Mythbusters: When London was the fountainhead for British distilling

Mythbusters: When London was the fountainhead for British distilling

The City of London's early history in the distilling of grain spirits and proto-whisky

Mythbusters | 11 Dec 2023 | By Chris Middleton

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By 1600, the City of London had Britain’s largest population of 200,000 people. Neighboured by Westminster, it dominated politics, access to capital, a skilled workforce, and a widening range of trades, including a small-scale distilling industry. An estimated 200 distillers operated in London, most distilling malt spirits from spent ale and beer. These were modest one- or two-person trades, representing physicians, barber-surgeons, apothecaries, and general distillers.


If London was Britain’s distilling centre, then Oxford was the incubator. One of the first references to distilling in Britain was Roger Bacon, writing on “distillations” in his 1267 Opus Majus. He returned to Oxford University in 1270 as Dr Mirabils, lecturing on alchemy and distillation, describing in his 1278 Error of Physicians “most wholesome and salutary waters, by distillation” referring to the production of strong waters or distilled spirits made from plants and wine and ale lees. Henry III banned clergy from openly practising physics in 1216, conferring medical responsibilities on lay brethren; this resulted in the formation of guilds, which later permitted their practising of distillation.


By the 14th century, grain spirits or proto-whisky became an active pursuit of City distillers. Geoffrey Chaucer wrote about the distillation of ale as distillers and apothecaries served the London populous with medicinal tonics and drams for fortification. In his 1398 Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale, Chaucer described the familiar sight of “cucurbits and alembikes ekes” (pot still kettle base with capital head distilling) and wash made of “wort” (extracted liquid from mashed grain) and “barm” (yeast) to start the fermentation. Proto-whisky or malt-based aqua vitae was the English term for unaged whisky, flavoured for palatability and masquerading as a medicinal tonic.


More than half the distilleries in Shakespeare’s late 16th-century London produced goods described as odious and foul quality, hogwash and dregs “occasioning infectious diseases”, crude distillates flavoured to disguise noxious compounds. A report by Sir Anthony Radcliffe in 1593 proposed cleaning up these abusive and unregulated practices by establishing a royal remedy to this evil.


Richard Drake, the cousin of Sir Francis Drake, gained a royal grant from Elizabeth I in 1594 to hold a monopoly on making aqua vitae, aqua vitae composita (compounded waters), and vinegar in the City. Instead of using his economic and production monopoly to improve standards, after gaining control, Drake cut corners, using “dregges of brewing by-products” and increasing prices, and began bullying small distillers outside London. The trade protest was immediate, forcing parliament to have the Queen revoke Drake’s patent in 1601, declaring to her subjects they shall “have all the cheap aqua vitae they wanted to warm their chilled stomachs”.


Parliament and reputable London distillers sought to establish production standards to oversee this growing and unregulated industry — “taking care these liquors should be well made” — and to raise taxable revenue. While Irish usquebaugh enjoyed an enviable reputation, the trade was tiny and limited to the fortunate few at court. In March 1638, King Charles granted the first charter to the Distiller’s Company, whereupon 99 London and Westminster distillers were accepted into the new livery to make “spirits, aqua vitae, strong waters, vinegar and beeragar”.


In the late 17th century, Flemish and Dutch refugees established small-scale genever distilleries in London, begetting the English gin boom of the 18th century where more than 1,200 gin distilleries operated in London, causing a wholesale flavour shift where malt spirits were compounded with juniper, turpentine, and other flavourings to serve the increasing demand for cheap gin. This Dutch-inspired liquor dominated working-class English drinking habits into the 19th century, while Ireland and Scotland distilled along a different path, resulting in modern whisky. 

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