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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,


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