The Whisky Smuggling Era
(This is the 4th article of the series on the origins of Sctoch whisky)
In his book "Malt Whisky" (1997), Charles Maclean, Master of the Quaich and whisky writer, delves into the intriguing history of whisky smuggling during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. During this time, whisky was typically sold straight from the still and was often made with barley that had been harvested less than six weeks prior. However, in 1788, heavy taxes were imposed on various goods, including table salt and bricks, and the Lowland License Act was enacted, which led to the collapse of legal distillation and the agricultural economy in the Lowlands.
Many smugglers and rogue distillers found it more convenient to evade taxes and smuggle alcohol instead of paying duties and transporting alcohol legally. They grew increasingly bold and fearless, travelling in bands of up to 100 horses and moving through towns and villages during the day. Such brazen moves were made possible with the aid of powerful landowners, who were appointed as judges and received increased rents from smugglers.
The government's response was to increase duties several times, which only exacerbated the problem. However, by 1816, a different approach was taken with the Small Stills Act, which allowed the use of smaller stills and reduced duty by a third. This led to an increase in legal distilleries in the Highlands and Lowlands.
Landowners in the Highlands were concerned with the increase in violent crime associated with food shortages and evictions. Once legal distillation was encouraged again, they turned against their former collaborators and blamed them for the violence. As communications improved between the Highlands and Lowlands, many lairds set up their own legal distilleries, putting them in direct competition with their former accomplices. They lobbied parliament for concessions, and in 1823, the Excise Act was enacted. This halved the duty on spirits, introduced an annual license fee for distillers, and eliminated duty on spirits intended for export.
The Excise Act paved the way for the modern whisky industry, with pot stills designed to avoid taxes becoming redundant. Producers could now focus on the quality of their product rather than avoiding excise men. Within two years of the Excise Act, there were over 300 licensed distillers across the country, including former smugglers who had set up legal distilleries. However, this led to an increasingly competitive market, with some distilleries experimenting with new methods of distillation to cut production costs and undercut their rivals. In the next article, we will delve further into the post-1823 whisky era.