A case of disappearing spirit

A case of disappearing spirit

The Sherlock Holmes of Australian whisky distilling

Mythbusters | 27 Mar 2020 | Issue 166 | By Chris Middleton

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During the four months of February to May 1899 Detective Inspector John Mitchell Christie, using multiple disguises, staked the Vauxhall Distillery at Abbotsford by the Yarra River in Melbourne. On a chilly May morning, he burst into the three-storey bluestone distillery burnishing his revolver and demanding the startled staff, “Stand, or I’ll fire”.

Christie was a swashbuckling Scot from Clackmannan who immigrated to Victoria in 1863, at the age of 17, to work on his uncle’s Gippsland property. Famed for his physical prowess, he was an adroit swimmer and athlete, champion sculler and prize-winning pugilist, known as the Bruiser. On top of his athletic brawn, his education included Andrews School and Taylor College. After three years in livestock work, he found new adventures joining the Victoria Police Force working as a royal detective and bodyguard on three separate royal tours in Australia. In 1884 he transferred to the Victoria Customs Department as a detective inspector. When not collecting trophies and members of the royal family he broke forgery and counterfeiting rackets, tracked down smugglers and busted moonshiners and drug traffickers. The newspapers described him as “an idol of the Victoria public”, a real-life embodiment of Conan Doyle’s fictional detective.

Melbourne’s Vauxhall Distillery was established in 1886 by George Preston and his sons Henry and William, who also immigrated to Australia in 1863. The family were members of the Liverpool Prestons, who operated two of the largest malt distilleries in Britain during the 19th century. In the early 1880s, the Victoria Colonial Government induced investment in distilling by offering an attractive tax differential of 2/6 a gallon against imported spirits. The Vauxhall Distillery produced whisky, rum and brandy on two traditional pot stills. After the distillery upgraded in 1896, customs records began noticing discrepancies between grain quantities, wash volumes and spirit output. By 1899 customs estimated more than 1,500 gallons or £750 of excise tax was unaccounted. In collaboration with inspector of distilleries, customs inspector Christie started surveillance, monitoring the distillery “morning, noon and night” using many disguises as well as insinuating himself with local criminals and drunkards to ascertain their method of deception.

Armed with his arrest warrant... he apprehended the felons...

Christie’s vigils employed false wigs, beards, moustaches, a wardrobe of character clothes and corroborating props. Some days he was a surveyor with a theodolite taking measurements. On other days he acted as a derelict in tattered clothes, a swagman camped by the river, or an angler working the river bank; other times an inspector from the board of health, an Anglican clergyman or a Salvation Army officer seeking alms. Slowly as he observed the staff’s behaviour and picked up neighbourhood intelligence, he assembled the clues and information on how the suspects worked their modus operandi.

He discovered when the distillery’s customs officer went to check the bond store each day, the distiller siphoned a gallon or two of new make into a glass demijohn and hid it in the outhouse, later depositing in a cask secreted in a room across the street. Armed with his arrest warrant Christie and his unholstered 45-calibre Colt revolver, he apprehended the felons and recovered the concealed illicit whisky.

At the court hearing Henry Preston, who directed the distillery for his aged father, explained he had lived in Sydney and England during the past four years and was not aware of the illicit activity. Threatened with the loss of his licence, he was fined £2,250 and required to post surety of £3,000.

In 1901 the federal government reduced tariff protection on spirits, making the struggling Vauxhall Distillery uneconomical. After 1905 it was acquired by an expanding CUB brewery for cellar storage. John Christie was severely knifed during another escapade with desperate opium smugglers in 1910 and was forced to retire. He received many tributes including from Prime Minister Billy Hughes recognising his numerous exploits, his outstanding work and courageous service.
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