Whisky imbroglio, the battle of words amongst industry stakeholders, lasted 70 years. It was instigated by new technologies impacting how whisky was made and sold – argued between distilling factions, rectifiers, wholesalers and independent bottlers who lobbied governments to define its product identity. All the opponents, across different countries and industry sectors, marshalled contradictory arguments deploying the same keywords: pure and wholesome. Forcing the British, Irish, American and Australian governments to hold inquiries to settle this question: what is whisky? The victors would define how whisky was made and labelled.
As whisky came out of the provincial shadows in the early 19th century, innovative national and regional industries creatively exploited growing consumer demand and technological advances in production. Before the 20th century, no legal definition existed for whisky; it could be adulterated with artificial flavours and colourings, even made from molasses or potato spirit. Britain defined whisky as a raw spirit leaving a low wines still. In 1915, warehousing whisky for at least two years (wooden containers not specified) and cereal mash were added to the definition in the 1933 Finance Act. Canada was the first to mandate whisky ageing in July 1881, but there was no mention of raw materials or production procedures until 1911. In 1936, the US Congress passed the first set of whisky definitions and manufacturing standards, with whisky being whisky ‘if it touches oak’, as it remains today.
The genesis of the rivalry traces back to Philadelphia in 1780, with the invention of the first semi-continuous steam still for rye and corn whisky. By the first decade of the 19th century, technological advances in Europe saw the development of the first column permitting continuous distillation. In 1830, Aeneas Coffey patented the modern continuous still for British grain distillation. The battle lines formed in the 1860s, after the British Excise Act and post-Civil War America, when new distillation equipment hastened massive volumes. This was the beginning of boom times for whisky production and consumption.
Exploiting these differing spirit styles were wholesalers and agents who liberally blended cheap plain spirit with malt or straight whisky. Aggrieved the trade were practising fraud by blending silent, Coffey-patent spirit with their aged, mixed-cereal pot-distilled whisky, the four large Dublin pot distillers fired the first shots in 1876 with their publication Truths About Whisky. Similarly, traditionally double-distilled rye and bourbon were liberally blended with high-proof corn alcohol from the new, mid-Western continuous stills. Dr Harvey Wiley, who led America’s Pure Food & Drug analysis, reported to Congress in 1906 that over 85 per cent of all whisky and spirit brands, including imported whisky, were adulterated. In Australia, local malt distillers said imported Scotch came straight off patent stills. This led to Australia legislating the world’s first product definitions for malt and blended whisky, in 1906.
The debate was a dichotomy in semantics. Different organisations attributed different meanings to pure ingredients, pure whisky, and pure alcohol. Straight whisky distillers, a Kentucky trade term that meant honest whisky, not adulterated or blended with neutral or plain spirit, argued their whisky was pure. Edmund Taylor, Jr., the leading advocate of straight whisky, advertised his whisky as having “absolute purity for health and comfort”. His antagonist, Warwick Hough, countered that straight whisky was full of deleterious fusel oils and other nasties. The paradox was that the impurities gave mellowed whisky its desirable and distinctive flavours.
Australian malt distillers such as Henry Brind, whose 1883 whisky motto was “prejudice over purity”, argued pure water, pure barley malt and two years in a cask made pure whisky. The government adopted this definition. The 1908 British Royal Commission found no relationship between the type of still, grain and wholesomeness, so every whisky was wholesome, or not.