed: The Original Guide to the Lost Distilleries of Scotland. Neil Wilson Publishing, England.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.