Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

History Tasting

History tasting Pt. 1 – The Mists of Time

Whisky: Glenturret Peat Smoked 10yr Old

  1. We know little about the origins of distilling. The principle is simple and it has been known for thousands of years but at some point an unknown genius from colder, northern regions thought of using beer and made aqua vitae – the water of life.  There is magic in that name. Whisky is now an everyday product made on an industrial scale but at its very beginning there was a small miracle.
  2. The best guess is that whisky came from Ireland to Scotland, following the same path as Christianity. The two lands were closely linked as part of the same Gaelic grouping. These cultural links were stronger than any sense of nationhood i.e. being Scottish or Irish and the sea presented no barrier.
  1. The earliest Scottish record of the making of aqua vitae is from 1494 at Lindores Abbey. (Never underestimate the link between monks and alcohol). But official records will tell us nothing about what would have been happening in the Highlands.
  2. A key date it is around 1550, with the invention of the worm tub – a copper coil that passed through water to rapidly cool the vapours so the liquid could be collected more efficiently. But of the other key discovery – that tif whisky was stored in oak barrels its flavour was enhanced – we know nothing.
  3. By the 17th century whisky was an established practice in the Highlands. In 1689 the distillery of, the Cromwell supporting, Forbes family was destroyed by Jacobites. In compensation he was given leave to distill on his property without having to pay excise duty. It was the first legal distillery. Elsewhere though the people of the Highlands continued to make whisky for use by their local community. It was a part of the culture –  a part of the rhythm of the day and a way to cement social bonds. Here is a 1751 quote from the papers of Lord Seafield   (his estate was between Banff and Buckie)

     “In Scotland, which abounds with lakes and inlets the sea, and high mountains that occasion frequent rains, the moderate use of spiritous liquors has been reckoned cherishing, and in some degrees necessary; and accordingly, the most of the people in it have been long in the habit of drinking them in moderate degree, and many of these live to great ages in very good health”(1751 Seafield MSS, Scottish Record Office, quoted in Moss & Hume 1981)
  4. People thought making whisky was their right and a part of their way of life. They had a similar attitude to taking salmon from rivers. It was not poaching, it was a gift from their land. By that light making and smuggling whisky could not be wrong. The people who made the rules were far too remote.  It was being caught that was the problem.
  5. The government obviously thought differently and tried various ways to extract revenue and control the industry. There were many changes to the tax regime in the eighteenth century and whilst no-one wants to listen to a list of tax changes the bare bones of the story are interesting.
  6. At the time there were basically two types of whisky making. In the Lowlands there were large, legal, distilleries making sub standard stuff, with a mixture of grain or other ingredients (to get around a malt tax).  Noxious spirits it was called at the time and this gives us a clear idea of how it was regarded. Often it was then  rectified into gin for the English market. Then there were the Highlands with their traditional way of making malt whisky. Given the choice, who wouldn’t prefer to drink the good stuff? There was thus a huge incentive for smuggling between one region and another as on the one side you had the demand and on the other supply.
  7. Obviously the government and lowland distilleries didn’t approve and attempts to control this illegal trade led to some weird zigs zags of policy. For example they created the Highland Line from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Tay with lower tax rates in the Highlands on the condition that their whisky could only be sold in the Highlands. This did not work. Another idea was to impose a minimum size of still with the idea of concentrating production in larger distilleries. But the size specified was too great to make any sense, so this was another failure.
  8. It was a mess and if anything smuggling was encouraged.  Nevertheless some of the proposals meant that in the last quarter of the 17th century there was sufficient incentive for some legal Highland & Island distilleries to be established.  Some are still with us today such as Bowmore, Highland Park, and Blair Athol.
  9. Our first whisky, though, comes from Glenturret which claims to be the oldest distillery still in production. This may or may not be the case. They have a document from 1763 that mentions a distillery and for them that is proof enough. As I am a trusting soul I obviously believe them. What we do know is that Glenturret was preceded by an illegal distillery called the Hosh which links it to the ways of early whisky making.  It is a good choice to represent this era.
  10. Within its core range, the distillery produces a peated whisky and any whisky representing this era should be peated. It was the fuel of the Highland and all their malted barley would have been dried over peat.
  11. Another reason for choosing Glenturret is that it allows us to look both forward and back.
  1. Here we have a distillery that for most of its life was not particularly distinguished. It was in fact closed between 1921 and 1959. After that it did not have much of an individual profile as its output went into the Famous Grouse and even its visitor centre was called the ‘Famous Grouse Experience’. But in 2019 things changed when it was bought by Lalique, the glass bottle makers,  and it is now in the process of being premiumised – fancy bottle (obviously),  Michelin restaurant and an online shop selling a trench coat for £1,100. The whole nine yards.
  1. As such it is lining up behind the Macallan militia with the promise of luxury and is part of one of a modern trends in whisky. Luckily though the price of a bottle is not yet at Macallan level and I have to admit that not only does the presentation looks classy and  the content is also very good.

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