Award-winning author Ann Lethbridge first published this blog when she started writing the Gilvrys of Dunross series. She graciously gave the Beau Monde permission to recycle it here.
Did you think I had made a dreadful mistake? Or did you know I was talking about a drink, not a
person. I do of course mean Scotch whisky (and that too is the correct spelling).
My current work in progress is set in Scotland and part of my plot revolves around a whisky distillery. There are a number of discussions about the origins of uisge beatha, water of life (uisge sounds like usky anglicized to whisky).
Most experts believe the knowledge of distilling was brought from Ireland by the Scots in the fifth century A.D., along with the Gaelic language. Scotch whisky is made from barley malt and I will not delve into the actual process here.
Traditionally in the Highlands, whisky was provided before breakfast to sharpen the appetite, since it was seen as both a libation and as a health drink. It was given to infants and children too. It was offered to anyone who crossed a home’s threshold as a matter of courtesy at any time of day or night.
During the Regency there were huge numbers of illicit stills in the Highlands to avoid punishing excise taxes. Considerable quantities were smuggled across the border into England where ardent spirits were taxed at an even higher rate. Highland farmers used their sale of illicit whisky to pay the rents on their land, since often it was their only source of real cash income in addition to what was needed for their own consumption. The rugged Highlands provided great hiding places from the “gaugers” (Excise Officers). And the local populace delighted in the excise officers’ failures and mourned their successes.
When an illegal still was found, the equipment would be smashed and the owner of the still punished – if found.
An Act of Parliament passed in 1814 prohibited any still in the Highlands with a less than 500 gallon capacity. A fantastical size for that period of time. Moreover, thereafter all whisky produced in the Highlands could only be sold in the Highlands, effectively making the legal production and selling of whisky almost impossible. Needless to say it only served to encourage illicit stills
and an increase of smuggling. In 1823 14,000 illicit stills were discovered and smashed, but many more went undiscovered.
Scotsmen with vision knew this had to change and in this year a new act was passed making 40 gallons the minimum size for a still and setting the duty at a reasonable rate. Illicit production slowly dwindled away along with smuggling.
Of course how all this fits in my story has yet to be revealed to me, but I hope you enjoy reading a small snippet from my research. It is nice to know that this ancient Scottish skill has survived to produce one of the world’s most popular drams.
© 2010 – 2015 Ann Lethbridge
This article was originally published at her blog, Regency Ramble, in November of 2010.
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.