18th Century whisky
(This is the third part of a series of articles on the origins of Scotch whisky)
The early distillers in Scotland prior to the 18th century likely employed a range of techniques, although it's difficult to know for sure. As we discussed in a previous article, after the Papal Jurisdiction Act in 1560, distillation began to spread throughout Scotland, with people distilling all over the country and even putting their health at risk. However, it wasn't until the 18th century that distillation became a regulated and commercial enterprise with a dedicated infrastructure and taxation system.
By 1720, the largest commercial distillery Scotland had ever seen was established in Kennetpans, just outside Stirling. Whisky historians suggest that the location of the distillery was chosen due to easy access to essential supplies like coal, crops, water, and its port. This distillery, along with the Kilbagie distillery, became the most important in the century. However, it's important to note that the whisky produced at the time was of a different quality to what we enjoy today; it was consumed primarily for its effect rather than flavor.
Both distilleries produced a significant amount of spirit, generating enough draff to feed thousands of cattle and pigs. The distilleries were also self-sufficient, with owners owning nearby fields and using waste to feed their livestock. In 1777, the owner of the distilleries, James Stein, exported spirit to England for the first time, specifically to the lucrative London gin market. The spirit was rectified into gin and sold at low prices, which led to a decline in profits for local distillers.
By the late 1780s, London gin distillers had hit back, using their connections to MPs in Westminster to pass acts regulating and punishing the Scottish distilling industry. The Duties on Spirits Act of 1784 was amended in 1786, imposing excessive duties on shipments of spirits from Scotland to England. The Stein family's five distilleries eventually closed down by the mid-1790s, marking a significant setback for the Scottish distilling industry.
In our next article, we'll delve deeper into the history of the two most important distilleries in 18th century Scotland.