Friday, July 19, 2024

Lightly Peated

Whisky, Blabber 'n' Smoke

History Tasting

History Tasting Pt. 4 – Facing Adversity

Whisky: Thompson Bros TB/BSW

  1. If the last half of the nineteenth century was one of expansion, the first half of the twentieth century was a time of adversity and retrenchment. Never mind the whisky specific factors, just look at the outside world: two world wars, a great depression, and all round political turmoil.
  2. Whisky specific factors include: a huge rises in duty, Prohibition in America and a significant teetotal movement
  3. Demand fell, distilleries closed and companies amalgamated. In 1933 there were only 15 working distilleries in Scotland (though that is a bit of a politicians number – it is true but it does not tell the whole story. The year before there were 41 and the year after 64). The better measure is that in 1900 there were 159 distilleries in production. In 1950 there were 95. The  retrenchment by one third was  significant in anybody’s terms.
  4. Of all the great challenges the industry faced the one I want to concentrate on is World War I because it had profound long term effect on the nature of whisky.
  5. For a start the political climate was hostile. The dominant figure in the government was Lloyd George, who was a teetotaller who thought alcohol was a social evil. In 1915 he wanted to ban whisky for the duration of the war and even got the king to sign the pledge (though notably that the rest of the royal family did not). When he was minister of munitions the industry was not hitting its targets and so like any politician he looked around for an easy scapegoat. The debilitating effect of alcohol was a soft target, especially as you can always find an  anecdote of someone being legless and incapable.
  6. However distillation could not be stopped. The grain distilleries produced yeast. Before the war yeast for baking had come from the continent an alternative was needed and the Distillers Company Ltd stepped in – without them there would have been no bread. In addition the pure alcohol they produced was as a solvent used in the production varnishes, water proof clothing, and dyestuffs. Fusel oil (a byproduct) was used in making dope for aircraft fabric. As casualties increased there was more demand for ether and surgical spirits. Acetate, used in explosives,  had previously been manufactured from wood and sugar and been imported from America but DCL found a way of making it from maize.
  7. The company was essential for the war effort. It also explains why it had two operating arms: whisky and chemicals.
  8. Lloyd George was a complex man. He might have hated whisky but he recognised the talents of men who ran the business. He recruited James Stevenson (a director of John Walker & Sons ) into the Ministry of Munitions, as one of the bright men on whom he relied.  From his position within government Stevenson was able to avert some of the more damaging proposals for whisky.
  9. In particular he diverted a proposed doubling of duty into a proposal that whisky should be stored longer in bond before it could be sold (there was an idea at the time that whisky was better for you when it was older). A minimum of three years was accepted and came into law.
  10.   We now take it for granted as one of the basic rules of whisky making that it must be three years old.  We don’t think of how it came about as the result of wrangling within a wartime government.
  1. Another basic rule we accept is that whisky must be 40% abv or above. This also comes from the war. Beforehand whisky was commonly sold at proof (57.1%) or 10 below (51%)  and the industry was strongly of the opinion that it would rather suffer reductions in sales than change the quality, reducing both mouth feel and flavour by reducing the abv. Well that’s what they said at the time. But Lloyd George had set up a Liquor Control Board who decreed that whisky had to be sold at the reduced strength of 30 below or 40%. In the neighbourhood of munition factories it had to be even weaker.
  2. After the war strength did not go back up. Bonar Law’s budget put duty up massively and so the industry didn’t feel it had the leeway to do anything else but continue the reduced wartime strength. In such a way do things that are at first contingent become embedded.
  3. The First World War had a deep and profound and long lasting impact on the life, society, and attitudes of the whole country. Even now we can hardly fathom how deep were its effects. Altering the definition of whisky might not be one of the most significant of these changes. But for whisky it matters.
  4. The punitive tax levels introduced after the war have never gone away and domestic demand has dropped.  Nowadays this does not matter so much as it is a global market but then it was significant.
  5. In the face of adversity the industry responded with consolidation.  In 1925 DCL, Buchanan-Dewer, and John Walker & sons, the three giants, merged. The new DCL company was now totally dominant in Scottish whisky. This is another legacy of the period – the concentration of ownership into a few hands.
  6. An industry that started with independent local businesses was now big business and its leaders were very much part of the Establishment. Whisky barons were ennobled, whilst others were knighted. It had come a long way from raggedy Highlanders smuggling casks over difficult terrain.
  7. To represent whisky during the first half of the twentieth century you have to choose a blended Scotch. This type of whisky  had completely taken over. Although you could get single malts from a few specialist shops, especially a particular one in Elgin, it was not easy.  But I don’t want choose something that represents the fustiness of the leather benches of the House of Lords. I want something stretching back to the roots the business – something small and local.
  8. This blended Scotch comes from the Thompson Brothers of Dornoch. They are real enthusiasts who love whisky and its history. They are an independent bottler and micro-distiller. As an aside, anything they produce is well worth exploring but here we have a scotch presented at 6 years of age, matured in sherry casks. It displays many the classic characteristics of a sherry matured whisky

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