The origins of Scotch whisky

photo by: lairig4

The origins of Scotch Whisky

In our previous article we talked about the huge importance that the distilling industry had in Scotland  during the 18th century. It is during that period of time that the origins of Scotch whisky as we know it today can be found. We talked about how Usquebaugh was being exported in massive quantities to London and how the London gin distillers fought back. One cannot talk about this important period in Scottish distilling history without mentioning the first ever commercial distillery in Scotland: Kennetpans distillery.

Under the ownership of the Stein family, Kennetpans distillery and Kilbagie distillery (under the ownership of the Haig family) would leave a great legacy in the whisky world.

Kennetpans distillery The distillery was built around 1720. Rumours have it that distillation was taking place at the same site many years before. By 1733 it was, with no doubt, the largest distillery in the country. The location of the distillery was chosen for its access to the fertile farmlands of Fife and for its port.

Kilbagie distillery This distillery was founded around 1777, it surpassed Kennetpans distillery in size and production capacity. The distillery had a burn running through its site and it was used to power a thresher mill, the first ever machine of its type in Scotland. Both distilleries covered a combined area of 850 acres. Animal fodder, enough to feed 9000 heads of cattle, was produced by the two distilleries.

The liquid

Robert Burns mentioned Kilbagie distillery in his poem 'The Jolly Beggars' (1785). According to Robert Burns himself, the acquavitae produced at these distilleries was 'the most rascally liquor and in consequence [it was] only drunk by the most rascally part of the inhabitants'.

The greatest achievement of Kilbagie distillery, is without a doubt, its capacity to produce so much spirit that in 1777 it was exported to England. It was the first ever recorded shipment of whisky to be sold 'abroad'. The spirit being sent to England ended up being rectified into gin by local distilleries. By 1782 the amount of spirit being sent down south was raising eyebrows among London gin distillers.

The Wash Act of 1784

Together with gin distillers based in Liverpool and Bristol, the owners of Kilbagie distillery were flooding the London gin market with their 'rascally liquour'. The 1783 harvest was incredibly poor and a famine gripped the Highlands. Distilling was banned everywhere in Scotland and in many places the taxes on alcohol where increased. During this period William Pitt's Wash Act of 1784 reduced duty everywhere and tied it to the size of the pot stills and to the amount of wash (fermented wort) that could be distilled in a day.

The legacy of the Wash Act 1784 can be seen today, that very Act introduced the Highland line. The line meant that different provisions applied to distilleries below and above the line. In the Highlands, distilleries were taxed at a lower rate and were allowed to distill in smaller pot stills. Weaker washes were being distilled slowly, the whisky had more flavour than whisky produced elsewhere. The same Act made it illegal for Highland distilleries to sell their whisky outside of their local area.

Lowland distilleries saw an opportunity to boost production and started distilling stronger, thicker washes in a new type of pot still (the shallow still) which could boil the wash in a matter of minutes. The spirit produced in this manner was of a quality that can only be described as appalling. Highland whisky was a lot more desirable than Lowland whisky however, it was not available anywhere else but in the areas surrounding the distilleries.

Whisky was being consumed, for the most part, without being aged. It was served with lemon and spices or as a punch, or 'toddy' in taverns and bars of that time. Given the vast production capacity of Lowland distilleries as a result of the 1784 regulations, their output soon equaled and even surpassed the output of London gin distilleries. By 1786, Lowland distilleries were exporting so much spirit to England that a quarter of the gin consumed in England came from Scotland.

Gin distillers soon joined forces and lobbied parliament. With the argument that 'suspected frauds were being committed against the revenue...' since at least 1785, London distillers convinced Westminster lawmakers that the Scottish distillers had to be put in their place. The successful lobbying of parliament resulted in the enactment of the Scottish distillery Act 1786. The same act introduced heavy duty charges on spirits destined for export. Exports of alcohol to England collapsed almost overnight.

Things worsened in 1788 with the enactment of the Lowland License Act. The act effectively banned exports from Scotland to England and caused a massive crisis in the commercial distilling industry. By 1788 the biggest distilleries in Scotland went under and with them, the local economy suffered its biggest crisis in a century. The downfall of the licensed distilling industry meant that smugglers and rogue distillers benefited greatly. Our next article will tell you more about this peculiar period in the history of whisky.

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