The Whisky Smuggling Era

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The Whisky Smuggling Era

Charles Maclean, Master of the Quaich and whisky writer talks in his book: 'Malt Whisky' (1997) in great detail about the whisky smuggling era of the late 18th century and early 19th century. It is common knowledge that the whisky distilled at the time, was sold clear and in the vast majority of cases, was sold straight from the still. Up until 1814 it was not uncommon to find that the whisky being sold was made with barley harvested less than six weeks earlier. After heavy taxes were imposed on nearly everything, from bricks to table salt, in 1788 and the enactment of the Lowland License Act on the same year, legal distillation and the agricultural economy in the Lowlands collapsed. The 1788 act ruled that Scot distillers had an advantage over English distillers as a result of miscalculated duties included in the 1786 Wash Act that we mentioned in our previous post. This meant for many smugglers and rogue distillers that it was more convenient to evade taxes and smuggle alcohol while running the risk of a fine or imprisonment than producing and transporting alcohol and paying all the duties. During the height of the whisky smuggling era smugglers grew bold and fearless and some records of the time show that in many cases they were '[t]ravelling in bands of 50, 80 or 100... horses remarkably stout and fleet..' so fearless were the smugglers that they moved during the day and 'on public high roads and through the streets of such towns and villages as they [had] occasion to pass'. Such bold moves would not have been made possible without the aid of the powerful landowners of course. Many Justices of the Peace (judges) were appointed from within the ranks of the landowners, their pockets were lined with the increased rents paid to them by the smugglers. The government's reaction to this? Well, duty was increased (tripled in fact) in 1793, increased again in 1795, 1800, 1804, 1811 and 1814. It was like being trapped in a hole in the ground and digging down to get out. By 1816, a different approach was taken, The Small Stills Act was enacted and it allowed the use of smaller stills while reducing duty by a third. The number of legal distilleries in the Highlands and Lowlands increased as a result. Landowners in the Highlands were concerned with the increase in violent crime associated with food shortages and the Highland clearances to make room for livestock pastures and evictions in general. Once legal distillation was more or less encouraged again by the 1816 act, they were quick to turn against their former collaborators and to blame them for that violence. After the communications were improved between the Highlands and Lowlands, many lairds were quick to set up their very own legal distilleries. This put them in direct competition with their former accomplices. They spent no time in lobbying parliament requesting concessions from the government to 'law abiding distillers'. The 4th Duke of Gordon, one of the most powerful landowners of the time, addressed parliament in 1820 with one such request. By 1823 the famous Excise Act was enacted, it halved the duty on spirits and introduced an annual license fee to distillers. It eliminated duty on spirits intended for export and allowed every legal distiller to export their spirit if they so wished. It could be said that the basis for the modern whisky industry were laid there and then. Pot stills designed to avoid paying taxes became redundant, producers could focus on the quality of their product rather than on keeping the excise men off their backs. Two years after the Excise Act became law there were over 300 licensed distillers all over the country. Many of these distilleries were started by former smugglers whose neighbours were quick to show jealousy and enmity. George Smith of Glenlivet was warned by his neighbours that his new distillery would be burnt to the ground. He carried a pair of pistols in his belt 'just in case'. With so many legal distilleries popping up everywhere, it became an incredibly competitive market. Some distilleries started to experiment with new methods of distillation in order to cut production costs and to try to undercut their competitors. We will talk about the post 1823 whisky era in more detail in our next article.
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