‘Scotch whisky’ was simply ‘whiskey as so defined, distilled in Scotland’ and ‘Irish whiskey, as so defined, distilled in Ireland’.
Prior to the invention of the continuous still by Robert Stein in 1828, refined and patented by Aeneas Coffey two years later, all whisky was made in pot stills. In the Highlands of Scotland barley was the cereal of choice – other cereals, notably oats, were considered to be ‘food crops’; in the Lowlands, where the land was more fertile, especially after the Agricultural Revolution during the 18th Century, it was common to mix barley with wheat and rye, and possibly even with vegetables.
For example, in June 1784, when the harvest had failed for the third year running, the hungry Edinburgh mob attacked James Haig’s Canonmills Distillery, believing it had hidden stores of grains and vegetables. He was obliged to issue a denial: “…the genuine truth is that no other species of grain are made use of at Canonmills but barley, rye and some parcels of wheat as happen to receive damage, or are in a quality unfit to make bread; and that not a grain of oats, pease or a particle of oat-meal, nor any potatoes, carrots, turnips or other roots are used in the distillery in any shape”.
Until 1781 private distilling was perfectly legal, so long as the spirit was not offered for sale. Every community in the Highlands operated small stills: it was an essential part of the farming year, and the residues (draff and spent grains) were essential cattle fodder during the winter months. But by this time a number of large proto-industrial distilleries like Canonmills had been established in Central Scotland, and their owners lobbied parliament to have private distilling outlawed.
Of course, it simply went underground: illicit distilling and smuggling were endemic during the latter decades of the 18th and early decades of the 19th Centuries. At the same time, the Government doubled the excise duty payable by licensed distillers, based upon an estimation of the amount of spirits they might be expected to produce each year.
So it was in the distillers’ interest to find ways of speeding up the process and making more alcohol. This was disastrous for the flavour of the spirit, which had so little contact with copper that it was noxious, impure and nasty. Most went to England for rectification into gin; that which remained in Scotland was drunk as ‘punch’ or ‘toddy’ – mixed with sugar, water and lemon juice. Illicit distillers could make their ‘mountain dew’ as they chose to, and it had a much higher reputation among drinkers, usually being drunk straight or ‘qualified’ with water. Most whisky, legal and illicit, was drunk straight from the still, although the benefits of maturation were acknowledged – at least by 1822, when Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchas was asked by her father to send some of her best whisky up to Edinburgh for the delectation of King George IV, and describes in her Memoirs how she chose whisky “long in the wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk and with the real contraband goût ” – the flavour of illicit whisky was more highly esteemed in those days, even by monarchs!
The Rise of Blended Scotch
At last in 1823 the chaos of legislation relating to legal distilling was repealed and replaced by an Act of Parliament which made it possible to make good whisky at a reasonable cost, and laid the foundations of the modern Scotch whisky industry.
The invention of the patent still five years after this Act was passed made it possible to produce large quantities of high strength spirit from mixed grains more cheaply that pot still distillation, since patent stills operated continuously, not as a batch process. But the spirit was purer and less flavoursome than pot-still spirit. It was logical to blend patent grain whisky with pot still malt whisky, and this is what happened – especialy after 1860, when an Act of Parliament permitted blending in bond, before duty had to be paid.
Blended Scotch had – indeed, has – many virtues apart from its price. It was lighter in style than the heavy, pungent malt whiskies of the day and combined well with them. It could be ‘designed’ to have broader appeal to non-Scots. It could be made to a formula, so could achieve consistency of flavour – lack of consistency was common in malt whisky, and much complained about. What’s more, only when you have a consistent product, you can brand and promote it.
Several factors contributed to the success of Scotch in the last two decades of the 19th Century. First was fashion: since Queen Victoria had ‘discovered’ the Highlands, everything ‘Scottish’ found favour among the English middle classes. Scottish regiments had been conspicuous during the Crimean War, and Scots administrators effectively ran the British Empire. As J.M. Barrie, the playwright and creator of Peter Pan, wrote: “A Scottish accent is as good as a testimonial”.
Second was communications. The extensive railway and steamship network made it possible to send whisky to England and, as the ‘boom’ gathered momentum during the 1890s, all over the world.
Third was the Phylloxera aphid, which systematically devastated the vineyards of Europe from the mid-1860s; within ten years the vineyards of Cognac had been destroyed, and brandy-and-soda was the drink of choice of the English middle classes. Scotch (and soda) was ready to replace it.
Fourth, the emergence of a handful of extremely able young men, often second generation owners of blending houses, who not only designed their blends to appeal to the new markets and ensured quality and consistency, but employed dramatically innovative advertising to establish the ‘respectability’ of their products.
By 1900 three companies had emerged as the leaders: John Dewar & Sons, John Walker & Sons and James Buchanan & Co.
Tommy Dewar, son of the founder, was sent to London by his older brother in 1885 to expand their market. He was twenty-one. By 1891 the name ‘Dewar’ had assumed such significance in the whisky trade, that it was felt prudent to register it as a trademark. A later commentator wrote that “Tommy Dewar was probably more responsible than any other single individual for the success of Scotch whisky in London”. In six years he increased sales of the brand by 250 per cent. Both Tommy and his brother finished as lords.
George and Alexander (later Sir Alex) Walker were the grandsons of the eponymous ‘Johnnie’ and inherited a sound whisky business from their father, who had registered the brand Old Highland Whisky in 1867 (it would become Black Label after 1909) and filled it into an unusual rectangular bottle. Neither of the brothers were as colourful as Tommy Dewar; George was in charge of production and Alex responsible for sales and marketing, but they were steady and their whiskies were good, and when novel packaging combined with clever advertising – the striding Regency buck and the slogan ‘Born 1820. Still Going Strong’ – they took the lead.
James Buchanan went to London in 1879 as a sales rep. for Charles Mackinlay & Co, and set up on his own account in 1884 with a blend which (in his own words) was “sufficiently light and old to please the palate of the user”. He soon became a well-known figure, driving a “striking red-wheeled buggy, drawn by a neat black pony, with a smartly liveried boy seated on the back, ready to catch the reins when his master alighted”. He moved in Society, bred race-horses and was raised to the peerage as Lord Woolavington.
The rise in demand for blended Scotch in the 1890s resulted in the blending houses dominating the industry and becoming the key customers of the malt distillers. Many blenders bought or built distilleries, particularly in the Glenlivet district (now known as Speyside) which produced the lighter, sweeter style of malt whisky favoured by most blenders. Twenty-one distilleries were built here (and a further twelve elsewhere) during the 1890s.
Reflecting in his seminal Notes From A Cellar Book upon how the style of whisky had changed during his lifetime, Professor George Sainsbury wrote in 1920:
“In the forty-five years since I began to study whisky, the general style of most, if not all kinds has changed… The older whiskies were darker in colour, from being kept in golden sherry or madeira casks, rather sweeter in taste, and rather heavier in texture; the newer are ‘lighter’ in both the first and the last respect, and much drier in taste. But the abominable tyranny of enforced ‘breaking down’ to thirty below proof has spoiled the ethers of the older whiskies terribly.”
The requirement to reduce strength had been introduced during the First World War at the same time as three years maturation was enforced. Previously, most Scotch was bottled at around 50 per cent Vol, although there was no requirement to state the strength. Many connoisseurs and most of the whisky trade were against the move, which they believed would “rob high class brands of their distinctive characteristics, and practically reduce all brands to a common level of mediocrity”, although they supported the three years maturation rule.
Sainsbury would have been even more dismayed, not long after he wrote the passage above, by the creation of even lighter whiskies, notably Cutty Sark and J&B Rare, made specifically for the U.S. market, during and after Prohibition. Cutty Sark was created for Berry Brothers, the long established London wine merchant, in 1923; Francis Berry, the firm’s senior partner, wanted a whisky which was “light but smooth, and never darker than pale sherry”. J&B Rare – the initials of another old-established London wine merchant, Justerini & Brooks – was introduced in 1936, after Prohibition had been repealed. Its U.S. agent, Charlie Guttman, remarked to a newspaper that “ten years of bootleg hooch had left the American palate unable to take real Scotch…the solution was to give them something full strength but looking as if it had been cut with about seven parts water”.
The Post World War II Boom
The U.S.A. became the leading export market for Scotch whisky in 1938 – prior to this Australia had been the leader – but then came the Second World War. Between 1940 and 1945 both malt and grain distilling more or less ceased, although bottling continued: by the conclusion of hostilities, the stocks of mature whisky under bond had fallen from 144m proof gallons to 84m proof gallons, and they continued to be in short supply for at least a decade. Yet demand had never been greater: Scotch was seen as ‘the drink of the free world’, ‘advertised by Hollywood, and introduced to Europe by the Allied troops’.
As soon as money and cereals were available whisky companies began to modernize and expand existing sites and to build new distilleries. As Messrs. Duncan, Hume and Martin write in The Scotch Whisky Industry Record: “Most distilleries were operating with antiquated plant, long written off and probably best described as picturesque, there was an ideal opportunity for adopting new techniques, materials and labour-saving devices to increase output, reduce labour costs and maintain or improve the quality and consistency of the product”. They do not comment on the impact these improvements had on the style of the spirit and its flavour, and although the changes were made cautiously, there is no doubt that malt whisky became lighter, if cleaner and more consistent.
Production increased slowly until 1963/64, then began to accelerate rapidly. By 1970, the industry’s output of malt whisky was twice what it had been in 1960.
Scottish Malt Distillers, the production division of the mighty Distillers Company Limited, increased the number of stills in its fifty distilleries by more than half between 1959 and 1967, and their example was followed by many independent distillers. Capacity was increased at Glenfarclas, Bunnahabhain, Dalmore, Fettercairn, Tomatin, Knockando and Glen Spey. Long-closed distilleries like Glenturret, Benriach and Caperdonich were re-opened. New distilleries were built at Tomintoul, Tamnavulin, Loch Lomond, Deanston, Jura and Glenallachie, and a handful of malt distilleries were built within existing grain distilleries.
Increased capacity inevitably led to a need for more malted barley than could be produced by individual distilleries. Scottish Malt Distillers built or expanded five large-scale mechanical maltings and in 1968 ceased floor malting at twenty-nine sites. Other distillers followed this example, and by the end of the 1970s only seven distilleries retained their traditional, on-site maltings and all of these apart from Springbank and Glen Ord buy in around 80 per cent of their requirement from professional maltsters.
The malt was (and is) made to each distillery’s specification as to peating levels – most were now demanding un-peated malt – and the malt produced in centralized maltings is much more consistent than formerly, as is the spirit made from it. However, the variable ‘home-made’ malt gives a certain charm to whiskies made from it, often in the form of a coal-smoke aroma, which was no doubt introduced by badly managed kilns! One of the distilleries which still malts a proportion of its requirement on-site, Highland Park, experimented with buying in their total requirement during the 1980s, but found that the mainland peat gave a different flavor the home-grown Orkney peat so has retained its maltings.
At the same time as capacity was increased, distilleries were modernised. Semi-lauter mash tuns replaced the old rake-and-plough tuns: more efficient, easier to operate and easier to clean, and capable of handling three times more mashes a week. Semi-lauter tuns tend to produce cloudy worts, however, which give a cereal character to the new make spirit.
Many distilleries introduced mechanical stoking to fire their stills, and then almost all went over to indirect firing by steam-heated pans and coils – cleaner, more easily controlled, less labour intensive, less likely to boil over. This was notwithstanding the generally held belief (at the time) that direct firing played an important role in the flavour of the spirit. Sir Walter Gilbey wrote in his Notes on Alcohol (1904): “It is a curious fact that the heat of the fire also imparts a Flavour to the vaporised matter….It imparts to the spirit a character known as empyreumatic, which is easily recognized in the product of the Pot Still and whisky is quite absent in Spirit produced by the Patent Still”.
All but a handful of distilleries also replaced their old worm tubs with shell and tube condensers, which were cheaper to install and more easily replaced, and which produced the lighter style of spirit required at the time by blenders. Today, only 14 distilleries have worm tubs, but the spirit they produce has a noticeably creamier mouth-feel. Dalwhinnie removed their worms in 1986, but the spirit character changed so much that they were reinstated in 1995.
Even more significant for flavour was the widespread use of American oak ex-Bourbon barrels, usually re-made into hogsheads, rather than traditional ex-sherry butts, which, after 1970 were generally made from European oak.
Ex-Bourbon casks were unknown by the Scotch whisky industry prior to 1946. Their availability after this date was owing to a deal struck by American coopers’ unions shortly before the outbreak of war, in terms of which ‘straight’ Bourbon or Rye whiskey had to be matured in new oak barrels. Since the demand for straight Bourbon in the U.S. also increased dramatically during and after the war, large numbers of barrels were available at a fraction of the price of ex-sherry butts to cope with the increased production of spirit.
The influence of the wood – American or European oak – upon the flavor of the whisky is substantial.
Many new warehouses were required, and now they were built to hold many more casks in steel frames, racked up to ten high with access for mechanical handing by fork-lift trucks, rather than the traditional, low and labour intensive dunnage warehouses where casks were stored three high and moved by hand. Although the style of warehouse – and its location – play only a small part in the flavour of the mature whisky, it nevertheless has an influence, especially if the warehouse is close to the sea.
The Renaissance of Malt Whisky
As had happened in the 1890s, by the mid-1970s production was outstripping demand.
Scotch no longer had the cachet it enjoyed in the post-war decades; the competition from vodka and white rum was stiff and there was a large increase in wine consumption, actively encouraged in the U.K. by the British Government. Yet stocks of whisky in bond had reached unprecedented levels, rising from 2.2 million litres in 1965 to 4.5 billion litres in 1975.
Early in the 1960s, William Grant & Sons, owners of Glenfiddich Distillery, had taken the unusual step of promoting their make as a single malt; in 1963 the company sold 11,422 cases and by 1970 was selling slightly over 52,000 cases per annum, over a third in export markets.
By the end of the 1960s, trade commentators were able to list around thirty malts available as singles, but only a handful could be described as ‘generally available’ – The Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Glenmorangie and Cardhu – and the amounts were tiny by comparison with Glenfiddich. In 1967, The Weekly Scotsman reported that “98.5 per cent of The Glenlivet goes to blending, but 6,000 cases of single malt are bottled each year, of which 50 per cent goes to the US market”. That year Glen Grant sold 5082 cases (mostly in Italy), Glenmorangie 2,746 cases (mostly in U.K.) and Cardhu 462 cases (despite an advertising budget of £15,000).
But independent malt distillers were beginning to take note of W. Grant’s success. In 1972, the board of Macallan Distillers recorded that “sales of cased malt had doubled during the year…a large increase in this type of business was anticipated in light of a fantastic growth in public interest, which would eventually see malt whisky becoming extremely fashionable”. This would prove to be prophetic.
During the late 1970s a number of malts were released and promoted for the first time, all of them from smaller distillers: the DCL was still smarting from the failure of Cardhu to catch on. Arthur Bell & Sons, Whyte & Mackay, Highland Distilleries, Long John International and Invergordon all bottled their malts for the first time, and in some cases supported the release with advertising. The whiskies tended to be bottled younger than today: The Scotch Whisky Industry Review (Oct 1976) comments: “The minimum age for bottled malt is 5 years, with 6-8 probably the most usual, although many are bottled at 10, 12 or even 15 years… Among the best known are The Glenlivet, Glen Grant, Glenfarclas, Glenmorangie, Glenfiddich and Laphroaig”.
But in 1978 sales of single malt whisky still accounted for less than 1 per cent of the world market for Scotch. However demand – both at home and abroad – was growing faster than even the industry anticipated. Two years later a symposium of whisky companies estimated that exports of single malts would rise by 8 per cent to 10 per cent per annum in the coming five years. In fact growth was twice that and continued to remain steady at around 10 per cent per annum.
Early in the 1980s, other companies joined in. Macallan-Glenlivet began to set aside stock for single malt bottling in 1978, when they also appointed their first marketing director (that year their entire promotional budget was £50!), who started to advertise vigorously and wittily in 1981 and rapidly gained a following. Glenmorangie began to promote its 10YO widely the same year. Interestingly, both companies used the same advertising agency in London.
By the middle of the decade over one hundred single malts, bottled by their proprietors, were available. ‘Single distillery’ companies (like Macallan, Glenfarclas and Glenmorangie) began to offer a range of ages, and the latter began to experiment with ‘wood finishing’ to increase their product range. A few (notably Glenfarclas) offered product at ‘cask strength’ (the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, which pioneered this, was founded in 1982).
The Distillers Company reluctantly joined the boat with a collection of single and vatted malts, launched quietly in 1982 and named The Ascot Malts Cellar. It was not a great success, but soon after the DCL was taken over by Guinness in 1987. The new company, now named United Distillers, released the Classic Malts Selection (Glenkinchie, Dalwhinnie, Cragganmore, Oban, Talisker and Lagavulin), which stressed regional differences and did a great deal to educate consumers about the range of flavours available among single malt whiskies.
Since then, consumer choice has grown and grown, assisted by the appearance of dedicated and well-informed whisky retailers and by multiple chain stores stocking large ranges of Scotch, particularly malts. Independent bottlers who did not own distilleries began to proliferate. Annual whisky fairs started to appear in Europe and then all over the world. Dedicated publications, like Malt Advocate in the U.S. and Whisky Magazine in the U.K., were founded (in 1996 and 1998 respectively). People began to collect whisky, and international auction houses – Christies to begin with, then Bonhams – began to hold regular whisky auctions
This phenomenal expansion in interest in malt whisky is very largely consumer-driven, and malt whisky devotees are driven by flavour. They don’t like being advertised to; they are not too interested in fancy packaging; they are not brand loyal (unlike blended Scotch drinkers), and like to explore.
The Present Day
In his introduction to the ‘New Bottlings’ section of his annual Malt Whisky Yearbook Ingvar Ronde, it’s editor, writes: “It is now virtually impossible to list all new bottlings during a year, there are simply too many”. He then limits his selection to 500 expressions, released during the previous year.
One might say: “We’ve never had it so good”. But is this reflected by the flavour of contemporary whiskies, both malt and blend?
The stocks of whisky built up during the late 1970s and early 1980s are now coming to market as super de luxe blends and long-aged single malts. They are expensive, but very interesting from a flavour perspective. Even more interesting, for me, are whiskies (both malt and blend) made in the 1960s and early 1970s – before all the changes to production outlined above were introduced – even though the whiskies themselves were bottled relatively young (8, 10 or 12 years old). And with the arrival of the ‘whisky loch’ in the early 1980s, many whiskies bearing a ‘standard’ age statement (10 or 12 years old) also had much older malts in the mix.
What of contemporary malts and blends?
The distinguished writer and whisky sage, Serge Valentin, and some of his colleagues among the international Malt Maniacs group sometimes describe a whisky’s flavour profile as being ‘modern’. “Modern whiskies are usually good, sweet, spicy, fruity and compact, quite straightforward but not too complex”, he writes on the maltmaniacs website.
How do you account for this?
Although the importance of good wood has long been recognized – ‘the wood makes the whisky’, was the old saying – maturation was a kind of unpredictable magic. The relatively recent scientific understanding of wood has led to far greater control of consistency, and computerized labels make it easier to track the precise history of individual casks to ensure consistency from batch to batch.
As Serge says: “Using new oak or first fill only, monitoring the ‘toasting or charring’ very closely, using
multiple types of custom-made casks within a batch (new oak, wine casks, heavy
charring for some etc.) so that the final product is much less dependent on ‘random
ageing’ (magic?) and also more flavourful and more consistent…
And, above all, much quicker to ‘mature’”.
I suspect the last sentence is a veiled comment on the necessary role of accountants in the whisky industry.
But while ‘modern whiskies’ are reliable, they are generally lighter, and tend to lack depth, personality and complexity. Consistency is the enemy of chance: they may be ‘better made’, ‘better designed to suit global tastes’, ‘more consistent’, but they do not offer the chance discovery of perfection!