Owing it all to Islington

Owing it all to Islington

Gavin Smith recounts the early days of blending, when a court case in north London helped secure the future of the Scotch whisky industry

Production | 16 Jul 2001 | Issue 17 | By Gavin Smith

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By an historic quirk of fate, the present day Scotch whisky industry does not owe its existence to happenings in some remote Highland glen, nor even in the boardrooms of Edinburgh, but rather to a series of events that began in 1905 with legal proceedings in the London Borough of Islington. The ‘What is Whisky?’ case concerning the legitimacy of blended whisky was one of the most significant milestones in the history of the national spirit. However much we may love our single malts, it is an undeniable fact that it was the commercial application of the blender’s art that allowed Scotch whisky to become a drink for the world.Without the earlier development of grain whisky distillation, however, there could have been no blends. The man who started it all was Robert Stein, a member of a famous Lowland distilling dynasty, who in 1827 pioneered the construction of a revolutionary new kind of still that worked on a continuous rather than a ‘batch’ basis in the manner of the
established pot still.Stein’s early work was refined by a former Inspector-General of Excise in Ireland, Aeneas Coffey, who patented his eponymous still design in 1831. Coffey or ‘Patent’ stills could produce far greater quantities of spirit than their pot still counterparts, though the make was quite bland and much of it was rectified into gin in England, rather than being consumed in its original form. Some, however, was drunk in working class communities in the industrial Scottish Lowlands on account of its comparatively modest cost.Initially, only barley could legally be used in the new Patent stills but the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 led to the import of cheaper grains and, in particular, maize which soon became a staple of grain whisky. Unofficially, grain spirit was sometimes added to pot still whisky by publicans to increase their profit margins. However, Andrew Usher of Edinburgh was the first person to begin experimenting with combinations of whiskies of different ages and can justifiably be credited as the founding father of blended whisky. His contribution is often overshadowed by that of high-profile figures such as the charismatic Tommy Dewar and James Buchanan, who were to become the public faces of the blended whisky industry.Usher was the Edinburgh agent for the Glenlivet distillery and in 1853 – when the ‘vatting’ of whiskies of varying ages from one distillery became legal for the first time – he began to market a highly-regarded vatting of Glenlivets under the name Usher’s UVG (Old Vatted Glenlivet).Usher’s aim was to produce a drink with the consistency necessary to satisfy major markets outside that of Scotland, but with the passing of the Spirits Act of 1860 he was able to make significant advances on his pioneering work. The Spirits Act increased duty substantially, but also made it legal for the first time to blend whiskies from different distilleries before duty was paid.It was a logical step for Usher to cut the cost of his whiskies by mixing comparatively cheap grain whisky with a variety of malts. Not only was the cost reduced but the resultant drink gained a smoothness from the grain and lacked the ferocity and inconsistency that kept malt whiskies out of the drawing rooms of polite society. When whisky was drank at all by gentlemen it was usually of the triple-distilled Irish variety. As Arthur Bell wrote in the late 1870s: “Several fine whiskies blended together please the palates of a greater number of people, than one whisky unmixed, consequently I have long adopted the practice...”Andrew Usher’s son, Sir Robert, noted in 1908 that, prior to the effects of the Spirits Act, only small quantities of Scotch whisky had been sold in England. Yet from that date “the trade in Scotch Whisky increased in leaps and bounds”.Facilitating that increase were representatives of families whose whisky brands are still household names today. They included Arthur Bell, John and Tommy Dewar, James Buchanan (of Black & White), Alexander Walker (of Johnnie Walker) and Peter Mackie (of White Horse Distillers). Thomas Sandeman, whose well known Vat 69 blend was marketed from 1882, was another blending pioneer. Sandeman had been experimenting with blends since the 1860s and his early efforts had incorporated malts from the Glenlivet area and from Perthshire. Other companies in at the beginning of the blending revolution included the Leith-based firm of Charles Mackinlay & Company and Glasgow’s WP Lowrie & Co Ltd.One result of the development of grain whisky had been the growth in influence of the major Lowland distillers who began to specialise in producing grain spirit. In 1877 Cambus, Cameron Bridge, Carsebridge, Glenochil, Kirkliston and Port Dundas amalgamated to form the Distillers Company Ltd. DCL, as it was known, was to wield immense power in the Scotch whisky industry for the next 100 years and, in 1886, Andrew Usher led a consortium of Edinburgh based merchants and blenders which constructed and subsequently operated the North British Distillery in the west of the city. This venture was intended to challenge DCL's near-monopoly on grain whisky supplies.The pot still distillers of the Highlands soon began to feel threatened by the dominance of the Lowland operations and started a campaign to prevent grain and blended whisky from being called ‘whisky’ at all. Across the Irish Sea, most distillers also refused to recognise grain spirit as whisky – or at least refused to compromise their product by adding it to their make of malted and unmalted barley. After decades of dominance in English and other overseas markets, the Irish distillers now lost out significantly to the relentless salesmanship of messrs Dewar, Mackie, Buchanan and their ilk.A considerable amount of spirit sold as Scotch whisky was unquestionably of poor quality, with malt contributing a modest amount to its contents, while ‘ageing’ often lasted a matter of months rather than years. Some of the less desirable additives included acetic acid, turpentine, and even sulphuric acid!In November 1905 Islington Borough Council prosecuted two wine and spirits merchants for selling goods “not of
the nature, substance and quality demanded” by the provisions of the 1875 Food & Drugs Act. One of the products in question was marketed as ‘Fine Old Scotch Whisky’ and as its proportions of 90% grain and 10% malt was not an uncommon ratio (even with reputable blenders), alarm bells began to ring in the boardroom of DCL and other blending-orientated institutions. Indeed, DCL was so concerned by the possible implications of the prosecution that they funded the merchants' defence.Islington Borough Council won their case, however, and in the aftermath of the action DCL led a strong counter-attack – going so far as to market “light, delicate, exquisite” Cambus grain whisky in bottled format with a high-profile newspaper advert which mischievously stated that “Cambus is not a pot still whisky”. In 1908 the question of ‘What is Whisky?’ became the subject of a Royal Commission, which duly reported in July of the following year “that ‘whiskey’ is a spirit obtained by distillation from a wash saccharified by the diastase of malt, that ‘Scotch Whiskey’ is whiskey as above defined distilled in Scotland”.DCL and their compatriots could breathe a collective sigh of relief. Blended whisky was here to stay and Cambus could resume its role in the blending vats – which was probably just as well considering that, even in those days long before an Advertising Standards Authority, DCL would have been hard pressed to defend their bold advertising assertion that it contained “not a headache in a gallon”!
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