What is Whisky? - 1900

Watson's Whisky No. 10 - Immense © 1905

Whisky, according to popular belief, is a spirit distilled from malt. Sometimes the belief is justified; very frequently it is not. It is well, therefore, to understand at the outset that the word whisky is merely a popular expression of doubtful significance, and of no legal value whatever, for the law does not recognize it at all. According to the Excise all spirits distilled in the United Kingdom are merely " plain British spirits."

This designation covers everything from a pure malt Highland whisky to any patent still product of raw grain, damaged rice, or other abomination that enterprising traders may think well to put upon the market.

The Encyclopedia Britannica, the ready refuge of those in search of a definition, describes whisky in a non-committal manner as "a spirit distilled for drinking."

The same authority goes on to remark that it is not easy at the present day to define whisky. Originally it was made from malted barley, the fermented wort from which was distilled in the common pot-still; but with the introduction of the Coffey and other continuous stills, which yield a "silent" or flavorless spirit, it has become possible to prepare alcoholic liquor, which is sold as whisky, from any cereal grain, malted or un-malted, and from potato starch, grape sugar, and numerous other starch and sugar yielding substances.

As a rule, however, whisky is made from grain, and by preference from barley, malted or raw.

The bulk of the whisky made in the United Kingdom can be separated into three classes.

  1. Malt whisky is the product of malted barley alone, distilled in the ordinary pot still. Its flavor is partly due to the circumstance that the malt is dried over a peat fire; and a spirit so prepared constitutes the pure Highland malt whisky of Scotland.
  2. Grain whisky is made in the pot-still, principally from raw barley, with only a small proportion of malted barley to favor the transformation of starch into sugar in the preparation of the wort.
  3. Plain spirit is produced from barley rice, and other cereals distilled in the Coffey patent still. Plain spirit forms the basis from which gin, British brandy, and other rectifiers' drinks are prepared; and it is used for blending with other flavored pot-still spirits, to produce a certain character of potable spirit sold by wholesale dealers and known by special blend names. It is only the finer qualities of matured malt and grain whisky that can be used as single or unblended spirit.

Leaving for a while the question of blending, it may be interesting to glance at the history of the whisky industry in the United Kingdom, an industry which from small and obscure beginnings has within a comparatively brief period reached a position of such importance that the duty on manufactured spirits supplies a considerable proportion of the revenue of the country.

In the earlier years of the present century whisky, as we understand it, was not a common beverage. Mr. Pickwick and his friends, it may be remembered, consumed a good deal of brandy and water and punch on occasions, but we doubt whether the word whisky occurs once in the whole of his veracious history.

The few consumers of whisky in those days were probably indebted for their supplies to the illicit stills. The word itself is derived from a corruption of the Irish usquebaugh, which appears to have been employed as a general name for all compound spirits. Smith, in his work entitled, "

The Complete Body of Distilling," published in 1729, gives various recipes for its composition, but, in common with many others, he always refers to it as a compound by rectification of proof spirits.

Distillation before the year 1825 was in the hands of a few capitalists, and English spirits, although made from the finest materials, could not, from the grossness of the wash, be rendered palatable without undergoing rectification.

According to Morewood, a number of traders, called rectifiers, stepped in between the distiller and the consumer. These rectifiers re-distilled the spirits with the addition of certain drugs and flavorings, such as spirits of turpentine, juniper berries, etc., by which they made a compound known as British gin; or else with spirits of nitre, prunes, etc., with the aid of which they produced an imitation of brandy and foreign liqueurs.

The rectifiers at that period practically controlled the situation, until their monopoly was broken down by the action of the Earl of Ripon, then Chancellor of the Exchequer.

According to a contemporary writer :—" He saw that were the distillers enabled to make a good pure spirit, not only would there be a direct supply to the consumer, but the liquor would be unquestionably more palatable and wholesome in the natural state than when compounded and impregnated with such materials as have been described. From this the most beneficial effects would ensue, the trade would become prosperous, and an augmented consumption increase the revenue; Geneva and brandy would decrease in proportion, smuggling be checked, foreigners no longer enrich themselves at our expense, and an impetus be given to our agriculture."

The present state of the British whisky industry supplies a more brilliant vindication of the policy of Lord Ripon than has been granted to that of most chancellors.

Next to, or possibly even before, the Earl of Ripon, credit for pioneering the whisky trade must be given to the smugglers of the past century. The passion for smuggling is probably innate in the human breast, and although the temptation to run an illicit still is now-a-days comparatively trifling, there are still people who will do it, it is to be supposed, mainly for the fun of the thing, for the product of the modern "sma' still" is not good.

Mr. Anderson Graham, who was privileged to make acquaintance with one some time ago, says that potatoes and even heather roots are used in the absence of malt. Maturing the spirit is impossible, and the fiery liquor produced in endurable only by the strongest stomachs.

Things were different in the palmy days of smuggling. Then the popularity of the product of the illicit still was to be sought in its vast superiority in quality to the rectifiers' spirits.

The smugglers made whisky from malt, without adulteration, which found ready favor with whisky-drinkers in all classes of society, so that, in spite of the efforts of the revenue, they flourished by favor of the encouragement afforded them by persons of the highest consideration and social standing.

They were, moreover, skillful and practical distillers, and the soundness of their knowledge of the conditions necessary for the production of good spirits is, to this day, verified in the fact that many of the oldest of the existing distilleries are established upon sites chosen by the smugglers of the last century as places where the purest mountain streams, flowing over moss and peat, could be used to distil and produce spirits of the finest quality.

This is notably the case as regards one of the oldest Irish distilleries—Bushmills— which has been worked in accordance with law for over a century, having been recognized as a legitimate distillery as far back as 1784.

Long prior to that date, however, it was famous as the resort of a band of smugglers, who managed systematically to evade the law, and to carry on one of the most daring, extensive, and successful illicit trades that ever troubled the authorities.

Illicit distilling has always been a passion in Ireland. In 1806 one-third of the whisky production of the country—3,800,000 gallons—was estimated as having been furnished by the illicit stills.

No fewer than 19,067 of these were put down by the revenue authorities in the three years 1811, 1812, and 1813. Now-a-days the life has been taken out of the calling of the illicit distiller; the working of our distilleries has grown into a legalized and vast revenue producing industry.

Illicit distilling no longer pays—its profit is small, its risk is great, its detection easy. Nevertheless, in the decennial period 1874-84, Ireland supplied a record of 829 convictions for illegal distilling out of a grand total of 856 for the whole kingdom.

“Cellar Notes: What is Whisky?” in The Epicure: A Journal of Taste, Vol. VII, No. 76, March 1900, p. 125-127.

Return to Top of Page