In the Victorian era, the approval of products was a much longer process often requiring a cultural shift or gradual, mental realignment by the consumer. These changes were of course influenced by many factors but often they could be encouraged by the subtle actions of a few. Is it not, then, remarkable that whisky could be transformed from being an illicit spirit drunkby relatively few people to a respectable and
acceptable drink consumed even by royalty, over a period of seventy years.In early 19th century Britain, gin was the preferred tipple of the populous, while brandy and claret were favoured by the wealthy. Whisky, as yet, had limited appeal and was largely illicit (in 1810 over 400 illicit stills were confiscated in Speyside alone). However, it was recorded that when Sir Walter Scott visited King George IV on his royal yacht in Leith in 1822 his majesty called for a bottle of Highland malt whisky to toast their health. An unusual request, but perhaps, a sign of things to come.The young Victoria, the King’s niece, who was shortly to become Queen, followed in his footsteps with her love of Scotland and her appreciation of fine malt whisky. The whisky industry at this time was experiencing a metamorphosis on the back of the Distilling Excise Act of 1823: by Victoria’s coronation in 1837 a host of ‘legal’ distilleries were mushrooming throughout Scotland. The first royal warrant of appointment was granted to Brackla distillery, near Cawdor, by King William IV in 1835 - later endorsed by the new Queen three years later by a Royal Warrant and subsequently named Royal Brackla.In September 1848 the royal party, on their first visit to Balmoral, was invited by an opportunistic John Begg to visit his new Lochnagar Distillery where the Queen was introduced to theintricacies of malt whisky production. This experience was to nurture an interest in whisky, which she retained throughout her reign.John Begg records in his diary of 1848: “I wrote a note on the 11th September to Mr. G.E. Anson (Her Majesty’s Private Secretary) stating that the distillery was now in full operation, and would be so until six o’clock next day. “The note was handed in at Balmoral Castle at about 9pm. Next day about four o’clock, whilst in the house, I observed Her Majesty and the Prince Consort approaching. I ran and opened the door, when the prince said, ‘We have come to see through your works Mr Begg.’ There were besides, HRH the Prince of Wales, the Princess Royal, and Prince Albert, accompanied by Lady Cumming. I at once conducted the Royal Party to the distillery.“I endeavoured to explain the whole process of malting, brewing and distilling, showing the Royal Party the bere in its original state, and in all its different stages of manufacture...afterwards the Royal Party took their departure, I thanking them for the honour of the visit they had been so generous to pay the distillery.”The Royal Party was obviously impressed by their experience and Begg received a Royal Warrant a few days later, allowing the distillery to be known as Royal Lochnagar. It was said that Victoria later began the practice of lacing her claret with Lochnagar - an early malt whisky cocktail?The Queen was to fall in love with this beautiful and idyllic part of Scotland and journeyed there frequently during her long reign of sixty-three years, but Deeside whisky was not unique in its Royal patronage.In 1848 she also visited Long John Macdonald’s Ben Nevis Distillery in Fort William. Thefollowing piece of intelligence appeared in the April issue of the Illustrated London News: “Mr Macdonald has presented a cask of whisky to Her Majesty and an order has been sent to the
Treasury to permit the spirits to be removed to the cellars of Buckingham Palace free of duty. The cask is not to be opened until His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales attains his majority (in 1863).”Later in 1879 Alfred Barnard when visiting Balmenach Distillery, noted: “Our next halting place was Cromdale, and although the Carron Station had been open for more than twenty years, we were the only persons who had ever booked to Cromdale first class, the number of our tickets which were faded with age, commencing at nought.“We tasted some 1873 whisky and found it prime, and far superior in our opinion to old brandy. Some of the whisky was supplied, by desire, to the proprietor of the Gairloch Hotel, Lochmaree, in 1878, for the special use of Her Majesty the Queen, and her suite.”As the Queen’s reign developed and the Empire prospered, her Scottish retreat at Balmoral was to play host to many an English sporting aristocrat, statesman or industrialist. It was at this time that Highland malt whisky was being ‘discovered’. Gillies produced it on river banks, and tweed clad stalkers were warmed by it on the dreich, autumn moors - the seeds for future success were being truly planted.In 1897, the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a new distillery was built at Carron. Aptly named The Imperial Distillery, it had a gilded replica of the Imperial crown atop the kiln roof. This was a period of heightened prosperity and imperial fervour in Britain and it was under these conditions that Scotch whisky was to make its mark - both at home and abroad. The burgeoning railway system helped transport whiskies across the country when coincidentally, France’s vineyards were being ravaged by a vine destroying pest called phylloxera, which halted brandy production for years. Paradoxically, however, it was not malt whisky which was to make this quantum leap but rather the blends.The appreciation of the finer qualities of whisky had obviously been spread by the visiting dignatories to Balmoral, but the wilder tasting malts of the time proved too fiery when removed from their Highland glens. But the interest had been kindled and it is to Queen Victoria we should award the accolade for such an ignition.This interest and opportunity was not missed by the whisky entrepreneurs of the time:experimentation was taking place by mixing and blending lighter malts with the more arduousto create products more akin to the English palate. You could say the desire was there, but
the spirit was lacking!Welcome the whisky barons - the Haigs, Bells, Dewars, Buchanans, Grants and Mackinleys who eventually placed Scotch blended whisky onto the global markets. By the end of her reign many of these barons had been honoured in person or by endorsement of their products: perhaps the most famous character of them all, was Tommy Dewar, who was knighted in 1901.A fitting tribute to the industry as a whole from a Queen who loved fine malt whisky and the beauty of Scotland with a passion - Her Royal Highness certainly deserves to be remembered as a whisky heroine.