Blog posts of '2022' 'June'

Scotch Whisky Page 1

Scotch Whisky - Scots Connection


OF all the products associated with Scotland, Scotch Whisky reigns supreme. To anyone, anywhere in the world, Scotch can only mean one thing –Scotch whisky. The romance associated with its origins combined with its pleasurable reputation and acknowledged health-giving properties have given it a worldwide and iconic status.

Strathisla Distillery
Strathisla Distillery

And seemingly it all began when early Christian missionaries - followers of St. Columba - came to Scotland some fifteen hundred years ago, although the earliest actual reference to the spirit being distilled in Scotland is to be found more recently in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 when Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife ordered “eight bolls of malt wherein to mak aqua vitae.'

Ever since, scholars and authors, when writing of Scotland, have born testimony to the remarkable qualities of Scotland's national alcoholic beverage. Indeed, for the majority of those living in the Highlands, it was and remains a staple for survival. Writing of the Isle of Lewis in 1695, Martin Martin, the Macleod of Macleod's factor, commented that 'the air is temperately cold and moist, and for the corrective, the natives use a dose of trestarig or uisgebeatha.'

In his masterly work on Scotch whisky, Professor David Daiches writes that by the seventeenth century, Scotch whisky was already established as the characteristic Highlands of Scotland spirit; that in the eighteenth century, in spite of the continuous troubles with the excise after the failure of the 1745 Jacobite Rising, the art of whisky distillation was flourishing in the Highlands and soon spread to the Lowlands.

As early as 1597, it had become so widespread that the Scottish Parliament passed and act to restrict the practice. Needless to say, this had little effect on the remote crofters, artisans, farmers and weavers for whom the production of whisky was an immensely lucrative sideline. Excise Duty was introduced by the Scottish Parliament in 1644, fixed at 2s 8d per Scots pint (approximately one third of a gallon) of aqua Vitae or other strong liquor, but made little impact.

The introduction of this tax simply added to the long and colourful tradition of smuggling, and the practice of home-distilling continued regardless with small stills producing smooth malt whiskies which could be sold to passing cattle drovers, and the large scale producers making spirit for the London markets. No doubt Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, must have had this in mind in the mid-seventeenth century when he prophesied that:”The time will come when dram shops will be so plentiful that one may be seen at the head of every plough furrow.”

In 1707, the terms of the Treaty of Union between Scotland and England trod carefully when it came to legislation, and while a tax on malt was introduced in England, Scotland was exempted. This point of difference was regarded as having such importance that the Articles of Union actually highlighted the provision that malt should not be taxed in Scotland.

In 1713, when the British Government did decide to extend the English tax to Scotland, it was met with immediate and massive resistance and failed to be implemented. When the British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole finally forced it through in 1725, there was an uproar culminating in what came to be known as the Malt Tax Riots.

And the result was simply a widespread outbreak of whisky smuggling, which was actually encouraged by the majority of Scottish landowners. Whisky smugglers were not considered to be in any way criminal and were invariably held in high esteem and protected by the local populations. Of the excisemen employed to curtail such activities, even that archetypal Englishman Dr Samuel Johnson was moved to comment that they were “wretches, hired by those to whom excise is paid.”

By 1777, Edinburgh had eight licensed stills and, according to excise officers of the day, four hundred illicit stills. However, the consumption of whisky was by then very much the indulgence of the lower orders. Toddy – the combination of whisky, sugar and hot water – was a common drink, whereas the great houses served claret and hock, possibly brandy, rum and port, in their cellars.

In 1816, the Small Stills Act which licensed stills with a maximum capacity of 40 gallons, was marginally successful in reducing the smuggling trade, but in 1822, according to an Inland Revenue report, “Illicit distilling is so widespread that half the spirits actually consumed are supplied by smugglers.”

Up until this time, so rumour had it, virtually every household in the Highlands had its own still. The Statistical Account for Scotland of 1798 had observed that for the majority of people working on the land, distilling was almost the only way in which they could convert victual into cash for the payment of rent and servants.

Scotch Whisky Page 2

In 1823, a more liberal act was passed and within a few years the number of licensed distilleries had grown from a dozen to over three hundred. It should be noted, however, that most of these were located on the edge of the Highlands or in the Lowlands where they were easily accessed. By law, a distiller with stills of over 500 gallons capacity could apply for a licence on payment of £10, but stills with a capacity of under forty gallons were made illegal. To add insult to injury, licensed distilleries were obliged to house a resident exciseman, a debatable asset under any circumstances.

Glendronach Stills
Glendronach Stills

With the Industrial Revolution came engineering and the railways. Legitimate distilleries, which had for the most part begun as small scale operations, were streamlined but were still largely owned and controlled by the families who had founded them. At the same time, a speculative boom was being created among the Victorian investors of the 1890s – distilleries were showing a good return on capital and, in keeping with this, a large number of new brand names started to appear.

But it was all too good to be true, and within ten years the market became flooded, causing a large number of distilleries to change ownership. Some survived and prospered; others simply disappeared without a trace. Overall, ownership of the Scotch Whisky Industry in Scotland was to change dramatically after 1887, the year in which Alfred Bernard compiled his authoritative and invaluable book The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom.

And there was another factor to contend with. In the second half of the nineteenth century, the production of grain whisky, entirely different from that of malt whisky in its distillation process and taste, was to lead to the revolutionary discovery of blending.

It began around 1827, when Robert Stein, by then the most prominent distiller in Scotland, took out patents for a still which was heated internally by steam, instead of by an external furnace. This apparatus had the advantage of distilling whisky in one continuous operation, unlike the traditional pot-still which had to be filled, emptied and filled again. Stein carried out some trials at his Kirkliston Distillery, at the same time encouraging his cousin John Haig to do likewise at Cameron Bridge Distillery. It changed everything.

But it was Aeneas Coffey, a Dublin-based exciseman, who, in 1830, was shrewd enough to further adapt, patent and market the idea. With 'Coffey's Continuous Patent' stills, it suddenly became possible to produce a light, palatable whisky, both fast and economically.

Up until then the strong consistency of a single malt whisky had been limited in its wider appeal, and in consideration of this, the manufacture of grain spirit from a mixture of barley and other cereals was revolutionary. Dramatically different from malt whisky, not only in its distillation but in its taste, grain whisky nowadays represents on average around 60 per cent of the contents of most bottles of blended whisky.

With the advent of blended whiskies, therefore, an entirely new dimension was added to the product's consumer appeal. Today, there are seven massive grain distilleries operational in Scotland, with 95 per cent of their production going into Scotch blends. Throughout the twentieth century, entrepreneurial Whisky Barons such as Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan and the Walker, Mackie and Teacher families took their brands to far corners of the globe.

However, it was the advent of a “whisky lake” and the re-emergence of single malts during the 1980s, which unexpectedly brought about the greatest escalation in the industry's most recent fortunes.

No longer were Scotland's distilleries allowed to be largely inaccessible to the general public. As the industry increasingly threw open its doors to visitors, no more were the magical malts of Scotland a connoisseur's secret. The pioneers were William Grant Sons with their imaginative facilities at the Glenfiddich Distillery on Speyside, and they were rapidly followed up by a flood of other charismatic brand names. Nowadays, the general public is actively encouraged to visit distilleries throughout Scotland, to experiment and to understand the difference between a blended whisky and a single malt, and to appreciate the regional variations.