Chris Chanslor
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Scotch: The Highlands

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The Whiskey Chronicles

Scotch whisky in the early years of the19th Century was still a cottage industry in the Highlands, and nearly all of it was illegal. It was in the first quarter of the 19th Century that necessary events occurred that enabled the whisky industry to truly became an industry.  Though, before whisky could move from small illicit stills hidden in the wilderness or in a backroom and into purpose-built commercial distilleries; before the product could become known and enjoyed outside of Scotland, the law would need to change.  In addition to new legislation, whisky made in the Highlands would need to establish an unprecedented reputation for quality if it was going to be successful enough to build an industry.

The laws and tax structure of the day discouraged the legal production and sale of whisky in Scotland.  What was needed was an overhaul of the existing laws governing distillation.  Two hundred years ago, nearly all Highland whisky was produced illegally.  Distillers were going to great lengths to avoid paying the extremely high taxes that were being charged at the time.  The Duke of Gordon became convinced that the high taxes only encouraged people to break the law, which increased criminality and decreased His Majesty’s tax revenue.  Gordon began arguing for tax reform and his efforts eventually led to the Excise Act of 1823.  According to Paul F. Pacult in “A Double Scotch,” the Excise Act lowered the tax rates, set the cost of obtaining a license to distill at only 10(GBP), established a minimum still size of 40 gallons, allowed for duty free warehousing, and opened up markets outside of Scotland.  In short, it made the legal and large-scale Scotch whisky industry possible.  The 1823 law also widely improved the quality of whisky by enabling the distiller to focus on making whisky rather than on evading and hiding from law enforcement.  There was, however, one distiller who, though he had an illicit distilling operation, was already known for producing good whisky.

In 1822, King George IV visited Edinburgh.  According to “Memoirs of a Highland Lady: The Autobiography of Elizabeth Grant,”  George IV, asked specifically for Glenlivet.  No one could find any because “it was not to be had outside of the Highlands.”  Miss Grant was compelled to raid her own stock to supply the King with “whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband got in it.”  Because of King George’s expressed love of Glenlivet whisky, its popularity soon spread beyond the Highlands.  George Smith, the distiller of Glenlivet, is generally thought to be the first licensed distiller after the 1823 Excise Act, though Charles MacLean states that 16 distillers began making whisky under the Act, and nine of them still survive.  Smith’s decision to make Glenlivet legally was not a popular one.  Many distillers in the Speyside region near Glenlivet were furious with the new law, they considered George Smith a traitor, and even made death threats as well as attempts to burn down his distillery.  For protection, Smith began carrying a pair of pistols that were presented to him by the Laird of Aberlour in response to all of the threats.  Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart writes in “Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland In Fact And Story,” that the pistols were even used once, when Smith was cornered and threatened by several men in an inn.  Smith fired one of the pistols into the fireplace and the men decided to leave him alone.  Smith was not alone for long as many other distillers in the Speyside region became licensed and began operating legally; he eventually felt safe enough to stop carrying his famous pistols.  However, Glenlivet would, in the 19th Century, find itself in another kind of fight.

As demonstrated by the King’s own recognition of Glenlivet in 1822, Smith’s whisky enjoyed a reputation as a quality product.  Perhaps because the idea of being licensed was new to Highland distillers at the time, many distillers began calling their whisky Glenlivet and selling it as such.  This practice continued for many years until the Smiths finally took the matter to court in the 1880s.  By then, the practice was so widespread that, as Pacult points out, evidence was given by a printer from Glasgow that he made labels for an average of 50 different Glenlivets.  The defense given by the copycat distillers was that they considered Glenlivet to refer to a region and not a brand and that as long as they were in that region, they were right to use that name.  In the end, a compromise was struck so that neither the Smiths nor all of the other Glenlivets can claim a total victory.  It was decided that only the Smiths’s Glenlivet could be called “The Glenlivet.”  While Pacult shows that there were 10 other distilleries including Aberlour, Macallen, and Mortlach who would be allowed to use the Glenlivet name provided they attach it to their own respective names with a hyphen, as in Macallen-Glenlivet – the hyphenated Glenlivet suffix continued to be used by distillers well into the 20th Century.  It is interesting to note, that nowadays, many of the distillers who used that suffix have scrapped it to use the “The” prefix that The Glenlivet won in court.

Initially, licensed, legal whisky had to struggle to get off the ground; the Duke of Gordon had to struggle to change the law, George Smith had to fight to defend his distillery and his life, and the company that he built would fight to protect its brand identity.  Those fights would prove worthwhile as Scotch whisky continued to go from strength to strength as other regional styles besides Speyside would also become known to and be demanded by a broader base of drinkers not confined to a particular corner of Scotland.  However, the definition of Scotch whisky still remained to be determined and a new kind of whisky emerged to challenge single malts: blended whisky.

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