May – 2022 (Vol. 45, Number 11)
The Banner Says…
Whisky’s Illicit History
The month of May can be a wonderful one in Scotland, with the long evenings well and truly taking hold and at times better weather than peak summer. It is also a month where Scotland celebrates what is regarded by many as the ‘national drink’, whisky. Scotland is rightly famed for its incredible array of whisky distilleries, the highest concentration of which is found in the Highlands, drawing thousands of visitors each year to regions across the country.
With a history stretching back as far as the 11th century, Scottish/Scotch whisky is an important part of the identity, culture and economy of Scotland today. However, Scotland’s history with whisky production has not always been as we know it today. As ‘having a dram’ grew in popularity during
the 18th century, the government attempted to regulate the whisky market and grab their share of the free-flowing income that uisge beathe’ (or ‘water of life’) was providing farmers.
Historians have estimated up to 500,000 gallons of whisky was being produced a year by private unlicensed distillers. With industrialisation more and more people could afford to have a drink and farmers, especially in the Highlands and the North-East of the country, began producing whisky to help cover their farming and living costs and illegal whisky and whisky smuggling became part of the Scottish economic landscape. Many of the illegal drams were actually of higher quality as licensed distillers often had to use lower quality products as they had to pay tax. The government then tried to call time on the rife illegal whisky production, and the 1788 Excise Act banned the use of stills making less than 100 gallons (450 litres) at a time. Suddenly unlicensed private distillation in small stills, which had existed in Scotland for hundreds of years, was made to be illegal.
The tables turned for the government came when the 1823 Excise Act reduced duty by over 50% and ended the advantage of illicit distillers over their licensed competitors. The first illicit producer to get his licence was a Mr George Smith in 1824. Mr Smith became the founder of The Glenlivet Distillery, which today is one of the world’s most popular and bestselling single malt whiskies.
In this issue
It is so wonderful to see so many great Scottish and Celtic events taking place across the world. Our events page is again brimming with content, and it is wonderful to have the
vents in Scotland listed again from this month after a hiatus during the pandemic. We are fortunate to highlight the recent New York Tartan Day Parade and Week with our readers. This event is a prime example of how Scots are again reconnecting at events, celebrating our incredible culture, and sharing it with so many. Events across North America are certainly back on, and the summer is again looking a busy one. Australia also has got much taking place and crowds are returning after so much lockdown disruption. It is also great to see New Zealand slowly allowing gatherings to take place.
Scotland’s Slate Islands lie just south of Oban on the west coast of Scotland. These now quiet islands, and often overlooked by visitors, at one time were the centre of the world’s slate industry. Some may not realise that a slate roof at one time very likely came from these islands as tens of millions of roofing slates were quarried from the islands pits and shipped around the world. The main islands are Seil, Easdale, Luing, Lunga, Shuna, Torsa and Belnahua and these small islands for a time were known as ‘the islands that roofed the world”.
The dynamic Scotch industry
Like the drink itself, the story of whisky-making in Scotland is fascinating and complex. It’s believed whisky-making began in Scotland as winemaking methods spread from monasteries in Europe; with no access to grapes, monks used grain mash instead to produce an early form of the popular spirit. Those early and very illegal batches of whisky would sow the seed for an industry which is today worth billions of pounds to the economy and employs thousands of people.
In the 21st century whisky industry, heritage mixes with high tech and over 100 distilleries have been able to take centuries of accumulated distilling knowledge and expertise and merge it with cutting-edge design and green technology to produce quality spirits. And whilst illicit distilling is no longer taking place in Scotland it is certainly very much part of its history and ancient tradition and has helped form the dynamic Scotch industry that Scotland proudly has today. An industry that has made Scotch whisky the world’s most popular spirit, which is sold in over 200 markets worldwide, and who cannot say cheers to that?
Should you be raising a dram this month, perhaps on World Whisky Day on May 21st, wishing you and yours ‘do dheagh shlainte’ or ‘to your good health’ and enjoy your May.
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