The 18th – 19th Century
Following on from the History of Whisky Part I “From B.C. to the end of the 17th century” blog.
Demand for whisky began increasing in the 18th century, partly because the Gin Act of 1736 established a tax on gin that didn’t apply to whisky. The official output of ‘aqua vitae’ in Scotland rose from 90,000 gallons in 1710 to almost 300,00 gallons in 1740. It was during this era that the Gaelic term, ‘uisge beatha’ became contorted firstly to ‘uisky’ and then eventually to ‘whisky’.
In the 18th century, it was legal and therefore quite customary for large Scottish houses and farms to operate their own stills to distil whisky for private use. Then in 1780, the size of private stills was reduced from 10 gallons to 2 gallons and excise officers were commissioned to confiscate and dispose of larger stills. A few years later, private distillation was outlawed entirely forcing many distillers underground thus creating an industry of above board commercial producers. Then in 1784, the Walsh act was enacted lowering excise duty rates north of the ‘Highland line’ to encourage the clandestine Highland distillers to turn legitimate and become licensed. They were taxed at £1 per gallon and were limited to only one still of up to 20 gallons. This brought about a swift expansion of licensed distillers in the Highlands and a further act in 1785 was introduced that banned the export of Highland whisky. This resulted in an enormous growth in licensed distilleries in the Lowlands and although they were paying higher duties, they also had the advantage of solely selling their whisky in the Scottish cities and around England.
In 1822 King George IV attended a gala reception in Edinburgh and declared a malt whisky called “Glenlivet” as his whisky of choice and directed that it be used as a toast at all Scottish ceremonial occasions. This saw demand for Glenlivet hit fever pitch with extra supplies urgently sort from the Highlands. In the “Diary of a Highland Lady” written by Elizabeth Grant, she describes the Glenlivet that she sent to King George as “whisky long in the wood and mild as milk”. This is believed to be the earliest reference to the beneficial effects of maturing whisky in casks which was pretty much only practiced by the elite as the bulk of whisky continued to be drunk directly from the still. A lot of it must have been unsavory as it was common to add herbs, spices and honey to mask the taste and/or drink it in hot toddies, fruit punches and mixers.
The aristocratic fascination with whisky continued through the next two generations, with Royal Brackla distillery been granted the first Royal Warrant in 1835 by William IV who announced it was his whisky of choice. Then in 1848, a young Queen Victoria and her companion Prince Albert toured Scotland visiting many towns and villages acquiring a taste for all things Scottish, including whisky. During Queen Victoria’s reign, the whisky industry blossomed, helped by a plague in 1863 which destroyed the majority of vineyards in France leading English brandy and wine drinkers to turn their attention to whisky. This saw the ‘art of blending’ take off as the consistency and quality of whisky at the time was unreliable and Arthur Bell and John Dewar, already successful spirit merchants in their own right, identified that a more dependable product could be produced by blending various malt whiskies from different distilleries. Their whisky blends were launched sometime in the mid 1850’s and is said to be the first time that malt whiskies were classified by their flavour profile, the process being to select various malts according to their flavour thus maintaining the balance and consistency of the brand.
Around this same time, a whisky merchant named Andrew Usher came up with the idea of introducing grain whiskies to a blend distilled from unmalted barley, wheat or maize/corn. They were lighter than malts and more economical to produce using the continuous column still that had been invented in 1826 by Robert Stein, a Clackmannanshire distiller and first used at the Cameron Bridge Grain Distillery. The still system was then further enhanced and patented in 1831 by the now famous Irishman, Aeneas Coffey
Others joined the blending phenomenon and by the early 1890’s the whisky industry was booming with new brands introduced by John Walker, John Haig, James Whyte, Charles Mackay and James Buchanan (just to name a few). They went on to become household names that people the world over now recognise as pioneers. Success came so quickly, they employed foreign representatives to market their brands internationally and as a result, many new distilleries were built, and existing distilleries expanded. In the 1890’s alone, approximately 35 new distilleries were built with 21 of them located at Speyside. Due to this growth, whisky stock in warehouses were on the rise from 2 million gallons in 1892 to a whopping 90 million gallons in 1898. Unfortunately, the whisky boom was not to last past the turn of the 20th century.
The first sign of collapse occurred in 1899 where a perfect storm of events led to the drop in demand for whisky. Firstly, a firm of blenders run by Walter and Robert Pattison filed for bankruptcy. They were found to have ‘cooked the books’ with fraudulent accounting practices and were put on trial for dishonest advertising, selling grain whisky that contain nothing much more than colour as their ‘finest’ Glenlivet blend. The Pattison brothers were found guilty and sent to prison. When word spread of their treachery, many more distillers falsely promoting their whisky were also found and shut down. Around the same time, Scotland was experiencing a general economic decline and then the start of the Boer War on the 11th of October 1899 inevitably disrupted the overseas whisky trade. All these events caused a major downturn in demand. King Edward VII then abandoned whisky in favour of French wine and brandy, and with fashions changing, whisky found itself on the outer in high society. If it couldn’t get any worse for our beloved tipple, war broke out between the distillers and whisky blenders as to what embodied real whisky.
The Old Barrelhouse
Stay tuned for the History of Whisky Part III. The 20th century to present day.