Family Research – English, Scottish and Irish Genealogy


History of Whisky

The Whisky`s pedigree dates back at least 500 years to the time when malt liquor first began to be distilled in Scotland. Since then the history of Scotch whisky has been exciting and eventful, with distillers endlessly struggling, often against appalling odds, to ensure that this essential water of life reached those who appreciate its quality and distinction.

It was perhaps natural that distilling should have developed in Scotland. Although brewing malt ale has an even longer history in the country, it was difficult to keep for long as it is too cold to grow hops vital for preservation. Moreover, in rural areas it was hard to obtain reliable yeasts. As a result, country brewers had to resort to natural yeasts, which often produced a beverage that was almost unpalatable. The only way to transform a weak alcoholic liquor into a wholesome drink that would keep for any length of time was to make it into a spirit. This had the added advantage of being much easier to transport than bulky beers and ales; an important consideration in a large soarsely populated and mountainous country.

Distilling has its origins in the ancient world where it was used principally for making cordials and specifics. Legend has it that St Patrick brought the precious art of distilling with him from Germany to Ireland and Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland in the fifth century. It is not certain when the tiny crude stills used for producing essences where perfected for the manufacture of alcoholic spirits. The remarkable restorative effects of the spirit were quickly recognized and the technique spread rapidly throughout Europe. As a result, the spirits became known as water of life, in Latin `aqua vitae`. By 1494, when Friar John Corr tokk delivery of eight bolls of malt to distill aqua vitae, the craft of making usquebaugh was established in Scotland. Usquebaugh is the Gaelic for water of life from which the modern word – whisky – is derived.

By 1644 whisky making had become so widespread that there was a threat of severe grain shortages following a bad harvest. The Scottish parliament took urgent action restricting the right to distil to the upper classes and imposing the first excise duty on spirits. Fifty years later drinking usquebaugh, often in large quantities, had become commonplace throughout Scotland. Most of the whisky was made in small domestic stills for the use of the immediate family and servants.

The first commercial public distilleries seem to have been established in the 1660s. One of the largest such enterprise was Ferintosh, near Dingwall, owned by Forbes family of Culloden. When the distillery was burnt to the ground during the Jacobite disturbances in 1689, the Forbes family were given the right to distil free of duty in perpetuity. Within sixty years they were producing 40,000 gallons of duty-free whisky a year – much to the annoyance of the owners of other public or `licensed` distilleries that had opened in the Lowlands in the 1740s and 1750s. A series of bad harvests in the late 1750s lad to a ban on all licensed distilling. Private distillers were exempt and many unscrupulous dealers started an illegal traffic that soon overtook the business of the public distilleries. Many were forced to close and legal production plummeted. Only the Forbes of Culloden with their unique privilege benefited from these events. A huge trade developed in smuggling whisky from the Highlands into the Lowlands.

In 1777 licensed whisky making recovered due to the determination of the distillers and landowners alike to defeat the private producers. At the same time the Customers and Excise reduced the size of stills that could legally be used for privatedistilling and intensified their efforts to keep contraband French wines and brandies out of Scotland. Private distilling was banned altogetherin 1781. The excisemen were told to seize illicit whisky and smash stills and utensils, with the help, if neccessary, of the military. Such action was very unpopular with the fiercly independent Scots, who embarked on a long running battle of wits with excise officials. Stories of confrontations, often with the illicit distillers and smugglers getting the upper hand, can be found in every part of the country.

Despite smuggling on a large scale, in the last quarter of the eighteenth century licensed distillers continued to flourish. Production climbed rapidly, new distilleries opened and existing plants were extended. The leading producers, the closely related Stein and Haig families, had the largest plants at Kilbagie and Kennetpans in Clackmannshire, at Canonmills and Lochrin in Edinburgh, and at Kincable near St Andrews.

The whisky made by these `great` distillers was exported in large quantities to England and strained the existing excise regulations to the limit. Steps were taken to simplify their administration in the Wash Act of 1784. Duty was slashed and at the same time the Forbes family`s right to distil whisky free of duty was abolished. The Wash Act established the Highland Line, a formal distinction between the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands were given special treatment partly to encourage illicit distillers to become legal and partly in recognition of the problems of the area following a bad harvest in 1783. In the Highlands each distillery was allowed to operate just one still at a much-reduced license fee, but could only use barley grown in the parish. Nevertheless, illicit distilling and smuggling into the Lowlands continued unabated.

The `great and middle class` distillers in the Lowlands welcomed the Wash Act and immediately increased their output. By 1786 the five distilleries controlled by Stein and Haig families were exporting to England staggering 881,969 gallons of spirit, to make the favoured English drink gin on a large scale. The Scottish distilleries were soon locked in a fierce price war with their London competitors who used their influences in the capital to persuade parliament to increase duty on shipments south of the border. They also secured legislation to England, effectively barring Scottish distillers from the London market for a year. As a result, in February 1788, the Stein and Haig enterprises were driven into bankruptcy with total debts approaching the enormous sum of 700,000 Pounds.

Although Scottish creditors were lenient, the local market was flooded with cheap whisky, produced in the small stills in the Highlands. Over the next thirty years the glut of harsh whisky, the rises in duty to finance the war with revolutionary France, and intermittent bans on distilling, all served to encourage an immense network of illegal Highland distilling and smuggling. Many licensed distillers were forced either to give up business or join the illicit traffic.

Landowners turned a blind eye as illicit distilling and smuggling brought income to their tenants, giving them money to pay their rents. The whole trade became well organized, with coppersmiths supplying stills and other utensils and malsters the vital barley. Along with the farmers who grew barley, they were paid in kind. Smuggling bands could often contain as many as fifty men and ponies. By the end of the eighteenth century they almost controlled some parts of Scotland where excisemen and law officers ventured at their peril.

With the coming of peace with France after 1815, the government became increasingly concerned to suppress this lawlessness. Eventually legislation was passed in 1822 and 1823 which encouraged licensed production and imposed heavy penalties on illicit distillers. The modern Scotch whisky trade can trace its origins back to these reforms.

Taken from Michael Moss “Scotch Whisky”, Chambers Edinburgh

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