Whisky and the Herring boom
Mar 05, 2016
In the 19th century, Herring was a sought-after delicacy in Europe. It was also readily available just off the North-east coast of Scotland. Early in that century the British government started to subsidise the fishing industry. Every fishing boat larger than 60 tonnes received a sum of money for every substantial catch they declared. This incentive created a growing interest in the industry with many companies taking their fishing floats and crews to the Northern tip of Scotland, particularly around the area of Wick and Pulteneytown.
Soon it became incredibly profitable to catch, prepare and export herring. Not only large crews were needed to fish and maintain the shipping floats, massive amounts of personnel were needed to process, prepare and pack the catch. Tens of thousands of Herring lassies (and boys) were involved in the processing of the fish. Many of them were seasonal workers who moved between coastal towns following the boats that were chasing the shoals of herring.
At the peak of the herring boom, there were about 30 thousand fishing boats catching fish in the area. Eventually the Scottish fishing industry became the largest in Europe with up to 80% of the catch being exported to Russia and Germany. This continued until WWI broke out, the war ruined the economies of those two countries.
The growing expansion of the railway allowed armies of personnel to move between coastal town at peak times during the fishing season. The trains served not only to move staff and merchants about, it also helped the growing whisky industry in many ways. No wonder many distilleries built on the second half of the 19th century were named after famous train stations (Caledonia, North British, etc.). It was also during the 19th century that many important developments occurred in the whisky industry. With the advent of the train, many distilleries found it easier to establish their operations closer to railway stations. Some distilleries (i.e. Balblair) even demolished their buildings and re-built distilleries closer to train stations!
The train infrastructure did not reach that many places as many people expected. The Town of Wick and Pulteneytown were only accessible by boat and with a booming economy other needs arose among the increased population. This town, purposely built to house and employ people affected by the Highland clearances in the past, had a booming population. With a greater population, demands for all sort of goods increased too. It was at the very beginning of the Herring Boom that an entrepreneurial man, James Henderson, decided to build a legal distillery in Wick.
Rumours have it that illegal distilleries in the area could not cope with demand for their whisky and that's how he got the idea. James Henderson got a license soon after the Excise Act 1823 was enacted. The act made it a lot easier and cheaper for people to get distilling licenses. The legend still circulates that the distillery was built in such a hurry that the still house was built a bit too low for the pot stills to fit in.
An alcohol ban was going to derail the success of Pulteney distillery. This ban lasted between 1920 and 1939, it was put in place to put a halt to the rampant drunkenness. Excessive drinking and rowdy behaviour were a 'side-effect' of the end of the herring boom in the 20th century. What this meant for Old Pulteney distillery was that local demand for its whisky dropped and the distillery closed down in 1930. This was not the end of the distillery of course. These days Old Pulteney is owned by Inverhouse Distillers and has received prestigious awards in the past few years.
Renowned whisky writer Jim Murray selected the Old Pulteney 21 year old as 'the best whisky in the world' in 2012. The brand has increased its range of whiskies to non-age statement releases and even peated whiskies. Look out for the brilliant Navigator and the peated 1989 Vintage. So, that's how Whisky and the Herring Boom connect in history. You can read more about the distillery here and even have a look inside the distillery