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14 May 2021

Tasting the ‘water of life’

Written by Derek Alexander, Daniel Rhodes and Alan Winchester
A metal label which says 'whisky', which would have sat around the neck of a decanter.
There are lots of whisky decanters, flasks and glasses in the Trust’s collections but what did early illicit whisky taste like?

Whisky making is a highly specialised and skilled occupation, with many different processes and variables that go towards making the final product. Getting one element wrong, or having sub-standard equipment or ingredients, can seriously effect the quality of the finished product. Economic forces, such as the cost of barley or the level of taxation at a given point in time, will also have had an effect.

Traditionally, Highland whisky, often synonymous with illicit or small-scale distilling, was hailed as higher in quality than the Lowland product. The large size of wash stills in the Lowlands led to a production method favouring quantity over quality. Often the strength of the wash (the fermented liquid/beer from the malted barley that was to be distilled) in the Lowlands was too strong, giving a harsher outcome.

While the small-scale and careful production from illicit stills may have resulted in a quality product, it’s equally likely that in many cases the smuggled goods would have been pretty coarse. Indeed, in his book about his life in the Highlands, Osgood Mckenzie from Inverewe discusses illicit distilling and whisky consumption. He specifically mentions that in the 19th century his family drank smuggled whisky and that they put ‘camomile flowers, bitter-orange peel and juniper berries in it’. It’s possible that a range of flavourings were added to the raw spirit to make it more palatable.

From 1781, changes in taxation on spirits saw an increasing amount of illicit distilling all over Scotland. This did not reduce until after the Excise Act of 1823, which resulted in an increase in licenced distilleries across the Highlands. Many of the famous whisky names in Scotland trace their legal roots to this Act, although quite a few of them emerged from illicit roots, including The Glenlivet.

Black and white photograph of a ruined building, with just the chimneystack surviving. Five cows with horns stand next to it.
The Glenlivet old chimney from the south-west, probably early 1900s (courtesy of Chivas Brothers archive)

When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822, he asked for ‘Glenlivet, whisky long in the wood, long in uncorked bottles mild as milk, and the true contraband’. Though maturation was not a requirement in this era, it’s interesting to note that it was known to benefit the flavour.

The legal distillery set up at Ferintosh, on the Black Isle, produced whisky tax free from 1688 to 1788, made from barley grown on the estate of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, which was known for its smoky flavour. When our national bard Robert Burns worked as an exciseman, he recorded the loss of the tax-free exemption of Ferintosh – he also made many references to whisky in his writings.

Elsewhere, however, parliamentary (or legal) whisky, which had the tax paid on it, didn’t have a good reputation as the distillation methods were speeded up to try and negate the increased cost due to heavy taxation. The whisky that was distilled in remoter areas, including the Glenlivet area, gained a reputation for quality by mostly using malted barley, and developed markets far from their remote locations.

Smugglers of this era also mentioned that differences were recognisable, much like today – with different areas and probably each smuggler producing a unique character of whisky. It was likely very much down to the skill of individual distillers and their ability to produce a consistent quality of product. This must have been especially difficult given the more dispersed nature of the processes required to prepare the barley before it was distilled. There was also a need to carry out the distillation process quickly, as this was particularly susceptible to being discovered by the excisemen.

A remote mountainous landscape at Torridon overlooking a large loch under a blue sky.
Laggiedubh township at Torridon, where excisemen found malt had been prepared in the outbuildings before it was transported up to the still site

Although we can only wonder at the actual taste of early illicit whisky being drunk from some of the glasses in the Trust’s collections, it’s no mean feat that the knowledge and skills of these remote distillers made whisky which was prized throughout Scotland.

“My father never tasted any but smuggled whisky, and when every mortal that called for him – they were legion daily – had a dram instantly poured into him, the ankers of whisky emptied yearly must have been numerous indeed.”
Osgood Mackenzie of Inverewe, 1921

Many of the Trust’s country houses and castles have collections of decanters for a range of spirits, including whisky, along with a number of small, usually metal, labels to identify what spirit was in each decanter. There are nice examples from Leith Hall, where a burr walnut box contains four labelled cut glass decanters and at House of Dun, where four decanters are held in a silver-plated rack.

Whisky wasn’t only drunk at home and was carried in smaller quantities in ceramic and metal flasks. We have a number of ornate, decorated ceramic whisky flasks at our properties, including examples from Mar Lodge, Canna and the Angus Folk Museum collection, soon to be displayed at the House of Dun. In the latter collection is a ceramic imitation of a small wooden whisky keg, but for the more practically minded there are also three examples of metal flasks, more akin to the whisky hip flasks we’re familiar with today.

Like glass bottles, we hold numerous drinking glasses in our collections, but it can be difficult to determine what they were used for. There’s a small collection of engraved whisky glasses at Inverewe and a couple of possible Jacobite whisky glasses, engraved with rosebuds and barleycorn, on display at Glenfinnan. The Angus Folk Museum collection has a very rare example of a glass whisky gill measure with a globular end.

So, we have a lot of evidence that whisky would have been drunk, but what is lacking is any of the product itself. In the 18th and 19th centuries, while some whisky may have come from licenced distilleries, even whisky coming via spirit merchants may have had illicit origins. The big question remains – what did illicit whisky taste like?

This is a much-debated topic.

We’re continuing to unearth fascinating stories about Scotland’s whisky heritage, and we’d still love to hear your stories too!

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Pioneering Spirit

In partnership with The Glenlivet, we’re uncovering and sharing the history of illicit whisky production in Scotland.

Find out more