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History of Scotch whisky before 1787

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see also the history of Scotch whisky between 1788 et 1823

The origins

The first advances made in distillation technology

Although the distillation technology is known since the Ancient Egypt for the production of perfumes, it seems the technique used before the 11th century was not able to produce alcohol, suitable to be drunk as the cooling system at the output of the still did not enable to collect of a sufficient quantity of liquid.

The first production of uisge beata seems to date back to the 15th century in monasteries. Uisge beata was used as a medicine as well as for direct consumption. (see poem of Raphael Holinshed).

The first significant enhancements in distillation technology date back to the 16th century, when the air cooling system was replaced by a tube crossing a tub filled up with water. This tube was first placed straight in the centre of a tub, and later diagonally in this tub, which increased the surface of the tube being in contact with fresh water. The tube should later adopt the shape of a serpentine, allowing an optimal cooling by increasing the surface to be in contact with the water again.

Another enhancement in the same period has been the lengthening of the lyne arm and the changes in its shape, to get the current onion shape. The result of this shape changes was that a greater part of the evaporated liquids fall back in the still, ensuring a better suppression of impurities in the final liquid.

Both enhancements resulted in a serious improvement of the quality of the produced alcohol, and marked the real beginning of the economic expansion of Scotch whisky.

First taxation of alcohol in Scotland

The first taxation of uisge beata did not occur before another century. In 1644, the first excise law was voted by the Scottish Parliament. In those days, the production was already that important that during the years with poor harvests, there was not enough barley left for people to eat, because the major part of the harvests was used by the (official or not) distilleries, The first tax was intended to cover the financial needs of the Royalist Army.

The birth of the industrial distilleries.

During the 17th century, the stills used for the distillation of uisge beata were rather small and most of the time they were found in private houses. Their capacity did not exceed 20 to 50 gallons. The industrial distilleries appeared at the end of the 17th century.
One of the first ones belonged to Duncan Forbes of Culladen. He used to produce alcohol on this estate Ferintosh, and the name of his uisge beata was considered as a synonym of "good alcohol" for many years. All this happened on a background of war with England and.

A treaty between Scotland and England signed in 1707 stipulated that the taxes on alcohol has to be the same on both sides of the border. In addition, a tax on malts was introduced in Scotland in 1713. This tax existed in England, but was not part of the treaty. This resulted in very violent demonstrations. The residence of Daniel Campbell of Showfield has been devastated and 11 people living with him were killed during one of this protest actions. As a compensation, the City of Glasgow paid a sum of 9000 pounds. With that money, he purchased the Isle of Islay.

First consequences of the tax on the malt

One of the first effects of this new tax on the malt was an important decrease in the consumption of ale, which was also made from malt, and an increase of consumption of brandy and home made alcohols.
Another consequence was the introduction of non malted grain in the composition of uisge beata in those days, with the natural decrease in quality for the resulting alcohol.

Fight against alcoholism in England

In order to fight against the devastating effects of alcoholism in those times, England decided to increase seriously the taxes on gin produced on its territory as well as on the genever produced in Holland. However, the "Gin Act" of 1736 did not mention the Scottish uisge beata.
The effect was immediate, and the result was a huge progression of production of uisge beata in Scotland. The production increased from about 100.000 gallons in 1708 to 250.000 gallons in 1736. However, according to documents from that time, the great majority of the production was absorbed by the local market.
In the same period, the gaelic term "uisge beata" to design water of life has been altered and corrupted, to become uisky of whisky.
A new important increase of the production happened round 1750, and again it appears that the local marked absorbed it nearly entirely.
This is one of the curiosities of history. The distilleries increase their production in order to take advantage of a lack in a low in England, hoping to export their whisky, but in fact only contributed in a worrying increase of alcoholism on their own territory.
Lots of distilleries have been created in those days. One of them was the Dolls distillery (later renamed Glenochil) which has been founded in 1746 and Gilcomstan (in Aberdeen) in 1751.

Restrictions to distillation

A disastrous harvest in 1756 obliged the government to forbid distillation on the whole territory. The whisky production decreased by 90% in a few months. This did not impeach home distilleries to continue, of course. Home distillation was not prohibited in those days, if intended for own consumption only, but it was strictly forbidden to sell home made whisky.
The times were hard, and the recently founded Gilcomston distillery has been reconverted into a brewery in 1763. The times were hard for legal distilleries.
The general prohibition about production of alcohol in the legal distilleries encouraged the private producers to sell their alcohol. Lots of people broke the law.
Private production became very important from 1760. It was nearly ten times more important than the official one (which fell beneath 50.000 gallons a year). But the global production was very close to the production before the prohibition. The era of moonshine distilling was born.

Government reaction against the first moonshine distilleries.

The first measures taken by the authorities were not really efficient. They first forbid the use of small stills (less than 500 gallons for wash stills and less than 100 gallons for spirit stills). hey also sealed the stills, in order to avoid them working without authorisation. The pernicious effect of this laws was that new distilleries had to cease their activities (they nearly all disappeared in no time), but did not affect the greatest one (Ferintosh) at all. Another effect was a new important extension of moonshine distillery.
The number of moonshine distilleries was estimated at about 400, for 8 official ones in 1777 in the city of Edinburgh.

About alcohol drinking in Scotland during the 18th century

The alcohol consumption was very important in those days. Whisky was drunk besides beer and wine. The "normal" consumption was about one dram (1/3 pint) at 60% a day.
The technical progresses made it possible to produce quite better alcohol. This enabled to drink whisky on its own, and not as earlier, just in cordials (with aromatic herbs and sugar added, to hide the bad taste of the whisky at that time) or in punch.

Production increase and illegal distillation

For some unclear reasons, a significant increase of the production of official whisky happened in 1777, going from 70.000 gallons a year to 190.000 in 1779. One of the reasons was that the new distilleries continued producing whisky partly with non malted barley (cheaper because of the taxes), to be able to fight against the home production.
Protectionist measures have also been taken against foreign alcohols (brandy and wine) to protect the local agriculture.
At the same period, the government entirely forbid the production of home made whisky, authorising the excise agents to seize or destroy all the private stills all over Scotland. This was the beginning of the war against moonshine distillers.
This new measures have been preceded two years earlier by severe restrictions on the size of authorized home stills, which were no more allowed to exceed a capacity of 2 gallons (against 10 previously).
The major reason for the government to prohibit the private stills was the need to finance the war against the American colonies. A bonus was even paid to anybody who made it possible for the excise agents to find an illegal still. This money was usually reinvested in a new still... This was another governmental measure proving its inefficiency in the fight against moonshine distilling.

Better times for legal distilleries

While the government was fighting hard against the moonshine distillers, the legal distilleries experienced a significant improvement of their activities. From the 1780's, number of legal distilleries has been founded in the Lowlands.
Two great families especially enjoyed from this expansion: the Stein (allied to the Haig) and the Philp, owners of the Kilbagie, Kennetpans and Dolls distilleries. Kilbalgie, belonging to the Stein will become the biggest distillery of Scotland, and will later be converted in a paper mill which is still active currently. The Stein, allied to the Haig founded the Canonmills and Lochrin distilleries in Edinburgh and Kincaple in St Andrews at the same period. Other distilleries were born too in those days, like Blackhall (Alexander Dewar), Underwood and Hattonburn. This distilleries became quickly the heart of the economic life in the Lowlands. Their production waste was used to feed the cattle, and the distilleries were rapidly considered as essential to the local agriculture. On the other hand, they offered great prospects to the local coal mines.

First whisky export

The production in the Lowlands had reached such a level that the local market has become to small, and the Stein were looking for other outlets. They sold their whisky to the gin producers who used it for rectification of their blends.
The pernicious effect of this was that the local barley production was insufficient to cover the needs of the distilleries, and the first imports of barley from England and Europe took place during this period.
Thanks to this import, the industry survived the very bad harvests between 1782 and 1784 which caused a starvation on the whole Scottish territory, and especially in the Highlands. This did not impeach the distilleries to go on with their production, provoking riots by hungry people.
The government supported the distilleries, because of their economic importance.

1784: Wash Act

An intensification of the controls by the excise administration on the legal distilleries permitted the Wash Act to be published in 1784. The spirit of this law was a simplification of the taxation method. The taxation level was also considerably decreased in Scotland and in England, because the independence war in America was ended.
Instead of taxing the "low wines" and the spirit separately, only the wash was taken into consideration under the new law. The tax was based on the assumption that 5 gallons of wash produced 1 gallon of spirit between 55% and 65%. This system was accompanied by very strict controls, which could took place any time in day or night.

A preferential treatment for the Highlands

Special measures were taken in favour of the Highlands, partially to compensate the consequences of the food shortage. The idea was to encourage the small moonshine distilleries to become legal ones. The law determined a maximum size for the stills, and just authorized the use of local barley, and as a compensation, the level of the taxes was sensibly reduced. The tax on the malt has even been suppressed. On the other hand, any infraction would be severely repressed, and the landlords were considered as responsible for offences by the people living on their estates.
The latest measure made the landlords very angry. The Lowlands producers said this was discrimination, as they did not benefit from preferential measures. This protest actions obliged the government to take some new measures in 1785. Any export of Highland whisky has been prohibited outside the Highlands, and the responsibility of the landlords has been suppressed in case of infractions by their people.

A new outbreak of moonshine spirit

The export prohibition made to the Highland whiskies (which quality was much higher than in the Lowlands), gave a second life to smuggling.
The main difference between whisky from the Highlands and Lowlands came from the shape of the stills. The stills in the Highlands were better shaped to produce quality spirit.

Industrial revolution

At the beginning of the industrial revolution, the distilleries belonging to the Stein and Haig were the biggest industrial plants in Scotland.
The huge production increase and the export to England was considered by the rich London gin merchants as a very bad news, and they began to fight against the growing importance of Scottish whisky. An implacable price war began between the gin and the whisky producers. The whisky producers were obliged to sell their whisky under the cost price.
Another consequence of the actions by the gin merchants lobby was an increase of the taxes on the Scottish spirit. This just affected the Lowlands whisky, as the Highlands could not be exported, due to the export prohibition.
The reaction of the Lowlands industry against the sudden increase of their production costs was a technologic move, making faster production possible for less money. It is obvious that such a move could not have beneficial effects on the quality of the Lowlands whisky.
Another reaction was an increase of the Highland whiskies prices, due to the supply and demand economical law, even if the whole business was only based on smuggling, as the Highlands whisky could not be exported.
The economical importance of whisky in Scotland dates back to this period, which was the beginning of the capitalist era. In those days already, whisky was the major industry in the country.

see also the history of Scotch whisky between 1788 et 1823

> Saturday, 09-Jun-2018 13:23:51 CEST
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Copyright :Jean-Marie Putz (2003-2017)

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