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The Column Still

photo: Tommaso C.

The Advent of the Column Still

Previously we spoke about the commercialisation of whisky and how it went from being a 'medicinal' tonic prepared by monks to being a distillate exported in great quantities to a thirsty English market in the mid and late 18th century. We also talked about the body of legislation subsequently developed and how it intended to regulate whisky production, sales and how it taxed producers differently according to where in Scotland they were located. When the smuggling era came to an end and legal distilleries sprang up everywhere, some distilleries realised that they had to produce whisky more efficiently. That's how a new distilling method came about.

Excise Act 1823

Legal distilling was greatly stimulated by the reduced taxation and the accessibility of the annual distilling fee. Just two years after the act received Royal ascent, Scotland went from having 125 legal distilleries to 329 distilleries. Port Ellen, Pulteney, Mortlach, Miltonduff and Macallan were quickly built. Many distilleries were built on the sites of previous illegal distilleries. This made perfect sense as there was a water source ready, barley could be acquired easily from  local farmers and draff could be sold to them. Legal distilling took off and smugglers became redundant. Convictions for illegal distillation dropped from 14000 in 1823 to just 85 in 1832. Many landlords invested heavily on distilling equipment. Many of those distilleries didn't survive a decade. Some areas saw several distilleries being built very close to each other. In Campbeltown, 27 distilleries were built between 1823 and 1837. Entrepreneurs firmly believed that the demise of smugglers and rogue distilleries would guarantee them handsome returns. The future looked promising. Five years after the Excise act became law, there were 10 million gallons of spirit on the market. Demand for this extra spirit did not match the vast overproduction. On top of that, most of the spirit being produced was being produced at a handful of distilleries located in the Lowlands. There, families of distilleries like the Steins and the Haigs had concentrated their efforts in exporting large quantities of alcohol  to England where it was being rectified into gin. According to whisky writer Charles Maclean during this period: 'some 90% of malt whisky was consumed in Scotland'.

Crisis leads to innovation

There was a trade depression in 1829 and English brewers lobbied the Duke of Wellington's government. They achieved an increased tax rate on distilled drinks and a reduction on beer duty. The only winners were the Lowland distilleries who had experimented successfully with continuous distillation. We will not go into the details of how a column still works, but it is important to mention that a column still was, and still is, very efficient. With a pot still, the distiller has to make sure that it is emptied and cleaned every time it's used. With the column still, there was no need to clean and refill stills after each discharge. Vast quantities of strong alcohol were being produced and its low production costs meant that the alcohol could be sold very cheap. During these years, the vast majority of whisky was sold in bulk, by the barrel. Some whisky writers and historians claim that column still grain whisky was popular among the poorer people in the Central Lowlands. They also claim that the vast majority of grain whisky went to England where it was being rectified into gin. The few Highland malt distillers who could afford to ship their product to England appointed agents. They sold the whisky to wine and spirit merchants who sold the whisky in massive stoneware jars which could hold between 8 and 10 gallons. Glass was still very expensive as its price was being inflated artificially by taxation. It was these merchants and agents as well as the abolition of the glass tax that were going to shape the whisky industry into what it is now. We will talk about it on our next article.
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