Whisk(e)y musings read by tens of people worldwide.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Moonshine Fit for a King

Your eldest son has (finally) left the nest.  Time to convert his room into a whisky lounge before he changes his mind and moves back in.  You go to Amazon.whereveryoulive and type “whisky stuff” in the search bar.  After scrolling past the whisky stones, whisky decanters, themed whisky stones, and themed whisky decanters, you find a reasonably priced Distillery Map of Scotland poster.  It arrives a few days later, and you hang it up on the wall.  “Gee, there sure are a lot of distilleries in the north.”

Whenever the Crown needed money to pay for their latest war, they’d lift the alcohol industry up by the ankles and start shaking.  In Scotland, it was the Lowland distilleries that did most of the heavy lifting.  They were licensed, so the government knew they’d have no choice but to pay up.  The Wash Act of 1784 imposed taxes on Lowland distillers based on the size of their still and the amount of wash (beer) that still could turn into spirit each day.  Naturally, they (like all of us) wanted to pay as little tax as possible, so they cleverly came up with the shallow still.  It was shallow (thanks for clearing up the obvious Ryan), so it couldn’t hold as much wash as the widely used (in the region) continuous still.  Less wash meant less taxes owed.  There was, however, one major downside.  The whisky it churned out was godawful, even worse than Schenley Golden Wedding (well, maybe not that bad).

“I’ll take Whisky for $300 Alex.

“Poorly made, straight off the still garbage.

“What was Lowland whisky in the late 1700s?


The Wash Act of 1784 also established the “Highland line,” a border that, to this day, determines whether a distillery is classified as a Highland or Lowland.  At the time, practically every distiller in the Highlands operated without a licence.  The Wash Act taxed Highlanders less in the hopes it would lead to legal distilling.  It didn’t.  They, unlike the Lowlanders, weren’t motivated by paying as little tax as possible.  Their juice had to be good.  If it wasn’t, people (like the well-to-do) wouldn’t pay a premium for it on the black market.  Some of you might be wondering, “Why didn’t they just get a licence?  Beats always looking over your shoulder.”  The Wash Act made clear Highlanders could only sell to other Highlanders.  That’s why they broke bad.  It’d be like a dairy farmer trying to sell his milk to another dairy farmer.  There was no money to be made.  The Wash Act, in a way, encouraged bootlegging.

Illicit whisky, the good stuff, was enjoyed by everyone, and I mean everyone:  Lords, Members of Parliament, the clergy, even the King.  In 1822, King George IV toured Scotland for 3 weeks.  Memoirs of a Highland Lady by Elizabeth Grant is an excellent resource when it comes to this trip:

“The Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whiskey-the King drank nothing else.”

What Glenlivet meant in 1822 isn’t what it means today.  In 1822, it meant he wanted contraband whisky from the Glenlivet region, not the distillery (for reasons which will become clear shortly).

“My father sent word to me, I was the Cellarer, to empty my pet bin, where was whiskey long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband gout in it.

Elizabeth Grant was the king’s official bootlegger during his royal visit.  Her mountain dew was enjoyed by all, and an Indian judgeship was promised to her father as a thank you.

By the early 1800s, the government finally gave up.  If they wanted to put an end to smuggling/get their taxes, they needed to let the Highlanders sell their product to anyone anywhere.  The 1816 Small Stills Act allowed just that.  A few years later, the 1823 Excise Act made it even easier for Highland distillers to go legit.  Duties were cut in half and made uniform across the land.  Eventually, most of the illicit stills that dotted the Highland countryside became licensed.  (Now you know why there are so many northern distilleries on those maps of Scotland.)  Among the first to do so was a man named George Smith.  He obtained a licence in 1824 and called his distillery Glenlivet.  Glenlivet Nadurra First Fill is probably the closest thing you’ll find to match what George drank during his trip.  Vanilla, ripe orchard fruit, creamy oak.  The king’s shine wasn’t matured in first fill ex-bourbon like the Nadurra (the term bourbon didn’t even show up in print until 1821), but it was stored in wood.  If you really want to be true to the period, put your Nadurra in a quarter cask and drink it in private.

Happy dramming,


Monday, April 17, 2023

Don’t Judge a Book By Its Alcohol Content

There’s an arc-shaped passage found on every bottle of Michter’s:

Distilled in small batches according to the Michter’s pre-Revolutionary War quality standards dating back to 1753.

In 1753, the Shenk family owned a small gristmill in rural Pennsylvania.  They, like so many others in the colony, also made rye.  According to the Michter’s marketing team, Shenk’s whiskey helped Washington’s Continental Army get through the, “Long, brutal winter at Valley Forge.”  It wasn’t the cold that made Valley Forge “brutal,” it was the lack of food.  Starvation killed over a thousand soldiers that winter.  As for the whiskey, it was making Washington’s cold, poorly dressed troops even colder.  Unbeknownst to them, every shot they took lowered their core body temperature.  Shenk’s became Bomberger’s in the 1860s.  It was bought by a man whose last name I’m pretty sure you’ve figured out by now.

The Michter’s origin story is rather interesting.  Lou Forman, the company’s president/owner, had 2 sons named Michael and Peter.  Not wanting to play favourites, he fused their names together.  Mich-ter’s.  He also liked how the name sounded “German.”  Michter’s was made in Pennsylvania at the time, a state with a sizeable German-American population.  The distillery fell on hard times in the 1980s, and filed for bankruptcy in ‘83.  Seven years later, on Valentine’s Day, Michter’s closed its doors for good, leaving its employees heartbroken (sorry, couldn’t resist).  Manhattan-based Chatham Imports bought the brand and all its “history” (see arc-shaped passage above) in 1997 for a couple hundred bucks, which amounts to about $500 (or 2 bottles of Michter’s 10) today.

Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey.  What does that even mean?  Well, let me start by telling you what Michter’s Unblended American Whiskey isn’t, a bourbon.  Bourbon must be matured in virgin (new) oak.  Michter’s Unblended is aged in, as they put it, “Whiskey-soaked barrels.”  Whiskey-soaked barrels are also used by Scotch, Irish, and Japanese distillers (among others).  They call them ex-bourbon casks.  Unlike most American blends, you won’t find neutral grain spirit in Michter’s Unblended.  Neutral spirits are like a twenty-something invited to a high school house party, they’re just there to bring the booze.  They’re flavourless and taste, well, neutral.  Only whiskey is used to make Michter’s Unblended.  It’s a non-bourbon bourbon matured in ex-bourbon.

I’m generally not a fan of whiskies under 43%.  They tend to be, well, underwhelming.  Michter’s Unblended reminds me of the broken escalator phenomenon.  We’re “programmed” to see escalators as something always in motion.  Whenever we come across one not moving, we act as though it still is.  Michter’s Unblended is 41.7%.  It should be underwhelming, but it isn’t.  How’s that possible?  The nose is deliciously sweet.  Butterscotch, a hint of cinnamon, creamy vanilla.  Slightly grassy.  Well behaved oak.  The palate has this lovely tannic undercurrent, giving it weight and structure.  One of the better sub-43% whiskies I’ve tasted in a long, long time.

Happy dramming,


Monday, April 10, 2023

True Colours


A CUSTOMER walks into a liquor store with an overwhelmed look on his face.  He picks up a random bottle and reads the label.  A LIQUOR STORE EMPLOYEE approaches.  He looks professional and ready to serve.


Can I help you?

The customer pauses for a moment.


Um, I’m looking for a whisky.  Itfor my friend’s 50th birthday.


No problem, I can totally help you with that.  What do they like?


He drinks scotch.


(pointing at a trio of whiskies)

These are all great options.

The customer carefully examines all 3.  One of them looks like a white wine.


(pointing at the light-coloured bottle)

Why is that one so light?


That ones naturally coloured.



The liquor store employee sees another customer in need of assistance.


Do you mind if I help that customer over there?


No, go right ahead.

The customer carefully examines all three bottles, and chooses the one that looks the darkest.

E150a is the name of a caramel colourant used by (some but not all) distilleries in Scotland to make sure their products look the same batch after batch.  Canada, Japan, and Ireland are also allowed to colour their whiskies.  Bourbon fans need not worry.  Adding colour to bourbon or straight American whiskies is strictly forbidden.  Product consistency aside, distilleries also colour because it’s an easy way to dupe non-discerning customers into thinking a product has more flavour than its lighter-looking counterparts.  I think coloured whiskies are tacky.  They all look like they were finished in a vat of Coppertone bronzer.  Perennial punching bag (in my work) Diageo loves to colour their whiskies (even the ones they put in dark bottles).  Among them is a peated whisky that’s the backbone of the most popular scotch brand in the world.

Caol Ila churns out millions of litres of spirit each year.  More than 30% of the juice that’s distilled on Islay comes from Caol Ila.  Just like the consigliere in The Godfather, Caol Ila has one major client, Johnnie Walker (most notably Black Label and Double Black).  Caol Ila drinks a fair bit lighter than most of the stuff you’ll find on Islay.  They fill their stills way below capacity to induce reflux.  Reflux happens when you get increased copper contact.  The greater the contact, the lighter your spirit is going to be.  Caol Ila also cuts high.  High cut whiskies tend to be light and fruity (I’m over-simplifying things, but that’s the general idea).  Caol Ila 12 is a great option for people interested in exploring peat for the first time.  The smoke is subdued, like sitting on a beach at night while a bonfire burns in the distance.  Caol Ila 12 also doesn’t look like it fell asleep in a tanning bed.

Happy dramming,


Monday, April 3, 2023

The Teetotaling Whisky-Hating Father of Modern Scotch

I love whisky.  I read about it all the time, and drink it frequently regularly.  It’s, by far, my favourite pastime.  Some people like knitting, I like whisky.  I guess I could’ve used a more comparable hobby.  It’s not like you can drink yarn, at least not neat.  They’re also different in another major way.  Knitting doesn’t have the ability to destroy a person’s life.  A little over a century ago, thousands of Americans wanted alcohol erased from existence.  They could no longer tolerate saloons filled with husbands squandering their paycheques, while their wives sat at home helpless and hopeless.  Parliamentarian David Lloyd George felt the same way, and was determined to do something about it.

1915 was a turbulent time in the United Kingdom.  The First World War was in its second year, and things weren’t going well.  George was Minister of Munitions at the time, a position created that very year.  It was his job was to make sure weapons flowed smoothly from the factories to the front lines.  He formed a tight bond with the trade unions, but, for whatever reason, weapons weren’t coming off the factory floor in a timely fashion.  After some digging, he found out why.  Absenteeism.  Too many workers were either too drunk or too hungover to show up for work.  George, a teetotaler who hated alcohol, pushed for Prohibition.  Once he realized that wasn’t an option, he settled for the Immature Spirits Act of 1915.

Most drinkers probably think the 3 year maturation rule was put in place in the interest of quality.  After all, scotch and time do go well together.  Prior to 1915, it was perfectly legal for whisky to be sold straight off the still.  It also made sense from a business perspective.  Why hold on to something when you can sell it right away?  By forcing distillers to sit on their merchandise for at least 3 years, George hoped many (perhaps all) would leave the industry for a more reliable and respectable line of work.  He was right, kinda.  Most of the “straight off the still” guys moved on to something else, but the ones who didn’t had no choice but to make their whisky better.

Time may help scotch, but waiting 3 years for money to start rolling in can be a real challenge, especially for new distilleries.  Not only that, there’s no guarantee your stuff will be any good after just 3 years in the cask.  Distillers are well aware of this, and do what they can to try and make their toddlers taste older.  New oak, smaller barrels, first-fill sherry, etc.  Wolfburn started making spirit in 2013.  Their first release was a (you guessed it) 3 year old simply named Wolfburn.  It was soon replaced by what’s now their flagship expression, Wolfburn Northland.  Northland is 6-7 years old and full of character.  Their use of smaller, quarter casks that once held peated spirit does a nice job of masking its youth.  Fruity.  Coastal.  Definitely a distillery to keep your eye on.

Happy dramming,


Instead of dying she shall merely fall into a profound slumber that will last a hundred years. -  Charles Perrault,  The Sleeping Beauty in ...