The Advent of the Column Still
In previous discussions, we explored the evolution of whisky from a medicinal tonic produced by monks to a popular export to England in the 18th century. We also discussed the development of legislation aimed at regulating whisky production, sales, and taxation based on location in Scotland.
With the end of the smuggling era and the emergence of legal distilleries, some distilleries realized the need to produce whisky more efficiently, leading to the development of a new distilling method. The 1823 Excise Act played a crucial role in stimulating legal distilling, with reduced taxation and accessible annual distilling fees resulting in a significant increase in legal distilleries in Scotland from 125 to 329 within just two years.
This increase led to the establishment of distilleries in areas that previously housed illegal distilleries, as water sources and barley could be easily acquired from local farmers. Many landlords invested heavily in distilling equipment, leading to the construction of numerous distilleries in some regions. Despite this boom, many of these distilleries did not survive beyond a decade.
The increased availability of legal whisky led to a decline in illegal distillation, with convictions dropping significantly. The future looked promising, with entrepreneurs confident that the demise of smugglers and rogue distilleries would guarantee them handsome returns. However, the vast overproduction of whisky did not match the demand, with most of the spirit being produced concentrated in the Lowlands.
According to whisky writer Charles Maclean, during this period, about 90% of malt whisky was consumed in Scotland. The crisis that ensued led to innovation, with English brewers lobbying for increased tax rates on distilled drinks and a reduction in beer duty. The only winners were the Lowland distilleries who had successfully experimented with continuous distillation, resulting in the production of vast quantities of strong alcohol at low costs, which could be sold cheaply. The continuous still changed the rules of the game and it went on to influence the very essence of whisky in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Most whisky during this period was sold in bulk, by the barrel, with column still grain whisky being popular among the poorer people in the Central Lowlands. Historians claim that the vast majority of grain whisky went to England, where it was rectified into gin. Highland malt distillers who could afford to ship their product to England appointed agents to sell whisky to wine and spirit merchants. These merchants sold the whisky in massive stoneware jars that could hold between 8 and 10 gallons, as glass was still expensive due to artificial taxation inflation.
It was these merchants, agents, and the abolition of the glass tax that shaped the whisky industry into what it is today. The next article will delve deeper into this evolution.