Scotland: Whisky & Distilleries
The industrial development
of Scotland quickened during the 1780's. The textile industry became
very important, and some very great cotton mills were build in those
days. One of them was the Deanston cotton
mill which was active for about 200 years before closing in 1960.
A few years later it was converted in a whisky distillery. The building
of those great plants required machinery, and encouraged the iron founding
and engineering industry, which in turn need coal, helping development
of coal mining.
At that time, the whisky industry was important to the Scottish industry, especially in the Lowlands (see history before 1787), but was loosing the price war against the London gin producers.
Very bad news for the Scottish distilleries was the promulgation of the Lowland Licence Act, which required a 12 months from the distilleries working for the English market. This meant that the Lowlands distilleries just must cease trading for one year, which had catastrophic consequences on the Scottish industry.
In addition, the distilleries were required to word from wash stills of at least 200 gallons and spirit stills of at least 50 gallons. And the duty on spirits exported to England rose.
The consequences of all those measures did not only affect the distilleries, but also the agriculture which was recently geared to produce barley for the distilleries and relied on draff to feed their cattle.
Amongst the first victims of this new measures,
Sandeman & Graham, the London agents of the great Kilbagie distillery,
belonging to James Stein. The 5 most important distilleries in those
days ceased trading: Kennetpans, Kincaple, Hattonburn, Lochrin and
Canonmills (all of them were related to the Stein or Haig families).
This 5 distilleries were responsible for about 50% of the Lowlands
production. Their debts approach 700.000£ (about 20.000.000£ at 2000
prices) and had consequences on the Scottish banks, creditors of the
Those 5 distilleries were not the only ones to cease trading. Many other followed, amongst them: Underwood near Falkirk, Anderston in Glasgow, Cunningham Park in Ayr, Ailnamuir, Ferintosh and Doghillock.
Those difficulties did not drive the Stein and
Haigs out of the whisky-making history. Their creditors realized the
problems were largely due to changes in the law and accepted to help
them to re-enter the trade. First of all, both families ceased supplying
the English market and registered for Scottish market.
One of the consequences of this next strategy of both families was a flood of cheap and harsh whisky on the Scottish market.
New taxes, intended to help financing the war against the revolutionary France, were introduced. And again the reaction of the industry was an increase of the produced quantity and a decrease of its quality. The tax was on the still capacity, and distilleries decided to produce more with the same stills, e.g. produce faster. Stills were charged up to 25 times a day (against 1 or 2 in the traditional process).
But this massive production made some technical improvements necessary. One of the changes in the making process was the pre-heating of the wash. Very large stills, designed for massive production were installed.
The cheap whisky produced that way overrunning Scotland led to a great increase of the whisky consumption in the country.
Taxes rose again to finance war against Spain and France, and the making process of whisky continued its evolution until the end of the 18th century, with still the same decrease in the quality as a consequence. Stills were charged up to 90 times a day in those days in Lowlands. Lowland distilleries produced about 90% of the whisky in Scotland.
The situation of distilling in the Highlands
was radically different from the Lowlands. Highland distilleries were
not huge industrial plants like in Southern Scotland.
Distilleries were merely owned by local farmers sometimes joining in cooperatives, and the production was not that massive. Highland production represented less than 10%, but on the other hand, no concession to quality has been done. The Highland whiskies were much better, but also much more expensive than the Lowland ones.
Distillation was never the main activity, and nearly no one was dependent on it for his livelihood. Generally, local peat was used to heat the stills, and some people began encouraging the use of Lowland coal, as peat reserves are not inexhaustible.
Despite this facts, many distilleries were forced to close, due to a strengthening of the distillation laws. Tax increases were also problem for the Highland producers. This situation, combined to a increasing demand or good whisky from the Lowlands encouraged the rebirth of moonshine distilling and smuggling.
Distilleries like Ardbeg owned by Alexander Stewart and Craigentinny in Edinburgh bankrupted.
Distilleries in Campbeltown (which were officially excluded from the Highlands in 1795) were driven underground. Also in Speyside, moonshine distilling and smuggling were raising again.
Moonshine distilling and smuggling became part of the local traditions, and remained unpunished because of the complicity of local authorities.
Catastrophic harvests during the first years
of the 19th century made the government take the decision to prohibit
distillation, as the grain was hard needed for food production. In
addition to bad harvests, the Napoleonic wars on the continent made
import of grain nearly impossible. This import restrictions did apply
to brandy too. Many notables had to change their drinking habits and
started drinking whisky. The successive taxes increases during the
first years of the century had a limited effect on local consumption.
The consumption of whisky was resuming and the great Lowlands distilleries knew a new era of prosperity. English marked was opened again, but only to big producers, as the law oblige exporters to produce their spirit in stills of at least 3000 gallons.
The Highland distilleries did not benefit from this new conditions, and their problems with illegal distillation remained. Starvation in North Scotland continued, and the landlords joined (slightly) the authorities to fight moonshine distilling, arguing that grain was so hard needed for food processing that is was a crime to use in for producing whisky. However many landlords collected part of their rents in whisky.
The authorities began to understand that the only way to kill moonshine distilling was a liberalisation of the rules and a significant decrease of the taxes on whisky. So, in 1816 taxes were divided by 3 and the use of smaller stills (at least 40 gallons) was allowed again. The effect was nearly immediate. The number of distilleries acting in the Highlands increased from 12 to 39 in 1817 and to 57 in 1859, and from 24 to 68 in the Lowlands.
The use of smaller stills made the use of other distillation techniques possible, with often better results. Legal distilleries, owning greater stills, found it very difficult to produce whisky with a quality comparable to the one produced illegally.
However, starvation broke out again the same year, and at the same time a new increase of moonshine distilling, due to lack at grain. And the struggle between excise men and moonshine distillers began again. Harder than ever.
The promulgation of the "Excise Act" in 1823, decreasing the taxes again, and the end of the 12 months notice for exports to England meant the end of the monopoly of the Steins and Haigs in the Lowlands and the monopoly of moonshine distillers in the Highlands.
Encouraging measures made the generalisation of use of malt instead of grain (used in the big distilleries in the Lowlands) in the distillation process possible and contribute greatly to the increase of the quality of Scotch whisky.
Legal restriction were nearly disappeared, and the success of the whisky industry was from now depending of the market laws.
Whisky is an alcoholic drink. Let's prefer quality to quantity as the abuse of alcohol beverages can damage the health. Consuming alcoholic drinks during pregnancy, even in small quantities, can seriously affect the health of the child. Consumption of alcohol impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.
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The tasting notes
The production areas
|WDTS: blind tasting sessions||List of all distilleries||How whisky is made||Central Highlands, Eastern Highlands, Northern Highlands,Western Highlands|
|Recent tastings||Distillery owners||Whisky history||Speyside|
|Visitors notes||The independent bottlers||All the bottles in collection||Lowlands|
|Post your own notes||The distilleries in their historical context||By order of preference||Islay|
|Interactive map of the distilleries||By order of value for money||Campbeltown|