Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

History Tasting

History tasting Pt. 3 – Victorian Peak

Whisky: Glen Elgin, Sauternes finish, 15 yrs

  1. In 1823 there was absolutely no indication that Scotch whisky would become the drink that swept the world. Not a hint. It was a localised pleasure and the production of good malt was concentrated in one of the poorest parts of the country from a people who were looked down upon and whose culture had been under deliberate attack since the Jacobite uprising of 1745.
  2. Going back to Bruce Lockhart, he has a line in his book that Scots have proved the truth of the Taoist saying “He who has little shall succeed.” But these things take time and the Victorian peak for the industry did not start until after the middle of the century. The building blocks had first to be put in place.
  3. These building blocks included: technology; capitalism; growth of the Empire; and taking advantage of the misfortune of others.
  4. The nineteenth century was the age of steam and this technology had a profound affect on whisky. At the infrastructure level think of trains: they could connect previously out of the way places, take goods to market, and transport raw materials. In the Highlands transport used to be easier by sea than overland and  distilleries were grouped along the coast.With the coming of rail this changed and Speyside became the favoured location. There are now more distilleries there than anywhere else.
  5. Steam as a technology affected methods of production. Although the basic elements of whisky making are timeless there have been tweaks in the process. There was, for example,  a move from direct firing of the stills to steam heating, which is more controllable. In the grand scheme of things perhaps this is not super significant but another application of steam was a huge leap forward. In 1830 Aeneas Coffey perfected a  continuous still (also known as a column still or a patent still) and this process allowed whisky to conquer the world.
  6. A Coffey still has two columns 40-50 feet tall (12-15 metres) with connecting chambers. A wash, fermented from mixed grains, is continuously pumped in and then driven through the apparatus by steam, with the end result being pretty much pure alcohol. Much lighter than pot whisky; it is the result of an industrial process.
  7. At the time there were debates about whether it could even be called whisky and it was given other names like ‘neutral spirit’ or ‘silent spirit’ but be that as it may, it was this process that allowed whisky to expanded its market. It made it what it is today. Without it we would not today be enjoying the wide range of malts we have available. The industry as we know it would not have existed.
  8. Grain whisky, when blended with more characterful malts made a lighter, more generally palatable drink, whose quality could be maintained more consistently. It was a more in line with English tastes and so it could escape Scotland and take advantage of a bigger market and the gap left by brandy.
  9. The phylloxera infestation, first reported in1863, wiped out the grape crops in France for a decade. Previously brandy and soda had been the staple drink in English clubs but when it was no longer available whisky and soda became the substitute. Once whisky gained the top spot it never relinquished it.
  10. Key to the spread of its popularity was the building of brands. Consistency became possible because of blending and the emerging sophistication of advertising, allowed a brand to forge its own identity. This was the birth of Dewers, Johnnie Walker,  Buchanans Black and White, White Horse, Haig. Famous names that could be recited of the top your head. There was also the growth of a new type of consumer – someone who, for example,  only drank Johnnie Walker.
  11. Just as whisky outgrew Scotland the brands outgrew the UK. They were new, thrusting companies run by ambitious people who looked to expand.  So they followed the Empire – especially as there were many Scotsmen scattered throughout those lands. South Africa, Australia, Canada became the next, most obvious markets.
  1. Whisky became big business. The banks were eager to lend and businessmen eager to borrow. Distilleries were built. Prospectus were launched offering big returns. And then … well you know the rest: the same old story – a bubble was inflated and then burst. It is the history of capitalism. Boom and bust.
  2. The key date was 1898 and the villains were the firm of Pattison – run by two brothers who were later imprisoned for fraud. They were definitely wrong ‘uns. The amount they owed to the rest of the industry threatened its stability. Banks suddenly got cold feet about the whole trade and money dried up. At the same time there was an oversupply that had to be dealt with.
  3. 1898 is also the date of the building of Glen Elgin. It was the last new distillery to be built built until after the Second World War. Which shows you how long the hangover was.
  4. So it is appropriate to offer you this malt as the culmination of the period that made whisky the drink we know today.
  5. As a side note Glen Elgin obviously comes from Elgin, as does the architect Charles Doig who was the most famous of all distillery architects and the man responsible for the pagoda flue over the maltings. This is the shape that has become the icon used to represent all distilleries, everywhere. Of course Charles Doig designed Glen Elgin.
  6. Like Balmenach Glen Elgin is predominantly a blending distillery but it has a slightly higher profile. There is a 12 year old official bottling and it is more frequently available from the independents. If you like fruity whiskies it is very well worth searching out

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