Distillation

distillation

Extract from Alfred Barnard’s historic tour of every whisky distillery in Great Britain, published in ‘1887’

To compile a history of the art of Distillation is beyond the province of the present work, but a few remarks upon the subject will not be out of place before commencing the more important task before us, of a description of the various Distilleries in the United Kingdom.

At the outset it may be stated that any inquirer seeking to find the origin and discovery of the art of Distillation, is doomed to disappointment.

Many reliable authorities have carefully studied the subject, and many interesting works have been devoted to its consideration, but none have been able to get beyond the range of assumption; of conjecture drawn from the writings and history of past ages.

It is curious to note how each writer who takes the subject in hand resorts largely to those who have written before him, and few fresh facts are brought to bear upon the origin of this most important industry.

We do not presume to deviate from this rule ourselves, but to follow the authorities who have written on distillation and its history.

Of the many to select from, Morewood, an officer of excise, in his exhaustive treatise on “Inebriating Liquors,” published at Dublin in 1838, is by far the most interesting and complete, and all writers on the subject since that date rely largely upon him for their facts and data; and taking him as our authority for much that is written in the following pages, we propose to briefly review the history of the art from the earliest ages to the present time.

It may fairly be assumed that the art was unknown to either the Greeks or Romans, for nowhere in their poems, plays or writings which have been handed down to us, is any reference made to alcohol or any distilled spirit. Xenophon, it is true, in his history of the retreat of the ten thousand after the battle of Cunaxa, makes some vague reference to the inhabitants of Armenia “filling their vessels with barley and water;” the liquor is described as very strong if not mixed with water, but from the fact that he makes no reference to fermentation, or to the method of making the liquid, it may be inferred that the drink he describes was no product of the still. Hippocrates, the most famous among Greek physicians and author of the first attempt at the scientific treatment of medicine, who lived, according to the generally received account, about 400 years before Christ, in none of his works makes the slightest reference to any alembic or retort being used by him. Pliny again, who lived in the first century of the Christian era, wrote an excellent treatise on vines and wine, but makes no mention of its spirit, which he surely would have done had he been possessed of so valuable a secret. In addition to the works of early writers, we have the discoveries during the last hundred years of ancient cities and monuments, and nothing has revealed the slightest clue to the existence of alcohol in early ages. Herculaneum and Pompeii, said to have first been occupied by the Oscans, subsequently by Tyrrhenians and Pelasgians, and afterwards by the Samnites, have been excavated after a burial of some eighteen hundred years, and nothing in the ruins suggests in any way that spirit, in any form, was known among the inhabitants of these ancient cities.

Thus it will be seen that, like the discovery of the art of distillation, the derivation of the word “Whisky” is very obscure. It may, however, be fairly assumed that it is a corruption of the Gaelic word uisge, and upon this point most authorities agree. With regard to the spelling of the word, it would seem to have, in former times, been spelled with the “e,” and is by many at the present day. In the present work the more generally accepted spelling of the word has been adopted; it after all being a matter of fancy or fashion rather than of etymology. It is certain that the word has been coined within the past hundred years, for in none of the older works on distillation is it to be found. In fact, in Ireland and Scotland plain whisky, such as we have it at the present day, was no doubt only known among a few consumers, who chiefly derived their supplies from the produce of illicit distillation. What may be termed plain Whisky was not the common beverage, a fact that is borne out by all who have written upon the subject. Many persons believe Whisky to be synonymous with the usquebaugh of the Irish; but beyond the presumed derivation of the word “Whisky” it has nothing in common. Usquebaugh seems to have been a general name for all compound spirits, and in no work can it be found referred to except as such. Smith, in his work entitled “The Compleat Body of Distilling,” published in 1729, refers to Usquebaugh, and gives various receipts for its composition; but he, in common with others too numerous to mention, always refers to it as a compound by rectification of proof spirits. Here is one receipt he gives: –

From this it would appear that given the demand a very fair profit might have been made out of the compound. We give a facsimile of this interesting recipe as a curiosity of past ages. Following the directions for making this usquebaugh, Smith writes at length upon its beneficial qualities, from which it would appear to be a perfect panacea for all human ills.

Leaving the earlier ages of the art of distillation buried in much obscurity, we come to what, without hesitation, is the most important epoch of the Whisky Industries of the United Kingdom. Prior to the year 1825 distillation was in the hands of a few capitalists, and English spirits, although made from the finest materials, could not, from the grossness and richness of the wash, be rendered palatable or saleable without undergoing rectification to remove their coarseness and harshness. Accordingly, says Morewood, a number of traders, denominated rectifiers, were called into action between the distillers and consumers. These rectifiers re-distilled the spirits with the addition of certain drugs and flavouring materials, such as juniper berries, spirits of turpentine, &c., by which they made a sort of compound called British Gin; or else with spirits of nitre, prunes, &c., manufactured an imitation of Brandy and Foreign Liqueurs.

This period may be said to be the infancy of the Whisky Industries, for it is within the last sixty years only that this enormous home industry has existed as such. Prior to 1825, as we have said, plain Whisky was not a common beverage, and all spirits, whether manufactured in England, Scotland, or Ireland, were obliged to pass through the medium of the rectifiers, who held the position of arbiters of public taste. To the liberal views of the Earl of Ripon, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, must be attributed the correction of this abuse and the destruction of this monopoly. “He saw that were the distillers enabled to make a good pure spirit, not only would there be a direct supply to the consumer, but the liquor would be unquestionably more palatable and wholesome in the natural state, than when compounded and impregnated with such materials as have been described. From this the most beneficial effects would ensue, the trade would become prosperous, and an augmented consumption increase the revenue; Geneva and Brandy would decrease in proportion – smuggling be checked – foreigners no longer enrich themselves at our expense – and an impetus be given to our agriculture.” We quote the foregoing from a writer of that day; how far the views of the then Chancellor of the Exchequer have been fulfilled, one has only to turn to the present annual Revenue returns for a complete fulfilment of his anticipations.

Taking this period as the actual foundation of the Whiskey industries, we may pass rapidly on, during which times various alterations were made in the duties in England, Scotland and Ireland, till we arrive at the year 1858, when Mr. Disraeli by adding a further 1s. 10d. to the duty on Irish Spirit, brought the spirit duties throughout the United Kingdom to one uniform rate of 8s. per gallon. In 1860, the duty was raised by Mr. Gladstone to 10s. per gallon, the rate at which it now stands.

Many interesting and curious facts might be related of the extraordinary contrivances of the people to evade the law and prevent detection, such as the artful construction of distilleries on the boundaries of townlands, in the caverns of mountains, on islands in lakes, on boats in rivers; of carrying away and secreting revenue officers for weeks together to prevent their giving testimony, the romantic manner of their treatment while in confinement, and the various other schemes and devices to defeat the intentions of the Government.

Another distillery has been known to be worked on the site, and in conjunction with a limekiln, which, from the kiln being continually in operation, kept the other for years without detection. So cunningly were some of those still-houses situated, and so artfully constructed, that tile smoke proceeding from them was made to issue as if from burning heath, or sods of peat, ignited for manure. Their position was, for the most part, either on a commanding eminence, in the centre of a bog, or in a well-secured fastness; but always calculated to prevent the identity of townland or proprietorship, while the portability and easy removal of the apparatus rendered the discovery and seizure of their stills difficult and hazardous. On the approach of a stranger, an alarm was given either by deputing a messenger of sounding a horn, while the machinery was removed, and the potale always destroyed or conveyed into receptacles under ground prepared for such exigencies. Thus the still-hunter was often disappointed of his expected prize, the poor distiller put to the loss of many a brewing, and the excise officer rendered the object of the hatred and vindictive feeling of the unreflecting peasantry.

The subjoined curious engraving from an old plate represents a distillery of this description at full work, with a party of police approaching to seize it, while two peasants may be seen on the rocks, sounding their horns to alarm the smugglers.

Another account is given by Morewood, of an attempt to obstruct a revenue officer in the discharge of his duty. On the approach of the assizes in 1803, when many were about to be prosecuted for illicitly distilling, an officer, stationed at Dunfanaghy, in the county of Donegal, who was to support the informations, was suddenly seized, blindfolded, and carried away by a body of men in disguise, and brought to the island of Aran on the western coast. From thence he was conveyed to the islands of Goal, Inishmaan, &c., where he was closely confined, often threatened with the loss of life, and was even obliged by way of humiliation for his active services, to assist in the working of an illicit still; while, like another Tantalus, the cup of pleasure was held to his parched lips, without the liberty of gratifying his thirsty desires. At the end of thirteen days, when the necessity for his confinement had ceased, he was again blindfolded, taken from the island, and sent a considerable distance into the interior of the country, when the mask was removed from his face, and he was allowed in the solitude of the night, to make his way to his disconsolate family, who, all the time had looked upon his restoration as hopeless. Another officer, on a similar occasion, was hurried from his bed, without any covering except his shirt and trousers, put into a sack, thrown across the back of a horse, and ~ in this manner, was conducted to the margin of a lake, when, in his own hearing, a consultation was held whether he should be drowned by tying a stone to the sack and committing it to the deep, or that he should be put to a more lingering and torturing death. In this awful state of suspense he was removed to a mountainous part of the country, where he was subjected to every kind of insult and privation, continually menaced with death in every shape of barbarity, led out at night as if about to be executed, and again conducted to his solitary habitation, anticipating a renewal of further cruelties. In this state he was retained for a considerable time, till the judge, who presided at the assizes during the trial of some persons for illicit distilling, suspecting the parties as being accessory to this outrage, told them, that if the officer who had been taken away, were not immediately liberated, he would pass such a sentence on them as would for ever put it out of their power to commit such another offence, and gave them but twenty-four hours for his restoration. This had the desired effect; the unfortunate man was again put into a sack and restored to his family in the same manner as that in which he had been carried away.

An adventure of a singular nature is said to have befallen a gentleman who was paying a visit to the Hebrides. While making some geological researches, he was induced to descend a precipice to examine the nature of the strata of a rock, and entering a cave that attracted his attention, he was astonished to hear the noise of persons, as if revelling at a banquet. Being fearful of danger he was about to retire, when he was accosted by a person inside and requested to advance. Considering compliance the best policy, and his curiosity being a good deal excited, he followed the individual into the cavern, and was no little astonished to find himself introduced to a number of persons seated on benches round a table, regaling themselves with as much apparent satisfaction as if in a palace. On looking round, he perceived a number of casks of spirits ranged as if in a cellar, with old swords and other weapons of defence, plainly indicating that he had fallen in with a party of smugglers. Apprehensive that he was an officer of the revenue, he was eyed with great distrust, and questioned most particularly as to his pursuits; but finding that his profession was of a different nature, they told him candidly what they were, treated him with much kindness, and, after enjoining secrecy, suffered him to depart, but not without partaking of a hearty glass, and a share of all the luxuries of their solitary grotto.

Many other authentic stories could be told of the old smuggling days, but we have not space to follow them here. But before leaving the subject of illicit distillation, it may be interesting to give an account of a visit to one of these pioneer establishments. In the following pages will be found descriptions of the various licensed Distilleries of the present day, and as it were to complete our wanderings in the lands of Spirits, we give the following account of a visit to an illicit potheen distillery, as described by Donovan in 1830. He says : – Some time since, being on a journey amongst the mountains in the most northern parts of Ireland, I learned that there was a potheen distillery at work; and having despatched an emissary well known to the distiller to procure me admission, I was permitted to inspect the process. This place was famous for producing good spirit.

The distillery was a very small thatched cabin, at one end of which was a large turf fire kindled on the ground, and confined by a semicircle of large stones. Resting on these stones, and over the fire, was a forty-gallon tin vessel, which answered both for heating the water and as the body of the still. Over the fire was an opening in the thatch, with a very low chimney; and through this was conveyed away the smoke, after traversing the whole of the apartment. The fumes of the burning turf were so acrimonious that my eyes were exceedingly smarted; on perceiving which, the distiller desired me to sit down as a certain remedy. I did so, and immediately the pain ceased; the fumes occupied the upper statum only of the air, they consisting chiefly of pyroligneous acid in vapour.

The mash-tun was a cask hooped with wood, at the bottom of which, next the chimb, was a hole plugged with tow. This vessel had no false bottom; in place of it, the bottom was strewed with young heath; and over this, a stratum of oat-husks. Here the mash of hot water and ground malt was occasionally mixed up for two hours; after which time the vent at bottom was opened, and the worts were allowed to filter through the stratum of oat-husks and heath. The mashing with hot water on the same grains was then repeated, and the worts were again withdrawn. The two worts being mixed in another cask, some yeast was added, and the fermentation allowed to proceed until it fell spontaneously, which happened in about three days. It was now ready for distillation, and was transferred into the tin body, which was capable of distilling a charge of forty gallons. A piece of soap, weighing about two ounces, was then thrown in to prevent its running foul; and the head, apparently a large tin pot with a tube in its side, was inverted into the rim of the body, and luted with a paste made of oatmeal and water. The lateral tube was then luted into the worm, which was a copper tube of an inch and half bore, coiled in a barrel for a flake-stand. The tail of the worm where it emerged from the barrel was calked with tow. The wash speedily came to a boil, and then water was thrown on the fire; for at this period is the chief danger of boiling over. The spirit almost immediately came over: it was perfectly clear; and by its bead, this first running was inferred to be proof. Its flavour was really excellent; and it might well have passed for a spirit of three months old. As soon as the upper statum of water in the flake-stand became warm, a large pailful of cold water from an adjoining stream was dashed in with sufficient force, as he said, to make the hot water run over, it being lighter; and this cooling process was continually applied to. In this way the singlings were drawn off in about two hours; and the singlings of four distillations made one charge of the still to produce the potheen.

The malt was prepared by enclosing the barley in a sack, and soaking the sack and its contents for some time in bog water, which is deemed the best; then withdrawing and draining it. The malt was then made to germinate in the usual manner. When it had grown sufficiently, it was conveyed in a sack to the kiln, along with some sacks of raw corn, for the purpose of concealment. The raw corn was spread out on the kiln; but during the night when the kiln owner had retired to rest, the raw corn was removed, the malt spread on, dried, and replaced by the raw grain before day. The owner of corn drying on a kiln sits up all night to watch it. In this way discovery was eluded, and the malting completed.

The body of this still cost one pound; its head about four shillings; the worm cost twenty-five shillings; the mash-turn and flakestand might both be worth twelve shillings. The whole Distillery was, therefore, worth about three pounds; and it is purposely constructed on this cheap plan, as it holds out no inducement to informers or excisemen. Sometimes they have been on an extensive scale.

But all is now changed; the working of our Distilleries has grown into a legalized and vast revenue-producing industry, and illicit distillation has been almost stamped out. Under an able staff of revenue officers the evil has been almost entirely overcome, as the following decennial statement, which shows the number of detections made during the past fifty years, will show: –

Illicit distillation may now be said to exist only among a few isolated evaders of the law; but they are unable to continue their operations for any length of time, and soon get discovered by the revenue authorities. The true smuggler of old exists no longer; he belongs to a bygone age, when what is now considered to be a crime was looked upon as justifiable evasion of undue laws. With all their faults one can but admire the smugglers of old, who had in their veins much of the pluck and daring that has been, and still is, the backbone of the British race. As we have said, they may be looked upon as the pioneers of the Whisky Trade; no men understood better the localities where they could turn out good spirit, and this fact may be seen to this day, when we find many of the oldest distilleries existing upon sites which have been well-known to have been chosen by smugglers of old as places where the purest mountain streams, flowing over moss and peats, could be used to distil and produce spirits of the finest descriptions.

Having thus far cast our glances back into the past of the Whisky Trade, and having in the body of our work its present extent and circumstances practically set forth, there remains for us only the somewhat risky, yet not unnecessary, duty of attempting to forecast the future of this extensive branch of our native industries. Prophecy is proverbially a thankless task, and it has been our experience that it is in their own domain especially prophets have no honour. Yet, as dealing with commercial men, we are entitled to lay before our readers the legitimate deductions from the facts and circumstances which are within our knowledge. At the present moment the Whisky Trade stands in possession, broadly speaking, of the key of the situation. French Brandy is, as an article of general consumption, hopelessly discredited, the phylloxera and other diseases of the vine have destroyed the material for the production of a spirit which will suit the ordinary purse, Rum, for some occult reason, nobody that is anybody drinks, except for the medicinal treatment of a cold. Gin, with all its many merits, fails to gain new drinkers, while the old consumers seem to be dying out. The opportunity of Whisky is, therefore, overwhelming. What will it do with it? England is the market in which both Irish and Scotch Distillers are contending for the pre-eminence; while Caledonia drinks her own Whisky, Hibernia prefers her own make, so that the Saxon taste is the pivot upon which, in these days, hangs the prosperity of the Distilling Trade of either nation. To this we have to add the by no means unimportant weight of our Colonial taste, and the fact that wherever on the face of the civilised world Englishmen do congregate, a “good tap” of Whisky is found to be irresistible to the British, and a source of profit to “mine host” who has had the luck to secure for his customers something worth their drinking. Thus it may be said that even in its greatest markets, at home or abroad, Whisky is still in its youth, while in certain still scarcely-penetrated regions it is yet in its infancy.

 

We shall be treading on delicate grounds when we refer to the fact that there are those who hold that the future of the Whisky trade lies with Malt Whisky. Certainly “the present” is not entirely in the hands of that product. Blenders without number can be found who will strenuously affirm that to give the public a moderate priced article with sufficient age, there is no way but to use good old Patent Still Grain Spirit as a basis. Certainly, most palatable Whiskies are now being consumed by the public which, the blenders say, could not be sold at the money, were it not for the cheapening, and – they add – the improving qualities of old Grain Spirit. Into the controversy between Malt and Grain we do not care to enter at greater length; still, all who have a knowledge of the various makes of Whiskies will bear us out in affirming that in many cases they are unsuitable for sale unblended. What is the best qualifier of their potent flavour and body we must leave to those who have to please the public to determine. Our province is merely to lay before our readers the facts of the business as they are, and not as conflicting “judges” may say they ought to be.