Traditional practice.” Who could object to that? But let’s try. The phrase may now be enshrined in the law dictating how Scotch whisky can be made, but a glance at the historical record suggests that the industry has taken a very partial and elastic view of what is and is not ‘traditional’.
Take soap, for example. You probably wouldn’t want soap in your whisky. Much better, in fact, to add suet, butter or hog’s lard. That, at least, was the considered recommendation of John McDonald of Elgin, writing in 1828. His book The Maltster, Distiller and Spirit Dealer’s Companion was so far as I am aware the earliest published technical manual on how to distil whisky (earlier publications refer to usquebagh or aqua-vitae, not necessarily the same thing.)
But why was he discussing the use of soap anyway, which he believed lent a “pernicious taste” to the spirit? Why? Because soap was regularly added to wort or placed in wash stills to prevent foaming.
Nettleton (1913, in The Manufacture of Whisky) spells this out quite explicitly: “To prevent frothing and the consequent fouling of the still-neck and worm, a soap emulsion is let into the wash-still with each fresh charge of wash, or, from a soap box, a graduated supply is admitted, say ½lb to 1lb of soap per 100 gallons of wash.”
Does it still go on? It was relatively commonplace until the 1980s. The substitute is polydimethyl siloxane. But it’s almost impossible to remove. So its use leads to silicone coated wash stills, hardly a great idea. Traditional?
Perhaps they should reintroduce rummagers, the time-honoured method of preventing the solids in the wash from sticking to the bottom of the still. Rummagers, of course, along with direct firing were once standard in all distilleries.
Sir Walter Gilbey, for example, then proprietor of Glen Spey, Strathmill and Knockando, wrote in 1906 that direct firing: “imparts to the spirit the character known as empyreumatic (burnt organic matter), which is easily recognised in the product of the Pot Still”. Nettleton, too, praised direct firing: “The older and favourite kinds of wash stills are heated by furnaces below the stills, a method strongly preferred by many of the best whisky distillers.”
Cask treatment appears to have been commonplace. In Truths About Whisky (1878) Dublin distillers complained of the dubious practices of their Scottish rivals in adulterating their products. Substances such as Paxarette (a very sweet dark sherry-based product) have followed its predecessors such as ‘Hamburg sherry’, ‘prune wine’ and ‘cocked hat spirit’ into the dark cellars of whisky’s history and are no longer mentioned, if one was feeling mischievous they might be considered traditional practices.
However, Paxarette was still common enough in recent years for JM Philp to write in a 1989 distilling textbook that “a typical current cooperage procedure in the Scotch whisky industry is to add 500ml of Paxarette per hogshead, or 1 litre per butt, pressurise at 48 kPa (7psig) for 10 mins and then disgorge any unabsorbed Paxarette.” Today, Paxarette is banned.
Varieties of barley have changed greatly. Leaving aside long abandoned strains such as Bere, in the last 50 years there has been much innovation. Golden Promise accounted for close to 95 per cent of the Scottish barley crop in the 1960s but declined to 13 per cent by 1987. It was overtaken by Triumph, Optic and Chariot. More recently, varieties such as Quench, Publican and Tartan are being trialled.
These are far from the only changes to traditional distilling practice. For an apparently conservative, traditional and unchanging industry, they have, in fact, been radical.
I haven’t mentioned still types; the bulking up of some whiskies with the addition of rum, sherry or brandy or production innovations such as the mash filter. Tradition, it seems, is not what it used to be!