Anyone interested in the history of whisky and the role played by Campbeltown will be familiar with the fact it was once a major producer of whisky with over 30 distilleries. It is understandable as to why Campbeltown proclaimed itself the “whisky capital of the world”.
In more recent times it has been proclaimed as the ‘whiskiest place in the world’
Few would venture to assert the precise moment at which Scotch Whisky was first distilled. In fact, the origins of distilling itself are generally obscure, although it is commonly accepted as having first been attempted in Asia as long ago as 800BC, and to have found its way to Europe via Egypt.
It remains a mystery however when the art of distilling first reached Britain. What is certain is that the Ancient Celts practised the art and had an expressive name for the fiery liquid they produced – uisge-beatha – the water of life. To the Celts its power to revive tired bodies and failing spirits, to drive out chills and rekindle hope was a veritable gift from God.
No matter whence it came, the Scots have perfected the art of distilling and, using elements so generously provided for them by nature, have distilled the whisky which today is inextricably woven into Scotland’s history, culture and customs.
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurs as long ago as 1494, when an entry in the Exchequer Rolls listed “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” (water of life). This was sufficient to produce almost 1500 bottles. Thus, it is clear that distilling was already a well-established practice.
The primitive equipment used at the time and the lack of scientific expertise means the spirit produced in those days was probably potent, and occasionally even harmful. However, distillation methods soon improved, and in the 16th and 17th centuries considerable advances were made. The dissolution of the monasteries contributed to this since many of the monks, driven from their sanctuaries, had no choice but to put their skills to use. The knowledge of distilling then quickly spread to others.
Initially whisky, the name which evolved from uisge-beatha, was lauded for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy, smallpox and a host of other ailments. The Scots became used to whisky from the cradle right up to their life’s end.
It became an intrinsic part of Scottish life – a reviver and stimulant during the long, cold winters, and a feature of social life, a welcome to be offered to guests upon arrival at their destinations.
This increasing popularity eventually attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the latter part of the 17th century. Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, when England set out to tame the rebellious clans of Scotland. The distillers were virtually driven underground.
A long and often bloody battle arose between the Excisemen, or gaugers as they were known, and the illicit distillers, for whom the Excise laws were alien in both their language and their inhibiting intent.
Smuggling became standard practice for some 150 years and there was no moral stigma attached to it. Ministers of the Kirk made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was, on occasion, transported by coffin – any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the Excisemen.
By 1777, eight licensed distilleries were alone contributing in a small way to the revenue of the United Kingdom in the City of Edinburgh, while nearly 400 unregistered stills were said to be contributing only to the personal gains of the freebooters who ran them. This was in any case miniscule when compared to the operations of illicit distillers in the remote Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
Clandestine stills were cleverly organised and hidden in nooks and crannies of the heather-clad hills. One undetectable location channelled the smoke from the peat fire underground for 70 yards to a cottage so that it could be released up the chimney without arousing suspicion.
Smugglers organised signalling systems from one hilltop to another whenever Excise officers were seen to arrive in the vicinity. By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being swallowed painlessly and with pleasure, without benefit of duty.
This flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose extensive acres some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally.
In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £163.10 and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. This notable piece of legislation laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry as we know it today.
Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by smugglers of old.
Two further developments put Scotch Whisky firmly on the world map. In 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place, which led to the production of grain whisky, a different, less intense spirit than the malt whisky produced in the distinctive copper pot stills. This invention was first exploited by Andrew Usher & Co who, in 1860, blended malt and grain whisky together for the first time to produce a lighter flavoured whisky – extending the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a wider market.
The second major helping hand came unwittingly from France. By the 1880s the vineyards of France had been devastated by the phylloxera plague, and within a few years wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. The Scots were quick to take advantage of the calamity, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had taken the place of brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.
Since then Scotch Whisky, in particular blended whisky, has gone from strength to strength, surviving USA prohibition, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, extending its reach to 200 countries throughout the world.
Chronological Historical Outline and List of Distillers. See:
List of Distilleries in Date order of Foundation and Number of operating distilleries by year since 1900
From and ©: “The Original Scotch”. Michael Brander [Hutchinson, 1974: ISBN 0 09 120720 7] plus additional entries (*)
800 B.C. – Arrack known to have been distilled in India
384 B.C. – Aristotle born; later wrote of distilling in his “Meteorology”
432 A.D. – St. Patrick, a native of Scotland, sent to Wicklow to spread Christianity and also reputed to have introduced distilling
560 A.D. – (circa) Taliessin the Welsh bard composed his “Song to Ale”
1494 – Entry in Exchequer Rolls regarding Friar Cor making aqua vitae by order of the King
1498 – Lord High Treasurer’s Account ‘To the barbour that brocht aqua vitae to the King in Dundee’
1505 – Barber surgeons in Edinburgh granted right of making aqua vitae
1506 – Treasurer’s Accounts in Inverness mention ‘aqua vite to the King’
1527 – The vertuose boke of Dstyllacyon by Hieronymous Braunschweig published in English, translated by L. Andrew. First book on the subject, treated aqua vitae as a medicine
1555 – The Scottish Parliament passed an Act forbidding export of victuals in time of famine, except: ‘It sal be leifful to the inhabitants of the burrowis of Air, Irvin, Glasgow, Dumbertane and uthers our Soverane Ladys leigis dwelland at the west setis to have bakin breid, browin aill and aqua vite to the Ilis to bertour with uther merchandice’
1559 – Treasure of Evonymous published by Peter Morwyng, detailing methods of distilling process
1578 – Raphael Holinshed’s Chroncles of England, Scotland and Ireland mention types of aqua vitae found in Scotland
1579 – First Act in Scotland specifically relating to aqua vitae
1605 – Fynes Moryson’s Itneraries on Scotland comments on strong ale and lack of inns
1608 – First licence to distill whisky given to the Bushmills distillery, Co., Antrim, Ireland. (*)
1616 – ‘Act agens the drinking of Wynes in the Yllis’
1618 – John Taylor in his Pennyless Pilgrimage visits Earl of Mar and drinks aqua vitae Earliest reference to ‘uisge’ being drunk at Highland chief’s funeral
1636 – The Worshipful Company of Distillers granted a Charter in England, the regulations framed by Sir Theodore de Mayerne and Dr. Thomas Cademan.
1641 – Tonnage and Poundage Act in England
1644 – Imposed first Excise duty. Following Parliament’s example Charles passed an Act of Excyse on ‘everie pynt of aquavytie or strong watteris sold within the country’
1654 – Commercial Treaty signed with Portugal
1655 – Excise duty in Scotland reduced. Kirk Session records of St. Ninian’s: R. Hage accused of distilling on the Sabbath
1673 – Petition to prohibit import of brandy presented to English Parliament
1675 – Boyle rediscovered the principle of the hydrometer
1688 – The Revolution An Act referred for first time to single and double proof spirits. The first attempt to charge duty according to strength
1690 – Forbes of Culloden who had ‘suered the loss of his brewery of aqua vitae by fire in his absence’ (in 1689) granted freedom from excise on annual payment of 400 Scots merks. Ferintosh first distillery mentioned by name. In England an act passed aIlowing anyone to distil home-grown corn
1713 – Attempt to introduce Malt Tax in Scotland, but withdrawn
1725 – Walpole proposed tax on malt in Scotland. Malt Tax riots in Glasgow.
1736 – Porteous Riots in Edinburgh result of capture of smugglers Wilson and Robertson. Escape of Robertson arranged by Wilson, who was hanged. Mob fired on by Porteous in command of troops. Porteous lynched by mob subsequently when about to be reprieved. Smuggling very common and Excise officers mainly English and disliked Magistrates of Middlesex petitioned Parliament regarding gin Gin Act aimed at preventing consumption caused open flouting of law; Scotland specifically exempted from its provisions
1747 – John Gow slipped over hills to Tomintoul and changed name to Smith Lt. Colonel Watson, C.O. Fort Augustus, advised officers to get the Highlanders ‘drunk with whisky’
1750 – Final Gin Act reduced the enormous consumption of gin in the south. During the Gin Era consumption had risen from 800,000 gallons in 1694 to over 6 million gallons in 1734. By 1750 over 8 million gallons. By 1758 had dropped to 2 million gallons
1751 – Act amending laws on spirits specifically ended Scotland’s exemption, so that it was no longer advantageous to import from Scotland
1773 – Johnson on Tour of Highlands with Boswell visited Western Isles. Sampled usquebaugh
1784 – Wash Act defined Highland Line by Act of Parliament. Forbes’s exemption at Ferintosh was finally ended. Riots at Mr. Haig’s distillery at Leith. One rioter shot and killed. Colonel Thomas Thornton, Yorkshire sporting squire, toured Scotland
1786 – Distillery Act. Licensing system introduced. Duty raised in Scotland to English level. No distinction between Highlands and Lowlands. Unfair system gave great impetus to illicit distillation
1787 – Clarke’s hydrometer replaced Boyle’s, but still inaccurate test
1788 – Duty increased. Stein brothers bankrupted. Robert Burns joined the Excise. Scots distillers still continued to produce more than estimated
1793 – Tax on whisky trebled to £9. Still the distillers continued to produce more whisky than had been estimated by tax officials. William Hill set up in Rose Street, Edinburgh, as a whisky merchant
1795 – Tax on whisky doubled to £18. Some stills operating continuously to beat tax at expense of wearing out still. Shape changing for sake of speed
1797 – Tax trebled to £54
1798 – Committee on Distilleries set up to investigate
1799 – Malcolm Gillespie joined the Excise
1800 – Dr. John Leyden’s Tour to the Highands. Tax doubled yet again to £108
1803 – War broke out again and tax raised yet again to £162 Meanwhile whisky was becoming the most important industry. Illicit distilling was accepted by everyone as the only means of paying rent for a farm. The taxation problem had clearly defeated the government in the south
1805 – The firm of Seager Evans was formed in London as makers of gin
1812 – Colonel Peter Hawker visited Scotland, saw signs of smuggling
1814 – The prohibition of stills under 500 gallon capacity in the Highlands according to General Stewart of Garth this amounted to a complete interdict. Matthew Gloag set up as a whisky merchant in Perth
1815 – The output of the distillery at Drumin in Glenlivet run by George Smith, grandson of John Smith Gow, was already a hogshead a week. Due to the pure water and fine peat available the whisky in Glenlivet was famed as being the finest illicit whisky in tho Highlands. It was drunk by many northern lalrds, including Grant of Rothiemurchos, M.P. and lawyer. Laphroaig distillery on Islay was built by the Johnstone family
1817 – Teaninich distillery built by Captain H. Munro in Ross-shire. Sikes’s hydrometer superseded the old inaccurate Clarke’s hydrometer
1818 – Bladnoch disti]lery was founded, near Wigtown, by the Maclelland family
1819 – Clyneleish distillery near Brora was built by the Marquis of Staford, son of the Duke of Sutherland
1820 – John Walker set up as a licensed grocer in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire. Debates in Parliament on the subject of illicit distilling in Scotland were inconclusive, but the Duke of Gordon addressed the House of Lords urging a more moderate policy Sikes’s hydrometer and saccharometer used in conjunction under new Act
1821 – Linkwood distillery near Elgin was built
1822 – George IV visited Scotland and was provided with illicit Glenlivet whisky by Grant of Rothiemurchos. He was reported to drink no other
1823 – A new Act was introduced which provided for a £10 annual licence fee and a duty of 2s 3d per gallon.
1824 – Under the aegis of his landlord the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, farmer and illicit distiller George Smith was the first to take out a licence under the new Act. The first legal distillery in Glenlivet, his neighbours threatened to burn it down Gillespie made a notable haul of illicit Glenlivet whisky in a desperate battle with smugglers. Gillespie then applied for a less arduous post
1825 – Consolidation Act introduced uniform measures. T. R. Sandeman founded a whisky merchants business in Perth
1826 – Robert Stein took out a patent for a single-distillation still.
1827 – Gillespie forged a bill, was arrested, tried and hanged, despite pleas for mercy on account of his long service. Christopher North’s Noctes Ambrosianae featured James Hogg in Blackwood’s Magazine
1828 – Springbank Distillery founded in Campbeltown. Springbank is the oldest independent and family owned distillery in Scotland.
1830 – Tax per proof gallon raised significantly. Consequent increase in smuggling. Stein built his first still at Kirkliston, a Haig distillery. William Teacher founded his merchant’s firm, aged 19. Talisker distillery wa founded on the Isle of Skye
1831 – Aeneas Coffey invented his single still, known as the patent Coffey still, providing continuous distillation for grain whisky. Justerini and Brooks founded their partnership in London
1832 – The Coffey still was patented and approved. The Glen Scotia distillery founded in Campbeltown by Stewart Galbrath. Total abstinence was advocated at the Preston Temperance meeting
1833 – The Parnell Commission of Enquiry into the Liquor Trade started
1836 – The Parnell Commission issued its findings. Mostly ineffectual. The Glenfarclas Glenlivet distillery was founded by Robert Hay
1838 – Hill Thomson granted Royal Warrant
1840 – The Glen Grant distillery was founded at Rothes by James and John Grant. The Glenkinchie distillery in East Lothian founded by farmer J. Gray.
1841 – James Chivas founded his firm of merchants and grocers in Aberdeen
1842 – Glenmorangie distillery at Tain was founded by William Mathieson
1846 – John Dewar started as a wine and spirit merchant in Perth. The Repeal of the Corn Laws was to aect grain distilling favourably
1848 – Queen Victoria and family visited John Begg’s distillery at Lochnagar
1849 – Captain William Grant announced his distillery in conjunction with George Smith’s at Drumin the only ones in Glenlivet
1853 – Andrew Usher was credited with producing the first blended whisky.
1856 – First Trade Arrangement amongst grain distillers.
1857 – W. & A. Gilbey founded as wine and spirit merchants. William Thomson joined William Hill and formed Hill Thomson at 45, Frederick Street, Edinburgh
1865 – New Trade Arrangement formed. Menzies, Barnard & Craig, John Bald & Co., John Haig & Co., MacNab Bros, Robert Mowbray and Macfarlane & Co., who replaced John Crabbie and Co., who had previously been a member. Glenfarclas distillery was bought by John Grant of Blairfindy
1870 – Phylloxera vastatrix beginning to spread in France
1872 – Glengyle Distillery was founded in Campbeltown by William Mitchell.
1874 – The North of Scotland Malt Distillers Association was formed
1877 – The Distiller’s Company Limited was formed by Macfarlane & Co., John Bald & Co. John Haig & Co, MacNab Bros & Co, Robert Mowbray and Stewart & Co. John Haig founded his company at Markinch in Fife
1880 – John Walker opened a London office. Colonel John Gordon Smith, son of George Smith, went to law on the subject of the use of the name Glenlivet. The court held he was the only one entitled to use the label ‘The Glenlivet’, all others had to use a prefix
1881 – Bruichladdich Islay Malt distillery was founded
1882 – William Sanderson produced his blend ‘Vat 69’. James Whyte and Charles Mackay founded Whyte and Mackay, Ltd.
1884 – James Buchanan set up in London and produced the blend ‘Black & White’. William Shaw joined Hill Thomson and produced the blend ‘Queen Anne’
1885 – Gladstone defeated on proposed tax
1886 – The D.C.L. shares were finally quoted on the London Stock Exchange
1887 – The Glenfiddich distillery was built by William Grant. The Dufflown-Glenlivet distillery was founded. Highland Distilleries founded to acquire the Islay distillery of William Grant and the Glenrothes Glenlivet Distillery built in 1878
1888 – The North British Distillery Co. with productive capacity of three million gallons p.a. founded in opposition to the growing power of the D.C.L.. Mackie & Co. took over Lagavulin distillery on Islay for White Horse
1890 – The Playfair Parliamentary Commission formed under Sir Lyon Playfair
1891 – Balvenie distillery founded by William Grant of Glenfiddich
1893 – Cardow was bought by John Walker. The firm of Macdonald and Muir was founded
1894 – Longmorn-Glenlivet built by Longmorn Co.
1895 – Aultmore founded by Alexander Edward of Sanquhar, Forres. Arthur Bell & Sons formed from Sandeman’s of Perth
1896 – John Dewar built a distillery at Aberfeldy
1898 – The whisky boom came to an abrupt halt with the failure of the Pattison brothers
1899 – The United Yeast Co. was founded by the D.C.L. as a subsidiary
1906 – Islington Borough Council brought the ‘What is Whisky?’ case. Basically a question of malt versus grain. Verdict in magistrate’s court in favour of malt, but the D.C.L pressed for Royal Commission
1908 – A Royal Commission on Whisky decided grain and malt blended to make Scotch whisky
1914 – Intoxicating Liquor Act. Scottish Malt Distillers formed as a subsidiary of the D.C.L.
1915 – Central Liquor Control Board formed. Immature Spirits Act required two years’ compulsory bonding. Buchanan’s and Dewars merged into Buchanan-Dewars
1916 – Compulsory bonding extended to three years
1917 – Dilution of proof to 30 under proof. Whisky Association formed
1919 – Haig and Haig were taken over by the D.C.L.
1920 – Prohibition was introduced in the U.S.A.
1924 – John Haig merged with the D.C.L.
1925 – Buchanan-Dewars and John Walker merged with the D.C.L., with John Ross of the D.C.L. as chairman
1926 – The Pot-Still Malt Distillers Association was formed in place of the North of Scotland Malt Distillers Association to include all malt distillers
1927 – Seager Evans set up Strathclyde distillery for grain whisky. White Horse Distillers was acquired by the D.C.L.
1928 – The Distillers Co. of Canada took over Seagram and Sons
1930 – Hiram Walker of Ontario acquired Glenburgie-Glenliet
1932 – Prohibition was repealed by President F. D. Roosevelt
1933 – Arthur Bell & Sons acquired Blair Athol and Dufftown-Glenlivet distilleries
1936 – Hiram Walker acquired George Ballantine & Go. of Dumbarton, also Milton Duff distillery. Arthur Bell & Sons acquired the Inchgower distillery near Fochabers. Seager Evans acquired John Long
1937 – Seager Evans took over Glenugie distillery at Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
1938 – Hiram Walker opened a £3,000,000 grain distillery at Inerleven, Dumbarton
1939 – Start of Second World War. Total whisky stocks lost by enemy action amounted to 4.5 million gallons. Grain distilling halted, limited malt pot-still distilling allowed
1940 – The Whisky Association dissolved and The Scotch Whisky Association founded in its place
1945 – End of Second World War
1947 – Distilling still greatly restricted.
1950 – Seagram’s took over Strathisla distillery
1952 – George & J. G. Smith, Ltd. and J. & J. Grant Glen Grant, Ltd. formed a public company, The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distillers, Ltd.
1954 – Hiram Walker took over Glencadam distillery in Brechin and the Scapa distillery in Orkney
1955 – Hiram Walker took over Pulteney distillery in Wick
1956 – Seager Evans were bought by Schenley Industries of New York, in turn owned by Glen Alden Corporation
1957 – Seager Evans built Kinclaith distillery near Glasgow
1958 – Seager Evans built a new distillery at Tormore on the Spey, north of Grantown
1959 – Inver House, an American-owned Company, built a new grain distillery by Airdrie and an associated Lowland malt distillery named Glenflagler
1960 – The Scotch Whisky Association was incorporated to provide legal status in foreign courts. Glenfarclas distillery redoubled in size Ledaig distillery in Tobermory started. Jura distillery started by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, Ltd. Glenallachie distillery started
1962 – Laphroaig was acquired by Seager Evans. W. & A. Gilbey, Gilbey Twiss, Justerini & Brooks and United Vintners formed International Distillers and Vintners Ltd.
1965 – Caperdonich and Benriach distilleries were re-built after having been silent for over sixty years. Invergordon Distillers, Ltd., was formed
1969 – Glen Alden Corporation who owned Schenley Industries who owned Seager Evans was taken over by Rapid American Incorporated. The name Seager Evans was changed to Long John International, Ltd.
1970 – The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distilleries, Ltd., merged with Hill Thomson & Co., Ltd., and Longmorn-Glenlivet Distilleries, Ltd. Amalgamated Distiled Products, Ltd., was formed with the Campbeltown Glen Scotia distillery and other interests. The Highland Distillers Co., Ltd., acquired Matthew Gloag Ltd.
1971 – Chivas Bros., the Scots subsidiary of Seagrams, began plans for a distillery in Glenlivet
1972 – The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distileries, Ltd., rationalised their name to The Glenlivet Distillers Limited. The Pot-Still Malt Distillers Association of Scotland rationalised their name to The Malt Distillers Association of Scotland
1973 – Britain entered the European Economic Community. With the introduction of V.A.T. the duty on whisky was reduced for the first time since 1896. Dalmore, Whyte & Mackay and Tomintoul distillery taken over by The House of Fraser Braes of Glenlivet distillery operational. The notable feature of the late fifties and sixties has been the influx of foreign, particularly U.S., investment in the industry, taking full advantage of government subsidies but not necessarily with the interests of the industry or of the United Kingdom at heart
1974 – The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. celebrate their hundred and fiftieth anniversary since George Smith took out the first licence in 1824 Malt Distillers of Scotland celebrate their centenary.
Information on Glen Scotia from the same site
Information on Springbank from the same site.
Glen Scotia Distillery Website
Mitchell’s Glengyle Distillery Ltd
Frank McHardy, Director of Production, taking about the colourful history of whisky production in Campbeltown, Scotland:
Article Source: http://www.dcs.ed.ac.uk/home/jhb/whisky/history.html – From the excellent ‘Net’s oldest Malt Whisky site‘ by John Butler
Shared here for educational use, reproduced from publications by the Scotch Whisky Association, again with very kind permission (2019).