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Early works on alchemy contain detailed descriptions of distilling and many illustrations of stills at work. This chapter describes how alchemy is at the heart of distillation and modern chemistry, then looks at how different countries developed their own spirits, e.g. Ireland, Canada and the USA and Japan, (Scotland being dealt with later in the book) and finally details literature works on distilling. The history of Irish distilling is a long, tangled and unfortunate one, however with a happy conclusion. Most histories of whisky place its first arrival in Europe in Ireland and then Scotland, with Irish Christian monks having obtained the secrets of distilling from the Moors in Spain, which they then brought home. Today, some 20 distilleries are currently operating on the island of Ireland and it is in a good place.

“There is a glut of chemical books, but a scarcity of chemical truths.”

John French's preface to his Art of Distillation (1651)

It might, perhaps, be more comfortable for the grand narrative of modern science if alchemy – one of the pillars on which distilling is founded – could be quietly ignored or indeed forgotten entirely. The rational mind denies the contribution of mediaeval mystics and the arcane lore of the alchemist, yet both Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton pursued alchemical studies – Newton for more than 25 years, with alchemy central to his religious beliefs.

Early works on alchemy contain detailed descriptions of distilling and many illustrations of stills at work. It must be appreciated that these are, at heart, scientific works and that practitioners saw themselves as seekers after the truth, albeit proceeding from an Aristotelian view of a world comprised of four elements: earth, air, fire and water. Distillation represented the route to a ‘fifth essence’ or a kind of ultra-purified elixir that, in its highest form, could even prolong life. This was the search for the Philosopher's Stone that so engaged the mediaeval mind and, from the standpoint of the Aristotelian view, represented an entirely logical pursuit.

Even today, an echo may be found in writing about distilling. Primo Levi, chemist, writes1  in The Periodic Table:1Distilling is beautiful. First of all, because it is a slow, philosophic, and silent occupation, which keeps you busy but gives you time to think of other things, somewhat like riding a bike. Then, because it involves a metamorphosis from liquid to vapour (invisible), and from this once again to liquid; but in this double journey, up and down, purity is attained, an ambiguous and fascinating condition, which starts with chemistry and goes very far. And finally, when you set about distilling, you acquire the consciousness of repeating a ritual consecrated by the centuries, almost a religious act, in which from imperfect material you obtain the essence, the spirit, and in the first place alcohol, which gladdens the spirit and warms the heart.”

The deliberate ambiguity of this passage, its overt reference to religion and its almost mystical tone – understandable, since Levi's skill as a chemist saved him from the forced labour gangs of Auschwitz – would, I suggest, be immediately familiar to the alchemist, despite proceeding from the formality and rigorous training of a modern scientist.

The inter-mingling of mystical symbolism, scientific practice and religious belief, so impenetrable to our contemporary mind-set with its emphasis on the rational and the material, leads us naturally to the monastery and the work of Franciscan friars, such as John of Rupescissa, Raymond Lull and the 13th century English philosopher and teacher Roger Bacon who, in 1267, attempted a synthesis of Aristotle's philosophy and science with contemporary theology, which he presented to his patron Pope Clement IV.

Basing much of their initial thinking and work on the Arabic writings of one Jabir ibn Hayyan (in Latin, Geber), who considered distillation the best way to separate nature into its component parts, they came to believe that the search for the fifth essence or ‘water of life’ would be through a series of distillations, often beginning with wine as the base. Silver and gold were also seen as incorruptible and therefore a suitable starting point for further transmutation. From this evolved the quest to change base metals into gold, the basis of much of the image of the alchemist and his search for the Philosopher's Stone in the popular imagination. However, as it is the medical application of distilling that led to distilled spirits as a beverage, the search for gold, however fascinating, is something of a sidebar to our story.

Perhaps the most famous description of distillation is given by Hieronymus Brunschwig.2 Distilling is nothing other than purifying the gross from the subtle and the subtle from the grossand the subtle spirit made more subtle so that it can better pierce and pass through the body…conveyed to the place most needful of health and comfort.”

The constant process of purification, as seen below in John French's series of linked alembics (Figure 1.1), was of critical importance to the alchemist (and it might be noted that this continues to be so to today's pharmacist or even distiller of vodka), and illustrations frequently show the ‘pelican’, a device for ensuring reflux and rectification. The pelican also carries symbolic meaning, referring to the legend that, in time of famine, the mother pelican would wound herself by striking her breast with her beak to feed her young with her blood to prevent starvation. By extension, early Christians adapted the pelican to symbolize Jesus as the Redeemer. The red blood of the pelican was also suggestive of a distillation process that had achieved the formation of the ‘Red Tincture’ and was close to reaching its ultimate stage of final transmutation (symbolized by the rebirth of the phoenix from the fire of distillation).

Figure 1.1

Apparatus for redistillation from John French's Art of Distillation (1651).

Figure 1.1

Apparatus for redistillation from John French's Art of Distillation (1651).

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Thus, it is no coincidence that the first written reference to whisky in Scotland (from the Exchequer Rolls of 1494, discussed further in Chapter 2) directs us to the monastery at Lindores Abbey or that, in 1510, Dom Bernado Vincelli first prepared the liqueur that today we know as Bénédictine in the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy. To this day, the bottle also features the Latin motto of the Bénédictine order “Deo Optimo Maximo” meaning “to God, the good, the great”, as well as the coat of arms of Fécamp Abbey. Its counterpart, Chartreuse, dates originally from 1605 though it was not until 1737 that the liqueur was released to the world in a form resembling today's version.

While those traditions continue, until recently little remained of Lindores until the 2017 opening of a privately-funded distillery and visitor centre. Excavations at Pontefract and Selborne Priories have revealed fragments of 15th century alembics. These were made of glass or pottery, and thus intrinsically fragile, or possibly of pewter, which would have been re-used in another vessel once redundant for distilling. Very little thus survives of this early technology but based on the Pontefract and Selborne excavations and earlier work, archaeologists have suggested the conjectural evolution of the still (see Figure 1.2). As noted by Greenaway:3 medieval Europe gradually developed a taste for distilled alcohol, at first generally in the form of liqueurs sweetened and flavoured by infusing leaves, etc., or by distillation from a mixture. More efficient distillation gave stronger distillates and eventually produced the aquavits and the brandy-wines, which are very strong indeed if drunk exactly as distilled. The abuse of these drinks is a part of social history. There was no dividing line between regimen and pharmacy in early times. The new strong drinks gave a feeling of warmth and well-being, which led to their being prescribed from the 14th century onwards for conditions producing feelings of chill and debilityso it is no accident that liqueurs and monasteries are commonly linked.”

Figure 1.2

The conjectural evolution of the still. From F. Greenaway et al., (ref. 3) and reproduced in F. Sherwood Taylor, Annals of Science, 1941–1947, vol. V.

Figure 1.2

The conjectural evolution of the still. From F. Greenaway et al., (ref. 3) and reproduced in F. Sherwood Taylor, Annals of Science, 1941–1947, vol. V.

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And it is in a monastery that the story of Scotch whisky, at least, is said to start, which is discussed in detail in Chapter 2.

The history of Irish distilling is a long, tangled and unfortunate one, containing a salutary warning against complacency, yet with a happy ending.

Most histories of whisky place its first arrival in Europe in Ireland and then Scotland, with Irish Christian monks having obtained the secrets of distilling from the Moors in Spain, which they then brought home. Though the principle of distillation was known to the Arabs, the process by which it was transferred cannot be documented or even dated with any certainty and, in any event, it is far from clear that early distillation was used for the production of beverage alcohol, in fact it is frequently and convincingly argued that it was used in the making of medicines or perfumes.

It is not disputed that Irish monks travelled widely and gathered learning from a number of different sources. The monasteries they created were religious centres but also places of great culture. Many maintained hospitals to treat the local population and knowledge of the ‘water of life’ would have been greatly prized. But, as well as a medicine, its use as a restorative would have been soon appreciated, especially in Ireland's damp climate.

Moreover, it promoted a fighting spirit as, according to legend, King Henry II's troops discovered in 1170 when they invaded Ireland to boost the cause of the King of Leinster, who was at war with Roderic O'Connor, the High King of Ireland. Later, Sir Robert Savage of Bushmills is said to have given his men “a mighty draught of uiscebeathe” as they went into battle in 1276.

There is a recipe for distilling from 1324 in the Red Book of Ossory – mainly a collection of Latin verses complied by Bishop Richard Ledred – but, frustratingly, it describes the distillation of wine which, of course, results in brandy. In 1405, it is recorded that Richard MacRanall, Chief of Mainter Eolais, died from an overdose of uisge beatha – but as to who made it and how we are left wanting.

So to the Scots and to Friar John Cor goes the honour of the first written mention of the production of whisky but, notwithstanding that, most writers agree that the prize for the earliest European distillation of a spirit that we can relate to whisky goes to the Irish. Having occupied Ireland in 1170, King Henry II appointed his son, John, as Lord of Ireland, and by 1177 the country was directly controlled by the English king. However, following the devastation of the Black Death, English influence diminished to the point where they had little control ‘beyond the Pale’, a fortified area round Dublin, central English authority having withered away to little or nothing in the country.

There, outside the reach of the English tax collectors, distilling quietly flourished. Just as in Scotland, distilling was an everyday and unremarked fact of the rural economy and the life of any substantial house. Attempts to raise tax were frustrated and this situation was to continue until King Henry VIII's invasion and subsequent domination of Ireland from 1536. Henry VIII then took a more practical view of the matter, attempting to raise tax and introducing a limit of one licensed distiller in a borough, with substantial fines for anyone caught producing illicitly. Following his dissolution of the monasteries, there was a further dissemination of the skills of distilling and the relevant technology – in 1541 his successor, Queen Elizabeth I, is said to have received (and more importantly enjoyed) a Bishop's gift of a cask of whiskey. The story is widely repeated in whisky histories; however, as she was 8 years old at the time, perhaps it was enjoyed more by her courtiers than the Queen herself!

By 1577, Raphael Holinshed praised aqua vitae in his Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, by remarking: “truly it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderly taken”. During the long Anglo-Spanish war, a failed Spanish invasion in 1601 soon led to a period of complete English dominance in Ireland and, in 1608, a system of licensing was introduced under King James I of England and VI of Scotland.

The indefatigable Elizabethan traveller, Fynes Moryson, who was employed in Ireland around 1600 later wrote4  that “the Irish aqua vitae, vulgarly called usquebagh, is held the best in the world of that kind, which is made also in England, but nothing so good as that which is brought out of Ireland. And the usquebagh is preferred before our aqua vitae, because the mingling of raisins, fennel seed, and other things, mitigating the heat, and making the taste pleasant, makes it less inflame, and yet refresh the weak stomach with moderate heat and good relish”.

The quality and appeal of whiskey had not escaped the sharp eyes of the English administrators in Ireland's ruling class. Bishop George Montgomery wrote to his sister in November 1607 with a seasonal gift of Irish whiskey:

“I am appointed a Commissioner for the plotting and devvyding of the contreye (i.e. Ulster), which I feare mee will keep mee here this Christmas agaynst my will; and agaynst my will it shal be indeed yf I eat not som of my coson's Beaumont's Christmas pyes, and so tell her I praye you. I hope my sister and she have received the water I sent them in a little runlet of a pottle, a quart for a peece”.

Famously, Sir Thomas Phillips paid 13 shillings 4 dimes for the right to distil for Coleraine and the Route. To this day, Bushmills have the date of 1608 embossed on their bottles, though this is a generous view of the distillery's foundation. In any event, the privilege was cancelled in 1620 following complaints of abuse and favouritism. A tax of 4 pence per gallon was introduced on Christmas Day 1661 and, under this Act, Excise Commissioners were appointed for the first time with authority to appoint gaugers and searchers. Their effectiveness was limited, however, as the rule of law in Ireland was patchy at best, especially in more remote country areas, and with few records it is hard to reliably estimate the extent to which distilling was carried out at this time.

The situation changed with new laws in 1717, 1719, 1731, 1741, 1751, 1759 and 1761 – the amount of legislation indicating the extent to which government was seeking to regulate and control the distilling industry. In particular, the duties and powers of the gauger were increased and distillery operations more closely regulated than hitherto.

However, according to E. B. McGuire,5  imported rum was more popular than whiskey with over 2 million gallons imported in 1771, remaining dominant until the end of the 18th century, when Dublin began to emerge as a significant distilling centre. It should, of course, be remembered that as in Scotland distilling could be suspended by law at times of poor harvest or, in Ireland, actual famine. This happened in 1758–1759, for example, and again in 1765–1766.

That Irish whiskey enjoyed a high reputation in England is vividly demonstrated by Dr Samuel Johnson's Dictionary (1755) in which he defines usqueba'ugh as shown in Figure 1.3.

Figure 1.3

Dr Samuel Johnson's 1755 definition.

Figure 1.3

Dr Samuel Johnson's 1755 definition.

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The reference to the spirit “being drawn on aromaticks” is interesting, suggesting as it does a product closer in character to today's gin with its botanicals than to whiskey. It is, however, the case that much 18th century usquebaugh appears to have been flavoured in some way – not just in Ireland – presumably to disguise the harsh nature of the unaged spirit.

Tax increases continued to assist the illicit distiller and increase the appeal of poteen. It is claimed that there were 2000 or more illicit stills in operation towards the end of the 18th century, though by 1796, 214 were licensed and there was a growing trend towards more substantial operations. Licenced distillers were also not averse to evading duty and there is considerable evidence that the same distillery might produce both duty paid and illicit whiskey, making production and revenue statistics highly unreliable.

There was extensive political agitation in Ireland during this period for free trade and to allow Irish goods access to the rest of the British Empire. Important legislation in 1780 started this process and the ascendancy of Irish whiskey in general and the Dublin distillers in particular began, though Cork was also established as a significant regional centre.

The four great Dublin distilleries began operating around this time, though the exact date of their establishment is sometimes unclear as the records are partial. For example, Jameson's quote their date of foundation as 1780 but the 1802 excise return identifies only two operating distilleries in Bow Street and Smithfield: Edmond Grange, then Dublin's pre-eminent distiller and John Stein, from the Scottish family of distillers of the same name. Stein and Edgar also had premises in Marrowbone Lane but, by 1802 that business was registered as Jameson and Stein and by 1822 it was known as William Jameson & Company (Figure 1.4).

Figure 1.4

Jameson's Bow Street distillery, Dublin, ca. 1878, published in Truths About Whisky.

Figure 1.4

Jameson's Bow Street distillery, Dublin, ca. 1878, published in Truths About Whisky.

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Presumably, John Jameson must have acquired and expanded the Bow Street distilleries and, in 1810, he named the company John Jameson & Son. Eventually, four large Dublin distillers emerged: John Jameson & Son of Bow Street, John Power & Son of John's Lane, George Roe & Co. of Thomas Street, and William Jameson & Co. of Marrowbone Lane. They were to come to dominate the Irish trade.

While their exact history is hard to disentangle, and perhaps of little relevance at this distance in time, several factors emerge: these were businesses, employing large numbers of specialist staff where, increasingly, the owners and directors were distant from physical operations; they were dynastic in nature and they were, in their heyday, to prove immensely profitable.

One other name of particular interest that appears in the rank of Dublin distillers is that of Aeneas Coffey. A former excise man of some 25 years distinguished service, in which he was assaulted and severely injured by illicit distillers, engaged in a vigorous published debate with the Reverend E. Chichester on the ‘oppressions and cruelties’ of the Revenue's officers (whilst understanding the temptation and appeal of illicit distilling, Coffey took the side of the law), rose to the office of Inspector-General and proposed a number of technical innovations concerning still safes and revenue locks. He resigned in 1824 and began distilling at the Dock Distillery, Dodder Bank, Dublin. This passed to his son but had closed by 1847.

His fame, however, rests on his development of the continuous ‘patent’ or Coffey Still, which was radically to transform the world of whisky distilling. Coffey obtained his patent in February 1831 and was soon in the business of manufacturing stills. Around 1835, he relocated to London, where he continued operations until his death in 1852. The firm continues to this day under the name of John Dore & Co in Guildford, Surrey.

The Coffey Still took to their logical conclusion the very rapidly worked stills of the Scottish Lowland distillers, such as John Haig and Robert Stein, who had themselves patented a design for a continuous still in 1826. It took a few years for this technology to be widely adopted but, after Gladstone's Spirit Act of 1860, which allowed blending in bonded warehouses before duty had to be paid, the Scots embraced the product of the continuous still with increasing enthusiasm. However, to their eventual cost, the Irish pot still industry took an entirely different view: a clash both of commercial interests and of cultures.

While history has preserved the reputation of the Dublin distillers, brief mention should be made of their rivals in Belfast and Londonderry which, until the closure of Dunville's (once the largest distillery in the UK) and United Distilleries in the late 1930s, represented a significant second force accounting for more than 90% of the distilling capacity of the north of Ireland. Until very recently only Bushmills remained operational in the north, having been expanded both by Diageo and its current owner, the tequila producer Jose Cuervo.

John Teeling, formerly of Cooley, has established the Great Northern Distillery in Dundalk, primarily to supply spirit to third parties, and smaller operations have been opened in the past few years at Crossgar, Newtonards and Enniskillen, while others are in the planning stage.

Irish whiskey grew rapidly from the 1820s, especially following the Distillery Act of 1823 and, according to Revenue statistics, by 1900 legally recorded production was approximately 14.5 million proof gallons from 30 distilleries.

Throughout the 19th century Irish whiskey enjoyed a markedly superior reputation compared to Scotch and dominated the home market. Still sizes had grown dramatically and this, combined with the practice of triple distillation, meant that the Irish product was smoother and more consistent than Scotch single malt.

This was due, in no small measure, to the size of their stills: Roe's Thomas Street distillery was then the largest pot-still distillery in the UK and the scale of the Dublin ‘Big Four’ should not be under-estimated. In his Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom,6  Alfred Barnard gives details of their annual production in 1887:

  • Jameson's Bow Street distillery: one million gallons (4.54 million litres),

  • Power's in John's Lane: 900 000 gallons (just over four million litres),

  • William Jameson's distillery in Marrowbone Lane: 900 000 gallons

  • Roe's massive Thomas Street operation: nearly two million gallons (some 9 million litres).

Contrast this with the scale of The Glenlivet at the same time: Barnard quotes this as “nearly 200 000 gallons” or less than one quarter of the smallest of the Dublin concerns. If any doubt remains about the status of the Dublin distilling industry at this time, consider that Barnard chose as the frontispiece of his book an engraving of the founder of John Power & Son. These were truly the giants of the 19th century whisky world.

However, to the consternation of the Irish trade, a practice grew up of shipping Scotch whisky to Ireland where, after a short period in a warehouse, it could be re-exported as ‘Irish’ – a practice vehemently and vociferously opposed by the ‘Big Four’ in a series of pamphlets and campaigning around 1878–1879, culminating in the issue of a book by them: Truths about Whisky.7  Questions were asked by Irish MPs in the House of Commons.

Truths about Whisky also rails against adoption of the product of the continuous still – or ‘silent spirit’ and ‘sham whiskey’, which refer to the Dubliners styled grain and blended whiskey, respectively. But be that as it may, political manoeuvring was of little weight compared to the reaction of the market. The energetic adoption of blending by the Scotch whisky industry saw the foundation and spectacularly rapid growth of some great firms: Dewar's, Walkers of Kilmarnock, Buchanan's, Haig & Haig and many other well-known concerns all prospered mightily at this time at the expense of the Irish distillers.

Several factors combined to aid the Scots: the innate shrewdness of their leading firms, the fashionability of all things Scottish, the spread of the British Empire and the arrival of phylloxera in European vineyards all played their part. But there is no doubt that they were greatly aided by an almost wilful refusal by the Irish firms to accept that blending had arrived and was being taken up enthusiastically by the consumer.

Like it or not, ‘silent spirit’ was here to stay; something which was subsequently confirmed by the Royal Commission on Whiskey, set up to determine the ‘What is Whisky?’ question, and which reported in favour of blending in 1909.

Other factors combined to undermine the strength of the Irish position, not least an over-reliance on one market, the USA, where over 400 brands of Irish whiskey were on sale by the late 19th century. The arrival of National Prohibition in the USA in January 1920 was followed by the Irish War of Independence with its unfavourable impact on sentiment in the English market. The eventual secession of the Irish Free State from the UK in 1922 triggered retribution in the form of high tariff barriers effectively blocking Irish whiskey exports to the remainder of the British Empire. A decision in 1926 by the Free State to increase the minimum age of Irish whiskey to 5 years, though doubtlessly well intentioned, placed the Irish industry at a further competitive disadvantage and punitive duty increases completed a dolorous picture.

When Prohibition ended in 1933, the Scots proved to be in the stronger position, able to exploit the opportunity more energetically and with greater commercial acumen. An exhausted Irish industry appeared to have lost its competitive spirit. Many small distilleries had simply closed their doors, never to re-open. Avoniel, Belfast (closed 1929);2 Connswater, Belfast (closed 1929); Bandon, Co. Cork (closed 1929); Glen, Kilnap, Co. Cork (closed 1925); North Mall, Cork (closed 1925); Phoenix Park, Dublin (closed 1921) and Monasterevan, Co., Kildare (closed 1921) stand as examples of a depressing roll call of failure.

Post-war decline was even more marked – in fact, some commentators go so far as to suggest that Irish whiskey survived principally on the back of Irish coffee, popularized as an after-dinner drink. Whatever the truth of that, by 1966, only five distilleries remained working in the Republic and together they came to form the Irish Distillers Company (later, Irish Distillers Group). Today, after surrendering ownership to Seagrams, it is part of Pernod Ricard of France. The Dublin sites were finally closed, with only the Old Jameson distillery on Bow Street remaining as a visitor attraction.

More recently, a number of distilleries have opened in Dublin, especially in the Liberties district, which historically was the principal distilling region. These include the Teeling, Pearse Lyons and Dublin Liberties distilleries. Diageo are currently constructing a new Roe & Co. distillery, which is projected to open in June 2019.

The Midleton distillery near Cork was closed and re-modelled as a visitor centre and heritage site, while a brand new, state-of-the-art and multi-purpose distillery was built adjacent to it in 1975, although the individual brand identities are still maintained. Capable of producing a remarkable range of whiskies (and other spirits), the Midleton distillery has been expanded on several occasions. Between 2012 and 2016, Irish Distillers are reported to have spent more than €120m at Midleton, with further investment of some €10.5m in 2017 to expand production by 30%. In 2018, an additional €130m project was announced to be spent on expansion and upgrading of facilities, reflecting the dominant position of the Jameson brand in world markets.

Irish whiskey in general, and Jameson in particular, is often seen by the industry as a gateway category and, notwithstanding its own substantial volumes, the brand may play an important role in recruiting young adults into all whisky.

Bushmills in the north was owned by Diageo until their brief withdrawal from the Irish whiskey market in November 2014, when it was sold to Jose Cuervo who have expanded at the site. As noted above, Diageo re-entered this market in January 2017 with the launch of the Roe brands (then sourced from other Irish producers) and the start of construction of the €25m Roe distillery on part of their Guinness brewery site.

A further domestic entrant to what is today a newly resurgent industry was Cooley, established in 1987 in the old Ceimici Teo distillery in County Louth, where vodka was distilled from potato by-products. John Teeling, an Irish entrepreneur, recognized an opportunity for a small Irish distiller and renamed the Dundalk-based distillery ‘Cooley’, making whiskey there from 1989 and going on to acquire other famous brands and distilleries which had been mothballed, including Tyrconnell and Kilbeggan. The Kilbeggan distillery, dating from 1757 and claiming to be the oldest distillery in the world, was re-opened in 2007 and a small stillhouse installed. In December 2011, the company was acquired by Beam Inc. of the USA (today known as BeamSuntory). John Teeling and his eldest son, Jack, subsequently left the business to establish the Teeling Whiskey Co., aiming to “revive the independent spirit of Ireland”.

This has subsequently evolved into Teeling Snr's Great Northern Distillery operation, while his sons Jack and Stephen operate as the Teeling Distillery in Dublin.

William Grant & Sons of Dufftown, Scotland acquired the Tullamore DEW brand from Irish Distillers in July 2010 and developed a new, state-of-the-art pot still whiskey and malt whiskey distillery there at a cost of some €35m. This has been further expanded and a visitor centre created in the remaining old distillery buildings in the nearby town of Tullamore. Subsequently, a grain whiskey plant and bottling facilities have also been installed at the Tullamore distillery complex.

In Waterford, the former MD of Bruichladdich Mark Reynier purchased and remodelled a mothballed Guinness brewery and has commenced distilling ‘terroir-derived single malt Irish whiskey’. Waterford uses only Irish barley, including organic and biodynamic strains, from unique terroirs. Each crop is harvested and distilled separately and the distillery has funded independent scientific analysis of its new make spirit to determine the presence or otherwise of terroir, a concept of some slight controversy in whisky production circles.3

Today, as this book goes to print, some 20 distilleries are currently operating on the island of Ireland with an unknown number, possibly as high as a further 20, proposed or in the planning or financing stages. The trade body, the Irish Whiskey Association, has forecast that Irish whiskey will grow its global market share by 300% in the period to 2031, claiming it to be the fastest growing spirits category in the world.

Whatever the eventual outcome of this projection, Irish whiskey is in as good a condition as it has been for more than a century. The category has been developed by shrewd, single-minded marketing led by Pernod Ricard's Irish Distillers and supported by William Grants, Diageo and a vibrant independent sector; by growing consumer interest in products seen as authentic and with a distinct provenance and by a product that is both easily accessible (yet, at its best, complex and intriguing) and distinctly different from Scotch whisky. It is a remarkable story of an entire industry brought back from the brink of oblivion.

“Whereas, for the better support of the Government of this Province, it is expedient to increase the Revenues thereof

As is so often the case, one of the earliest mentions of whisky comes through tax records – here, it was the 1794 Act “to lay and collect a duty upon stills”, which was helpfully passed by the British Parliament into the Laws of the Province of Upper Canada4 – and which remained the country's principal source of revenue for the next half-century. Given that America's Whiskey Rebellion had just been suppressed by George Washington's fledgling government, perhaps this was a bold move, but the Canadian trade acquiesced and within seven years 51 licences had been issued to a population of fewer than 15 000 people. It is tempting to see in this an early indication of the stereotypical law-abiding Canadian personality, but it is also certain that there were many more stills operating at a domestic level, or illegally.

The still tax was set at one shilling and three dimes per gallon but, importantly, a minimum ten gallon limit was set on the still size, with a draconian £10.00 penalty for infringement. This effectively outlawed small-scale distilling.

So, who were these early distillers? We know that the first recorded distillery was established in 1769 in Quebec to make rum, which was popular in the Atlantic provinces and all the way down the eastern seaboard of North America. According to Lorraine Brown,8  Lower Canada was also a whisky-making province but much of the output was destined for Europe. Upper Canada was to be the birthplace of Canadian whisky as we know it today.

With settlers from most of Europe, a variety of distilling traditions arrived in Canada. It might be expected that, as in the USA, whisky was established by Irish and Scottish settlers, who certainly had a huge part to play in building the country, but it was the English who were behind the early operations. Some commentaries have suggested that United Empire loyalists fleeing from the USA after 1776 brought distilling skills with them but, persuasive as this theory may be, no evidence remains.

The first recorded operation of scale was that of John Molson, a young Lincolnshire farmer who had emigrated to Montreal to set up as a brewer in 1783. In 1799 (or 1801, depending on which version of the story you prefer) he bought a still from the rum distillers McBeath & Sheppard and began making small quantities of whisky. His son, Thomas, took operations onto a higher level, travelling to Scotland and England in 1815–1816 to visit breweries and distilleries and learn his trade and, from 1821, he started to distil on a larger scale. Soon, he was shipping new make spirit to London merchants, presumably for rectification in the London gin market (it has been speculated that earlier shipments may have resulted from a shortfall of French brandy due to the Napoleonic Wars). Again according to Brown, there was a substantial traffic in Canadian whisky to England until 1846 when it appears that Irish and Scottish distillers captured the market.

Molson was not the only distillery in Lower Canada. By 1827, 31 concerns are recorded but, within four years, the total had increased to 70; however, they were all minnows compared to the growing Molson operation which, in 1831, opened a second distillery at Kingston. By the 1840s around 200 distilleries were recorded in Canada as a whole.

Other distillers in Upper Canada included Richard Cartwright and James Morton. Morton's new distillery in Kingston was described as “the handsomest and best finished establishment of the kind in British America or the United States”. After expanding into property, shipping, lumber milling and a locomotive works, the unfortunate Morton was bankrupted by the recession of 1857. Owing his bankers more than $250 000, he died in 1864 in a bed he had loaned back from them after they purchased all his furniture at auction. Budding entrepreneurs take note! The distillery eventually closed in 1900.

Although Thomas Molson seems to have been a talented distiller, and the concern a substantial one, the family eventually decided to concentrate on brewing and, by 1867, they had closed their Montreal distillery. Just a few years earlier (1863) they had produced 3 36 000 gallons. By contrast, Dow & Company are recorded as distilling 2 04 000 gallons and Laprairie just 1207. However, as they were changing direction, other English migrants were busy developing their whisky businesses.

James Worts arrived in Toronto in 1831 and was shortly followed by his brother-in-law, William Gooderham. Back home they were millers and enthusiastic users of wind power. So, at the mouth of the River Don they erected a six-storey windmill and opened a grist mill. James died in 1834 but three years later, on November 3rd, the firm began distilling with James' son (also called James), who was appointed a partner in 1845. As such, Gooderham & Worts was established.

Production was in an early column still, made of wood and using cobblestones in the columns where today a metal plate or tray would be employed. The spirit was filtered through charcoal but, by 1862, was undergoing a second distillation after which the practice of filtration was abandoned.

In 1861, they built a splendid new distillery, the largest in Canada and capable of producing 2.5 million gallons annually. Two copper stills, each of 1500 gallons capacity produced ‘Common Whisky’, ‘Toddy’ and ‘Old Rye’ – the latter two varieties apostrophized by the Toronto Globe as “without question the very best and purest manufactured”. Whisky was shipped to Lower Canada and, it is said, in large quantities to Liverpool and London.

Waste products from the distillery fed 400 cows, which produced milk for the city, and 1000 head of beef cattle were slaughtered annually. Some 150 employees were engaged in the whole enterprise. Considering that this Gooderham & Worts distillery was some seven and a half times the size of their rival Molson's, the latter's decision to concentrate their efforts elsewhere is understandable.

Henry Corby, a baker from London, began with milling but started distilling in 1859, and by the time of his death had established a flourishing business, which continued to grow under the direction of his son (also called Henry, but known to all as Harry). In 1905, however, the family sold their interests and two years later a fire destroyed the original distillery, which was then replaced by a new, larger one to serve a growing market in the USA and in Ontario, which had restricted alcohol sales in 1916.

At the end of World War I, during which time whisky distilling had been suspended by the government, the company was sold to the glamorously named Canadian Industrial Alcohol Company Ltd who did, however, acquire various wine and spirit import businesses and a firm of Scotch whisky blenders. The parent company also owned the J. P. Wiser distillery.

Much clandestine cross-border business was done during the period of US Prohibition and, although a key executive defected to re-start the Gooderham & Worts distillery in Toronto, sales boomed. That executive was Harry Hatch and, in 1932, he was able to purchase a 51% controlling interest in Corby's from Canadian Industrial Alcohol as Hiram Walker–Gooderham & Worts Ltd.

During World War II production was again suspended in favour of industrial alcohol, but prosperity returned in the post-war period and the company built an additional rum and liqueur business with interests in the Lamb's Rum and Tia Maria brands. In 1978, in partnership with DeKuyper of Holland, Corby purchased Meagher's Distillery Ltd of Montréal and its subsidiary, the William Mara Company of Toronto, bringing representation of such international brands as Beefeater gin, along with an enhanced wine portfolio. The Corbyville distillery was expanded.

In 1987, Allied Lyons PLC successfully acquired a majority of Hiram Walker–Gooderham & Worts Ltd shares, thereby becoming Corby's majority shareholder. The Robert MacNish Scotch Company was sold and McGuinness Distilling Co. Ltd was purchased along with brands such as Polar Ice. In 1989, the Corbyville distillery was closed after 132 years and all maturing whisky inventory was transferred to the Hiram Walker facility in Windsor, Ontario. There was a short-lived foray into craft brewing but, in 1994, Allied Lyons PLC acquired Casa Pedro Domecq to become Allied Domecq PLC, which, at the time, was the world's third largest spirits company.

However, Allied Domecq PLC was itself acquired by Pernod Ricard in 2005 and, at the time of writing, Pernod Ricard are the majority owners of the Corby company, as well as the proprietors of Hiram Walker & Sons, who today bottle and blend the majority of Corby's owned and agency brands.

Corby have recently been active in marketing their Northern Border Collection to European markets where the four different whiskies have achieved a favourable response from influential whisky writers and bloggers.

One of the most respected names in Canadian distilling, Hiram Walker & Sons, is the only ‘grain to glass’ operation in Ontario and boasts the largest distillery capacity in North America with 37 fermenters. The manufacturing process distils 180 000 litres of alcohol every 24 hours and operates 24 hours a day, five days a week to produce a variety of products, including vodka, rum and Canadian whisky.

Again, this company's roots go back to an immigrant – in this case one Hiram Walker, an American grocer and vinegar distiller who moved from Detroit to Ontario and established his whisky distillery in 1858. A dynamic entrepreneur, he purchased a significant land holding near Windsor and established facilities for his workforce in what became known as Walkerville.

The company was spectacularly successful from the start, with a flourishing cross-border trade that boomed during the American Civil War. Surviving the recessionary economy of the 1870s, Hiram Walker launched Canadian Club in 1884, a brand which swiftly gained favour in the USA where it was widely imitated by a number of copycat brands and outright fakes. Considerable controversy ensued and a lively debate on fusel oil in whiskey eventually led to a US Government enquiry.5 This vindicated Canadian Club, which went on to further success. Today, the brand is owned by BeamSuntory of the USA.

In 1926, Hiram Walker's grandsons sold the business to Harry Hatch's Gooderham & Worts company and, in 1933, they built what was at that time the world's largest distillery in Peoria, Illinois – then a major brewing and distilling centre. It closed in 1981.

Walker is remembered for a number of key innovations in Canadian distilling: the first multi-column distillation; arguably the first Canadian blend; the first temperature-controlled warehouses; one of the first creators of brand names; the first to employ travelling salesmen; and the first North American producer to receive a Royal Warrant from the British Crown (for Canadian Club, 1898). Later, in the 1940s, the firm introduced gift-wrapped packaging, a radical marketing idea at the time, quickly adopted by competitors. The original Walkerville distillery was renamed Wiser's following its acquisition by Pernod Ricard but remains notable for being the only Canadian distillery to use malted rye, a specific spring variety which must be purchased a year in advance. It also remains Canada's oldest distillery.

The Wiser name dates back to 1857 when a Prescott, Ontario businessman, called James Averell, employed J. P. Wiser and had him manage the Payne's distillery in the town, which he had just bought. Under Wiser's leadership, it grew in size and reputation and, within five years, he was able to buy the business.

Shortly afterwards, in 1864, the distillery was badly damaged by fire but Wiser rebuilt and expanded it – actions he was to repeat in 1887 following another fire. Wiser himself stressed quality and the importance of time in whisky making. Following his death in 1911, his sons took over the business but sold it in 1927 to Corby Distilleries. The Prescott distillery was closed in 1932 and today the Wiser brands are distilled in Walkerville.

The final great name in Canadian distilling history is that of Seagram's. The remarkable story of that company begins with Joseph Emm Seagram, from a family of English immigrants, who by 1883 had acquired the sole interest in a milling and distilling business in Waterloo. He expanded this and, in 1887, launched Seagram's 83, a four-year-old sherry cask-matured whisky. Only three years later, in 1890 Canada became the first country to enact an aging law for whiskies, requiring at least two years in cask.

By 1911, Seagram's sons had joined the business and, in March 1917, they launched Seagram's VO, destined to become their best-selling brand. However, following some years of difficult trading and a public offering of the Waterloo distillery, the firm merged with the Distillers Corporation of Montreal, controlled by Samuel Bronfman, in 1928.

The Bronfman family had arrived in Canada in 1889 as escapees from the persecution of the Jews in Russian Romania.

Davin de Kergommeaux says of Samuel Bronfman:9 his constant self-aggrandizement, his need to hobnob with the elite, and his desire for a royal warrant if not a knighthood, tell of a man with a desperate need of validation by others. He could be foul-mouthed, cruel, and ruthless, yet he inspired loyalty, respect and perhaps even love in those who knew him well.”

The Distillers Corporation prospered during the Prohibition era, yet ‘Mr Sam’, as he became known, also appreciated the long-term nature of the whisky business and astutely developed the business with an emphasis on quality and brand building. Competitors, such as the British Columbia Distillery Co. of Vancouver, were bought out and a number of distilleries were acquired in the USA and elsewhere. A major new distillery had been built in Gimli, Manitoba in 1968. Thus, by 1970, the company was a global player operating 39 distilleries around the world and owning major Scotch whisky brands, such as The Glenlivet and Chivas Regal.

Samuel Bronfman, who had given lavishly to Jewish charities, died in 1971 and the business was inherited by his son, Edgar, who further expanded the business. However, the decline in the whisky market of the 1980s forced the company to retrench and the historic Waterloo distillery was finally closed in November 1992.

In 1994, Edgar Bronfman Jr took over as Chief Executive Officer. At that time, a shareholding in the DuPont Corporation was the company's largest source of income. In what many commentators regarded as a misguided move, Bronfman sold this stake for some $9 billion in order to fund acquisitions in the entertainment industry, which proved a short-lived and not entirely successful diversification. The drinks industry interests were acquired by Pernod Ricard who sold the Seagram name and brands to Diageo. Distilling continues at Gimli and Valleyfield in Quebec.

Today, other Canadian distilling operations include Alberta Distillers, Black Velvet and Highwood in Alberta – all three of which are largely anonymous or unknown outside of Canada – Canadian Mist (owned by Brown–Forman of the USA), Valleyfield and pioneering smaller operations such as Glenora in Nova Scotia and Kittling Ridge, home to the Forty Creek boutique brand, now owned by Gruppo Campari of Italy. Glenora produce the Glen Breton brand of single malt whisky, which was the source of an extended dispute with the Scotch Whisky Association, eventually settled in the distillery's favour. It is claimed to be North America's first true single malt.

However, since the first edition of this book (2014), there has been a considerable growth in the number of small craft distilleries producing a wide range of spirits. Whisky distilleries include Strathcona Spirits; Old Order Distilling; Signal Hill; Top Shelf Distillers; Urban Distilleries; The Liberty Distillery; Okanagan Spirits; Still Waters; Dillons; Wood Buffalo and a number of others.

The history of Canadian whisky is complex and, at times, confusing. Canadian whisky is not – in general – well-known or fully appreciated outside of North America but it has a rich and fascinating history and is a product deserving of greater attention. As De Kergommeaux concludes: “the whisky world is waking up to Canadian whisky and declaring some of it as among the best whiskies in the world.”

Before whiskey there was rum. And before rum the early settlers drank applejack, or apple brandy. Indeed, what is claimed to be ‘America's Oldest Native Distillery’ Laird & Company traces itself back to the 1698 arrival from Scotland of William Laird, who allegedly began to use his skills as a distiller to process the abundant apple crops of New Jersey. You can still purchase Laird's applejack to this day – a tangible link to the first European colonists.

Rum was widely distilled in New England and actually formed part of the disreputable ‘Triangular Trade’, being exchanged for slaves in Africa, whoh were traded for molasses in the West Indies, which was in turn distilled in New England. As early as 1733 the British Crown attempted to tax molasses and rum produced in America, contributing to the colonists' feelings of discrimination, which led eventually to the American War of Independence (1775–1783). By the late 1790s, however, fashions, not to mention local feeling towards the British and hence Caribbean molasses, had changed and whiskey began to displace rum, a trend that was accelerated by the 1808 ban on importing slaves from Africa, which dealt a fatal blow to the rum/slaves/molasses business.

The Treaty of Paris, ending the war with the British, was signed by Congress in 1784 marking the end of hostilities. By April 1789, George Washington had been elected the first President of the new United States and his name subsequently appears in American distilling history – both as a significant distiller (albeit with a Scottish distillery manager) and for his part in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791.

Washington's distillery at his estate at historic Mount Vernon has been extensively documented and recently recreated (Figure 1.5). It is, however, not at all typical of the thousands of distilleries that were operating in the USA by 1800 as, for the time, it was a substantial enterprise with five stills. First established in 1797, by 1799 (the year of Washington's death) it recorded an output of nearly 11 000 gallons.

Figure 1.5

Working in the recreation of George Washington's Mount Vernon distillery. Courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.

Figure 1.5

Working in the recreation of George Washington's Mount Vernon distillery. Courtesy of George Washington's Mount Vernon.

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Prior to becoming a distillery owner, Washington had already secured his place in American distilling history. Scots and Irish immigrants had settled in the western parts of Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas and German settlers in Pennsylvania. Both groups found that rye grew well (as opposed to barley, which did not) and so began making rye whiskey. Meanwhile, in Kentucky County, especially around the settlement of Bardstown, so-called ‘corn patch’ settlers and those who followed began to use the native American corn in their stills.

By 1791, the newly independent United States, with Washington as the first President, needed money. Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton proposed a tax on distilling, arguing that this was a luxury product. In addition, some social reformers saw it as a tax on sin that would lessen the pernicious effects of alcohol on society. The embattled farmers of western Pennsylvania did not agree, viewing this as taxation without representation, a cause over which many of them had all too recently fought the British. In addition, they faced logistical difficulties in paying the tax and its structure favoured the larger commercial distillers in the East.

A tax collector's house was burnt down; others were tarred and feathered and a simmering resentment of the tax and defiance of central Government continued until May 1794 when writs were issued to distillers who had not paid the tax. This required them to travel to Philadelphia to appear in federal court. For farmers on the western frontier, such a journey was expensive, time-consuming and not without dangers and soon the bitterness in the west gave way to an armed insurrection and open rebellion.

Having reduced and simplified the tax, but determined to enforce the authority of central Government, Washington mobilized an army of some 13 000 troops6 and, in September and October 1794, marched into western Pennsylvania – where the insurrection promptly collapsed. Many of its leaders fled further west; some were captured and put on trial for treason. Two men were condemned to death, but received Presidential pardons; Washington's reputation and political capital and the authority of the Federal Government were both greatly increased by what was seen as his shrewd handling of the affair.

A grant of 60 acres of land in western Virginia was then available to any settler building a house and raising corn. Many of the disenchanted Pennsylvania farmers took advantage of this, bringing their skills and stills to what was to become Kentucky. Lighter in style than rye, a new whiskey was born.

Some controversy surrounds the varying claims to be the first distiller of bourbon, with Evan Williams, the Reverend Elijah Craig, Jacob Beam and others now recorded only in dusty ledgers and all suggested as the pioneer. Perhaps the best contender, however, is Dr James Crow (a Scotsman) who introduced the distinctive sour mash process,7 essential to bourbon. In their comprehensive study of bourbon,10  Gary and Mardee Haidin Regan concluded: “for those who insist on having a name, we say James Crow ‘invented’ bourbon sometime between 1823 and 1845.”

Around the same time, the ‘Lincoln County Process’ was invented, a system of filtration involving a deep bed of sugar-maple charcoal, through which the new whiskey was passed. The use of this lengthy filtration defines Tennessee whiskey as distinct from bourbon or rye. Today, the most notable brand using this method is Jack Daniel's, often mistakenly referred to as bourbon.

Writing in 1838, Samuel Morewood11  records some 3594 stills in Pennsylvania; 2000 in Kentucky; 591 in New York; 560 in Connecticut and so on until just 6 were noted in the Mississippi territory. Morewood's data cover the country as far west as the Illinois territory (an unknown number of stills producing just 10 200 gallons of spirit). However, his record is only a partial one: whereas the Pennsylvania stills produced just over 6.5 million gallons of spirits, Virginia was recorded as making nearly 2.4 million gallons and North Carolina close to 1.9 million gallons; however, the number of stills was not recorded.

In total, Morewood records production of nearly 25.4 million gallons. Based on his figures for known output from known stills, it is possible to calculate that there may have been a further 3564 undocumented stills, suggesting that around 11 300 stills were working at that time – excluding bootleg distillation of moonshine liquor, of course.

What these data demonstrate is that most distilling was still local in nature, largely due to the agrarian economy and the difficulties and cost of transportation across such a vast country. River transport was widely used. “The immense number of navigable lakes and rivers which intersect this vast continent, affords great facility for the transportation of spirits,” writes Morewood. “In the course of eleven months, terminating on the 1st July, 1811, among other articles, 3768 barrels of whiskey were sent down the Shenandoah and Potomac rivers; while the spirits made at Brownsville, near Pittsburg, are in such repute that they are frequently sent to New Orleans, a distance of nearly 2000 miles. In the year 1822, 7500 barrels of whiskey, value 500 000 dollarswere sent from the western States for consumption.” According to the 1820 Census, the population of the United States was 9 638 453 persons, of whom just over 1.5 million were slaves. Per capita consumption, therefore, would have been impressively high by current standards but, as Sarah Hand Meacham notes:12 alcohol was one of the few pleasures to be had in the early modern world.”

However important the waterways were, the expansion of the railway network during the first half of the 19th century transformed the possibilities for national sales and marketing. However, during the same period, a burgeoning temperance movement began to gather strength, which would eventually play a pivotal role in the development of distilling in the USA. In considering the best-known impact of this movement, the imposition of National Prohibition from January 1920, it is important to recall that the temperance movement was deep-rooted and of long standing, with a number of northern States electing to go ‘dry’ from the 1850s.

Whiskey production was inevitably disrupted by the Civil War (1861–1865) and a number of distillers were forced out of business. The Federal tax on whiskey, reduced to zero in 1834, was reintroduced by Lincoln in 1862 to pay for the war and, at its conclusion, the industry went through a period of reorganization and modernization. A political scandal, known as the Whiskey Ring, which involved a tax fraud alleged to generate secret funds for the re-election of President Ulysses S. Grant, dragged on through the 1870s, creating rather more heat than light; however, it besmirched whiskey's image.

Throughout the 19th century, as settlers pushed west, whiskey was employed as currency and, as it had been since the days of the French and British colonial rulers, to trade with the Native Americans, among whom it had disastrous effects. Unused to alcohol, and with no tradition of distilling, their habit was to share the bottle or barrel amongst friends and to continue drinking until it was all gone. The most infamous of the many trading posts where this disreputable trade was carried on was the notorious Fort Whoop-Up. Though located in Alberta, Canada it stands as a sad memorial to the exploitative behaviour of ‘the White man’ across all of North America.

A further scandal followed in the next decade. The Distillers' and Cattle Feeders' Trust of Peoria, Illinois8 – known to one and all as the Whiskey Trust – attempted to gain monopoly control of the market by buying up and closing small distilleries. Some that refused were the victims of a mysterious arsonist! After various legal investigations, the Trust was forced out of existence but not before it had further damaged the image of the industry and driven a number of firms into bankruptcy.

The trend in any event was towards larger and larger distilleries, with the continuous still finding increasing favour. When we consider the data presented by Morewood, it is evident that rye whiskey was evidently the most successful variety during the first half of the 19th century and, indeed, it maintained that position well into the latter half of the century, until it was undone all but entirely by Prohibition.

The practice of ‘bonding’ – keeping whiskey under Government supervision in a bonded warehouse, free of tax – was first introduced in 1868 and expanded in 1879, 1894 and again in 1897 with the Bottled in Bond Act, which assisted legitimate distillers in differentiating their products from that of the less scrupulous. Although glass bottles had been, expensively, available for some time prior to 1870, it was only then that George Garvin Brown, inspired by the pharmaceutical industry, began to sell his Old Forester brand entirely in sealed bottles.

There was considerable growth in the latter part of the 19th century, notwithstanding the energetic attacks of the temperance lobby, with many of the great names from Kentucky that would reappear after Prohibition being established, along with continued buoyant sales of rye whiskies.

The USA's entry into World War I in April 1917 led to a ban on the distillation of all beverage alcohol to preserve grain for food. It was to prove a short-lived setback to the industry because the greater challenge of the Prohibitionist cause was gaining momentum.

Again, it cannot be stressed strongly enough that this was not a sudden or unexpected problem. Travelling during 1892 in the USA on the first of his great international sales trips, whisky entrepreneur Thomas Dewar later recalled his experience of trying to buy whiskey in a Prohibition state. The conductor on his train, unable to sell him a bottle, advised trying a store at the next stop and ordering ‘cholera mixture’ – “I did, but to my great astonishment received a very familiar bottle which, although it was labelled on one side ‘Cholera Mixture: a wine-glassful to be taken every two hours’ had upon the other side the well-known label of a firm of Scotch whisky distillers, whose name modesty requires me to suppress!13 

Like other distillers, Dewar was an energetic opponent of the effects of Prohibition, observing in one of his famous aphorisms that “if you forbid a man to do a thing, you will add the joy of piracy and the zest of smuggling to his life.” George Garvin Brown published a book of Biblical texts favouring alcohol and organizations such as The Association against the Prohibition Amendment ensured that the teetotal case did not go unanswered.

But the cause of the so-called Noble Experiment was not to be denied and, as state after state went dry a national ban became inevitable. The National Prohibition Act9 was passed by 287 votes to 100 in October 1919 and came into full force in January 1920. Much has been written on this subject. Suffice to say that the law was only loosely enforced and soon fell into disrepute; that it proved a bonanza for distillers of Scotch and Canadian whiskies, who proved only too happy to supply their products with scant regard for the legal niceties and the backgrounds of their new customers; that organized crime soon infiltrated American society (and has subsequently proved hard to eradicate); and that alcohol consumption, especially of spirits appears to have increased during the Prohibition years.

All round, it was in fact an unmitigated disaster – especially for the estimated 15 000 victims afflicted by ‘jake foot’, a debilitating paralysis of the hands and feet brought on by drinking bootleg alcohol flavoured with ginger root. European visitors frequently commented on the ease with which drink could be obtained and the open defiance of the law: “these Old Fashioneds will be the undoing of me” wrote publisher George Blake14  from a New York sales trip in November 1930 and, later: “I am not, after six weeks of Old Fashioneds, quite trusting my own judgement.”10

For the industry, it was, of course, a complete disaster. Although some distilleries were permitted to remain open to make ‘medicinal alcohol’, the vast majority closed for good. When Prohibition was finally repealed in December 1933, there were insufficient stocks of domestically-distilled whiskey to meet demand and consumer tastes had adapted to Scotch and Canadian whiskies and to gin, a favoured product of the bootleg distiller. “It was doggone scary”, according to Heaven Hill's Max Shapira,11 who went on to note that “this was an industry that hadn't existed for 16 years; it was full of bootleggers; its product wasn't respected and there wasn't any of it anyway.”

But no sooner had the beleaguered industry recovered some sort of footing than production of alcohol was diverted to the military effort of World War II and rum was very happy to fill the gap, with Scotch whisky favoured by returning GIs. Following the resumption of distilling, the US industry concentrated on supplying low-cost spirits to the domestic market, only for more uncertainty to dog their efforts with a widespread belief that distilling would be suspended during the Korean War (1950–1953).

Although this, in fact, never happened, a concentration on the lower end of the market meant that, with vodka and white rum sales gathering pace and a public climate increasingly hostile to heavy consumption, by the mid-to-late 1970s, the sales of rye had all but dried up and bourbon sales were following it rapidly downhill.

Since then there has been a sustained revival, interspersed as is the way of these things by the occasional economic slowdown and major events, such as the Vietnam War; however, a revitalized industry has been able to ride out these setbacks and build a more robust industry, with a greater emphasis on premium products. Based initially on a trend to ‘drink less but drink better’ and assisted by the educational efforts of the Scotch malt whisky industry, which both pointed the US consumer to more aspirational products and gave US producers a business model to copy, there has been a revival in straight whiskeys.

At the centre of this move to higher-quality products a few companies have been instrumental, most notably the Maker's Mark distillery (who were able to purchase their facility in Loretto, Kentucky in 1953 when the then owners sold up). Then independent and family owned, Maker's Mark is now part of BeamSuntory (itself formed in 2014 when Suntory of Japan acquired Beam Inc for a reported $16bn) who also own the Jim Beam brand and a stable of small batch bourbons (Knob Creek, Basil Hayden's, Baker's and others), as well as the Old Grandad and Old Crow labels. Their Old Overholt rye refers to one of the founders of American distilling, Abraham Overholt. The company also owns Canadian Club and a portfolio of Scotch, Irish and Spanish whiskies.

Amongst the other principal producers is Brown–Forman, proprietors of Jack Daniel's, Early Times, Old Forester and Woodford Reserve, a showpiece distillery and visitor centre. Although now a quoted company, the influence of the founding Brown family remains strong and they are actively engaged in its management.

Jack Daniel's is globally important as a brand and, like Jameson, may play a significant role in introducing younger adults into the category and thus acting as a gateway brand for all whisky.

Diageo are relatively poorly represented in this category given the overall size of the company, owning I. W. Harper and Bulleit bourbons and the George Dickel Tennessee whiskey. Currently, most of Diageo's effort in this category is focussed on promoting the Bulleit brand. However, a major new distillery is under construction in Lebanon, Kentucky at a cost of $130m with the capacity to produce 3.8 million 9 litre cases annually. This follows the company's $115m investment in its Shelby County, Kentucky distillery.

Other major producers include Heaven Hill, Sazerac, Four Roses (owned by the Kirin Group of Japan), Wild Turkey (Gruppo Campari, Italy); Michter's and, since 2014, more than 20 distilleries of varying scale have opened in Kentucky alone.

Lawrenceburg Distillers of Indiana, who produce for a wide range of brand owners are probably better known as MGP Ingredients. The distillery was originally built by Seagram and has been very influential in supplying highly-regarded spirit which has been marketed by a number of independent bottlers under their private label, a trade that has attracted some controversy.

Sometimes based initially on MGP products, the craft distilling sector has exploded in the USA in recent years and many are now able to bring high-quality mature spirit to market. According to the American Distilling Institute (ADI), an industry body for small distillers, there are now in excess of 2000 operating craft distilleries, some 80% of which are producing whiskey. Again, according to the ADI, total craft production exceeded 6.5 million cases in 2017 and the industry is expected to produce 8 million cases by 2019, based on a current growth rate of 31% annually (refer to Chapter 8 for further commentary on this phenomenon).

In general terms, American whiskey has yet to achieve significant purchase in international markets, with only a very small number of brands, most notably Jack Daniel's, Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve, achieving significant sales outside the USA. Around 70% of bourbon sales are domestic, with Germany, the UK and Australia representing the principal export markets. The development of flavoured whiskies – chiefly honey variants – appears to have worked well for the US industry, attracting new consumers into the category, though the style appears to be largely restricted to the domestic US market.

One factor of note has been the growth in premium and super-premium pricing. Though not yet reaching the levels of some single malt Scotch whiskies, both American styles have seen remarkable growth in retail pricing, with little evidence apparent of consumer resistance. Indeed, rarer or limited edition American whiskies are now seen as collectable and can command many multiples of their original retail price when offered on auction sites.

The future appears to be bright for both the traditional styles of bourbon and rye and for the more innovative products and the output of the craft sector. American whiskey would seem to have shaken off its past and is thus well placed for a sustainable long-term future.

Between 1603 and 1868, in what is known as the Edo period, Japan was effectively closed to Western influence. Apart from very limited access to an artificial island outside Nagasaki, all foreigners were banned from Japan and contact was severely restricted.

However, in 1853 a group of American warships under Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in Edo with the objective of opening Japan to foreign trade. Various treaties followed, but the process was not entirely peaceful; in 1864, British, French, Dutch and American warships bombarded Shimonoseki forcing more Japanese ports to open to foreigners. By 1868, the Tokugawa Shogunate had failed and the Meiji emperor was restored. This was a period of dramatic change in Japanese society.

Perry brought gifts for the Emperor and his senior Councillors. These included a steam engine and track, a copy of Audubon's Birds, a stove, a revolver, a telescope and whiskey (whether it was bourbon or rye is not recorded). One barrel was reserved for the Emperor, although he apparently never received it, and the various Councillors were allocated between one and five gallons apiece, along with quantities of cherry cordial.

Sake had been produced in Japan since around 710 AD but expanded rapidly during the Meiji period (1868–1912) when there may have been around 30 000 producers. According to Olive Checkland,15  the manufacture of Western spirits (in particular, gin) was attempted in Japan from the start of the Meiji period. By 1912, when the Emperor died and co-incidentally taxes on imports were drastically increased, a recognizably westernized Japanese spirits industry began to develop.

Gisuke Konishi, a ‘foreign drinks maker’ in Osaka, was making and selling an ersatz ‘whisky’ from 1888 and Shinjiro Torii, his nephew, worked there as a young man. Torii subsequently founded a firm called Kotobukiya and launched a sweet wine product in 1907 – this was the basis of Suntory.

By 1919, he had launched ‘Finest Liqueur Old Scotch Whisky’, which carried a label stating it was bottled by the ‘Torys Distillery’, although there were no whisky distilleries in Japan at this time. Whisky labelling echoing or directly imitating Scotch whisky was to remain commonplace in Japan for many years afterwards, perhaps accounting for the story, surely apocryphal, of the Japanese town renamed ‘Scotland’ so that its whisky could be labelled ‘Made in Scotland’. More than 40 years later, the official Scottish attitude towards Japanese whisky remained patronising and complacent.

Also in 1919, 25 year old Masataka Taketsuru, who had travelled from Japan in the previous year at the instigation of his then employer to learn how to make whisky in the Scottish manner, began his practical studies in distilling. Taketsuru came from a family of sake brewers and, in Scotland, spent some time studying chemistry at Glasgow University and the Royal Technical College (now Strathclyde University). He also worked for a week at Longmorn Distillery, having been disappointed in his hope of private tuition with J. A. Nettleton in Elgin. Although he had studied Nettleton's book on distilling and begun translating it into Japanese, Nettleton's proposed fees were far too high for him to consider and he was forced to turn to Longmorn, where General Manager J. R. Grant allowed him some practical experience. Today he might be considered an ‘intern’ as he worked without payment.

While Scotland presumably felt alien to Taketsuru, who would have stood out as a foreigner, he would have experienced curiosity but little overt hostility. Japan and Britain had signed the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1902, which was expanded in 1905 and 1911. During World War I, therefore, Japan fought on the British side and there were also cultural links with the UK.

On his return to Glasgow, where he was to marry, he studied the Coffey Still at Bo'ness Distillery and, with his new wife, spent five months in Campbeltown as an ‘apprentice’ at Hazelburn Distillery, where he studiously compiled a lengthy report into whisky production. In November 1920, he returned to Japan.

Masataka Taketsuru is generally regarded as the father of Japanese whisky but, as we shall see, his story is closely mingled with that of Suntory. However, his career initially began with disappointment as his initial employer and sponsor was forced to abandon plans to make whisky and, in 1922, Taketsuru resigned from the Settsu Shuzo company.

He then joined Shinjiro Torii at Kotobukiya (the company that later became Suntory). Some accounts place Torii amongst the group of friends and family who bade him farewell on his way to Scotland in 1918. Whatever the truth of that, Torii had prospered during World War I and was equally determined to produce a high-quality whisky, so he hired Taketsuru on generous terms with the aim of establishing a distillery on the Scottish model.

This was opened at Yamazaki in November 1924 and is generally considered the first Japanese whisky distillery – perhaps predictably, Suntory tend to credit Torii with the choice of the site, while other commentators give the more experienced Taketsuru the credit. Intriguingly, however, on the Nonjatta blog,16  Chris Bunting suggests that there may be an earlier contender for Japan's first whisky, noting that Kotaro Miyazaki's Yamanashi distillery was marketing a ‘K. M. Sweet Home Whisky’ two years earlier.

According to Bunting some while later having changed its name to Daikoku Budoshu, the firm began distilling whisky and, after World War II, launched the Ocean brand, first using spirit sourced from Nikka, then distilling at a site called Shiojiri (now closed) in Nagano prefecture. Eventually, around 1955–1956, a move was made to Karuizawa distillery, which will feature later in the story of modern Japanese whisky.

There is also a suggestion that Eigashima's White Oak distillery may have marketed a ‘Scotch whisky’ around 1919 in what Bunting describes as “those wild old days.” It is not clear, however, whether this product was made in Japan or imported. Today, the company offers blended whisky and a limited range of single malt.

Yamazaki's early production was unsatisfactory and Taketsuru returned to Scotland in 1925 for further technical studies at Hazelburn, shortly before it was closed. Taking the answers to his questions back to Japan, the first Suntory whisky Shirofuda (White Label) was launched. Today, Suntory's corporate website17  describes this as “true Scotch whisky, an accomplishment showcased in newspaper advertisements declaring that there would be ‘no more imports needed’.”

However, having been effectively sidelined in his career by 1929, in 1934, Taketsuru resigned from Suntory to launch his own business, Dainipponkaju, later renamed Nikka Whisky. Initially, it was suggested by Checkland15  that it was intended to produce apple juice and apple wine – out of respect for his erstwhile employer – but it seems clear that the site at Yoichi was always destined in Taketsuru's plans to produce whisky and stills were installed there in late 1935.

The company was initially loss-making but, as production switched to whisky, which was strongly favoured by the Imperial Japanese officer class and thus enjoyed a preferential allocation of fuel and raw materials, profits increased. Suntory's Kabukin brand, launched in 1937, also enjoyed military patronage, and both companies benefited from being seen as vital to Japan's war effort – the country having by now switched allegiances to oppose the UK and the USA during World War II.

After the war, whisky began to assume extraordinary levels of popularity in Japan and the distilling industry there entered a period of prosperity, albeit with intense levels of competition. Initially drunk by the occupying forces, whisky became the drink of choice for ‘salarymen’, for business entertaining and for the large numbers of American troops stationed in Japan or later posted there for rest periods during the Korean war and later the Vietnam war. Suntory finally launched their Old brand in 1950 after a ten year delay. Tax changes in 1953 dramatically decreased the cost to the consumer of cheaper blends, further boosting consumption.

Increasing status began to be attached to gifting more and more prestigious whiskies in business life and specialist whisky bars began to thrive. Notable amongst these were Suntory's Torys bars – the company operated over 1500 such establishments at their peak of popularity.

As well as Suntory and Nikka, other Japanese distillers of the post-War period included the Takara, Toyo, Tokyo and Daikoku Budoshu distilling companies. Production was virtually entirely for home consumption, with the majority of spirits being employed in blending. Bulk quantities of single malt whisky were imported from Scotland and used to enhance the quality of domestic spirits, business that became increasingly controversial in Scotland and often relying on brokers to fulfil orders. The brokers and distillers Stanley P. Morrison Ltd (later Morrison Bowmore) were at the front of this trade and the firm was eventually acquired by Suntory. Nikka opened their second distillery at Miyagikyo (sometimes referred to as Sendai) in 1969 and Suntory followed with the giant Hakushu distillery in 1973, which was further expanded in 1981. In 1984, they launched Yamasaki 12 Year Old, the first Japanese single malt of any international significance.

The Japanese economy grew strongly in the 1980s and, with it, the domestic demand for whisky, both home-produced and imported, reached a high point around 1982. However, the booming economy led to an asset price bubble, and the subsequent crash, dating from sharp interest rate rises in late 1989, resulted in Japan's lost economic decade, which some critics maintain has continued to run now for over 20 years. The domestic industry was also protected by high tariffs, which were reduced in 1989, leading to difficulties for many producers as they were caught between cheaper foreign imports and the sudden fashionability of shochu. As a result, production was cut back (analogous to the reaction to Scotland's infamous ‘Whisky Loch’ – see Chapter 2) and a number of distilleries were mothballed or permanently closed, including Shinshu, Karuizawa, Hakushu West, Shirakawa, Kagoshima, Yamanshi and Hanyu.

Since the new millennium, however, Japanese whisky has again been in the ascendency, winning a number of major awards and, for the first time, achieving some international awareness and distribution, even if primarily in specialist whisky retailers and bars. Whilst this has been mainly driven by Japanese single malts, which have achieved a level of cult following and high prices,12 some blended whiskies (notably Hibiki) have made an impression outside their home market. Japanese producers are, however, somewhat hamstrung by the lack of older stock due to production cutbacks in the 1990s and this has had an adverse impact on their ability to compete fully in international markets (Figure 1.6).

Figure 1.6

A £10 000 bottle of single malt from the Karuizawa distillery. Cask #3603, distilled 1964. More recently, auction prices have reached £28 500 for a single bottle. Courtesy of Number One Drinks Company Ltd and Wealth Solutions.

Figure 1.6

A £10 000 bottle of single malt from the Karuizawa distillery. Cask #3603, distilled 1964. More recently, auction prices have reached £28 500 for a single bottle. Courtesy of Number One Drinks Company Ltd and Wealth Solutions.

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Due to very high levels of demand, retail prices for Japanese whiskies, in particular single malts and some aged blends, have risen sharply in recent years. A number of brands are on allocation and some pack sizes have been withdrawn in an attempt to manage supply. While production has been expanded, this whisky will take some time to reach the international market.

Since the previous edition, collector and investor interest in rare Japanese whiskies has grown significantly. At the time of writing, the highest recorded price at auction for a Japanese whisky is $343 000 for a bottle of Yamazaki 50 Years Old, sold at Bonhams Hong Kong in August 2018. Very high prices are also regularly achieved by other brands, in particular Karuizawa.

Outside of Japan, distilleries, such as Ben Nevis, Tomatin, Bowmore, Auchentoshan and Glen Garioch in Scotland and Four Roses in Kentucky, are in Japanese ownership, a further mark of the growing globalization of the whisky industry.

In January 2014, Suntory acquired Beam Inc. of the USA in a $16 billion agreed takeover. This represented a 25% premium on the quoted stock price on the day prior to the offer and made the combined group the world's third largest drinks business with a turnover of $4.6 billion.

Finally, though there was historically little or no tradition of artisanal or farmhouse distilling of whisky, recent years have seen the establishment of new small distilleries at Shinshu (reportedly using the original equipment) and Chichibu. This trend may well represent a further stage in the renaissance in Japanese whisky distilling, which it should be recalled, has a history of less than 100 years.

As in many other markets, there have been a number of new boutique distilleries opening in Japan, including Akkeshi; Asaka; Yuza Distillery; Nagahama Roman Beer; Nukada; Okayama; Saburomaru; Shizuoka; and Hombo Shuzo Co.’s Mars Tsunuki Distillery, though the craft distillery phenomenon currently appears less well developed than elsewhere.

Its growth and development, notwithstanding well-documented setbacks, has been nothing less than remarkable. From ersatz whisky to consciously matching the best of Scottish practice, Japanese whisky has now developed its own distinct and highly-regarded style and personality and fully deserves its place on the world stage.

Chapter 8 contains a fuller review of developments in new ‘world whisky’ distillation. This has been a remarkable phenomenon, which has gathered pace in recent years and is continuing to grow rapidly, albeit from a tiny base.

The distillation of whisky has spread remarkably and now can be found on every continent barring Antarctica (although it is not inconceivable that, in a hut somewhere, in the long polar nights, a still has been fired up…). In consequence, whisky has become a truly international spirit: as Aeneas MacDonald18  wrote, prophetically: “whisky now belongs not to the Scots but to the world at large”.

MacDonald's point was a philosophical one and he would have been surprised to learn of whisky being made in Corsica, or Nepal or Brazil. But these are not whiskies in the Scottish style, or even the Corsican, Nepalese or Brazilian style, for there is no such thing.

We can only speculate on how MacDonald and his contemporaries would react to the idea of English whisky, yet this is now a successful and rapidly expanding category, following the foundation of The English Whisky Company in Norfolk in 2006. In 2019 Peter Estlin, the Lord Mayor of London, was able to select Cotswolds Whisky as his official whisky and there are now several distilleries producing whisky in London, traditionally the home of English gin!

The new world whiskies have not arisen over hundreds of years of custom and practice but are transplants, for the most part the vision of a pioneer, inspired as often as not by a visit to an established distilling nation (generally, but not always, Scotland) to create their own personal interpretation of long-standing traditions.

However, the goal is rarely to ape established practice, for what would be the point? Local variations soon emerge, by accident or, more often, by design or in response to local conditions. Some distillers, such as Kavalan in Taiwan, are well-funded, can employ the best expertise and install the finest equipment, yet evolve their practices to meet local conditions (in this case, locally available yeasts and a maturation regime designed to deal with Taiwan's subtropical climate). Others, such as Mackmyra in Sweden, deliberately introduce juniper wood into the malting process and use Swedish oak casks to identify their products as Swedish whisky.

Between Zurich and Basle at the Whisky Castle, distiller Rudi Käser collects newly-fallen virgin snow, which he melts for the water to produce his unique Swiss snow whisky. His is a tiny operation, set up to diversify the family business in farming and the distilling of fruit spirits, yet already carving a distinct identity.

In many cases, the distillery is strongly identified with the personality of its founder, or Master Distiller, and in extreme cases carries the same name; e.g. the Lark Distillery in Tasmania is named after Bill Lark, the founder. Another example is the Balcones Distillery in Waco, Texas where the founder and original distiller, Chip Tate, cultivated a deliberately iconoclastic approach, beloved in the blogosphere, blending personality, brand character and corporate identity. More recently Tate left the business following a dispute with his backers and has now started another distilling company though Balcones continues to operate with a similar brand ethos.

As yet, world whiskies have no meaningful history, certainly nothing stretching back to medieval manuscripts or pioneering Scots and Irish settlers with memories of their home fires. In all probability many will fail – but this history is being written as we watch and taste.

The commentary below relates solely to technical works published in English, not titles aimed at the consumer.

A number of early works were written and originally published in Latin and therefore fall outside the scope of this necessarily cursory review. Amongst the most important of these works is the Liber de Arte Distillandi of Hieronymus Brunschwig (1500, translated to English in 1527) and Philippe Ulstadt's Coelum Philosophorum seu de Secretis Naturae Liber (1525). Both are lavishly illustrated. There were a number of editions, reprintings and translations into other languages. In 1559, Peter Morwyn, a Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford published an English translation of Konrad Gesner's Treasure of Euonymus, which meticulously illustrates “the formes of sondry apt fornaces, and vessels, required in this art”.

Early literature on distilling betrays the science's roots in medicine and alchemy and is sometimes mystical and allegorical in tone. Later works place distilling in the context of the domestic or agricultural economy, demonstrating the small-scale nature of much distilling in historic periods, before the literature becomes more scientific and specifically related to beverage alcohol.

Published in 1562, William Bulleins' Bulwarke of Defence against all Sicknesse, Soarenesse, and Woundes that doe dayly assaulte mankind is notable for being one of the first English herbals with a discussion of a number of mineral and chemical substances and methods of distillation, illustrative of the medicinal uses of aqua vitae. Similarly, around 1634, Thomas Johnson translated from the original French The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey, an important medical text, the last section of which presents simple medicines, distillations and even instruction on embalming a corpse.

Around 1652, John French, a physician, published his Art of Distillation, essentially a medical reference, and The London Distiller, describing “all sorts of spirits and strong-waters: to which is added their vertues”.

Typical of the genre of works on domestic economy, The True Preserver and Restorer of Health, by G. Hartman, Chymist (1682) combined “remedies for all distempers incident to man, woman and children. Selected from and experienced by the most famous physicians and chyrurgions of Europe together with excellent directions for cookery as also for preserving, and conserving” and a wood cut illustrating the “Engine for Distilling”.

Possibly the first work in English to deal with distillation as its principal topic was William Y'Worth's The Whole Art of Distillation Practically Stated (1692). Y'Worth was plainly unimpressed by French's work, considering his instructions “defective, both in the exact Modus of working, the ordering of the wash and backs for a quick fermentationas also in the great business of rectification”.

Nothing if not assured, Y'Worth's text is prefaced by an illustration of a distillery boldly captioned (Figure 1.7):

The Art of Distillation here behold

More perfect than before taught by tenfold.

Figure 1.7

The frontispiece of Y'Worth's Whole Art of Distillation (1692) as reproduced in Sir Walter Gilbey's Notes on Alcohol (1904). Note the verse under the illustration of the stillhouse, which reads “the art of distillation here behold, more perfect than before taught by tenfold“.

Figure 1.7

The frontispiece of Y'Worth's Whole Art of Distillation (1692) as reproduced in Sir Walter Gilbey's Notes on Alcohol (1904). Note the verse under the illustration of the stillhouse, which reads “the art of distillation here behold, more perfect than before taught by tenfold“.

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Again, many of the recipes are for medicinal use but he also discusses cordial waters and “the practical way of exalting malt spirits and how to endue them with flavours, measurably like those of wine”.

This was followed in 1718 by The Practical Distiller by an anonymous author, possibly George Smith of Kendal. Certainly, his A Compleat Body of Distilling (1725) was similarly printed by Lintot. This went on to become one of the two standard English works on distilling of the 18th century, enjoying five editions. It deals with the theory and practice of distilling liquors (including whisky) and cordials, intended partly for those larger houses that were equipped with a still-room.

A rival title, Ambrose Cooper's The Complete Distiller first appeared in 1757 but proved equally popular also running to five editions as late as 1826, by which time it had been re-titled The Complete Domestic Distiller and was subtitled as being for the use both of “Distillers and Private Families”. Assuming Cooper to be 21 years of age at first publication, he would have been 90 at the final appearance of his work, which seems improbable; if so, it is a tribute both to his longevity and his ardent spirits.

Robert Shannon's A Practical Treatise on Brewing, Distilling and Rectification appeared in 1805 and may be considered the first modern book in English treating the subject. A large format volume, complete with illustrations, Shannon is credited with taking a recognisably systematic approach to the subject, aiming, as he says, to “shew the distiller how he may proceed on rational principles” (Figure 1.8). Detailed and practical directions are provided for the guidance of the distiller or brewer, together with tables showing, for example, what yield may be expected from a given quantity of grain.

Figure 1.8

A malt distiller's wash and spirit still, from Shannon (1805).

Figure 1.8

A malt distiller's wash and spirit still, from Shannon (1805).

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Curiously for such a comprehensive work there appears only ever to have been one edition, despite the demand demonstrated by the repeated reprinting of the earlier titles by both Smith and Cooper.

Peter Jonas' The Key to the Distillery first appeared in 1818 and subsequently re-titled as The Distiller's Guide enjoyed at least two further editions.

A curious record of illicit distillation was preserved by Robert Armour, a plumber and still maker in Campbeltown, known to be working from 1811 to 1817. Armour's notes of Old Smuggling Stills is a rare record of the systematic manufacture of stills for illicit distilling which, judging by the scale of his business, was widespread in Kintyre. Later, the firm supplied still safes to Springbank and Bowmore. For understandable reasons, it would seem to have been unusual for any record of any part of the trade in illicit distilling to have been recorded, let alone kept for any length of time. However, Armour's notes survive as a manuscript in a private collection, although, so far as we can establish, they have never been reproduced; however, in 1970, they were reviewed by Dr I. A. Glen13 in the journal, Scottish Studies.19 

So far as we can determine, the earliest work written and printed in Scotland on distilling is by John McDonald, whose The Maltster, Distiller, and Spirit Dealer's Companion was published in Elgin in 1828. We have not seen this title cited in any of the major works on Scotch whisky, nor can we find it in any bibliography on the subject, from which we can deduce that it is rare, possibly exceptionally so. McDonald is described as ‘of the Excise’ and, in the preface, he acknowledges the encouragement from his colleague John Anderson, a Collector. The book is meticulous and detailed, with much on the economics of distillery operations and the sale of whisky and a thoroughly modern concern with quality.

On malting McDonald writes “the malt from which the favourite mountain dew has been made, was generally dried with peat, and the spirits with that flavour is still commonly preferred”.

McDonald identifies the regions of Fairntosh, Strathglass, Glenlivat, Lochaber, Badenoch and Rannoch as previously famed for the quality of their illicit spirits. He advises against the use of soap in the wash still, suggesting instead that “suet, butter, or hog's lard” would serve to avoid soap's “pernicious taste”. All three are commodities that presumably would have been readily available in a rural economy. He is also at pains to stress that “before any thing is done in the distilleries, cleanliness above every thing, must, at all times, be observed”.

As the earliest work on whisky so far identified, written and published in Scotland, McDonald's book is of great historical importance and deserves to be considerably better known and studied.

Although the French Maison rustique, or The Countrie Farme had appeared in a number of English editions as early as 1606 (including appetising instructions for the distillation of the blood of a male goat and even “a man's dung” – we have no idea why), a greater number of titles on agriculture appear in the early 18th century, in which distilling features and is treated as a natural extension of good farm management and part of the economy of a well-run farm. Amongst such titles we may include Nathan Bailey's Dictionary of Husbandry, Gardening, Trade, Commerce & Country Affairs (pre-1717), Professor Richard Bradley's The Country Housewife and Lady's Director in the Management of a House, and the Delights and Profits of a Farm (c. 1727) and part one of Bettesworth and Hitch's The Complete Family Piece and Country Gentleman, and Farmer's Best Guide, which, along with instructions on “distilling and fermenting of all compound simple waters and spirits” includes Dr Mead's “cure of the bite of a mad dog14 (3rd edition, 1741).

Domestic distilling also formed a branch of cookery. A particularly early example from 1671 is N. Brooke's A Queene's Delight with a description of “distilling the most excellent waters”. Sarah Harrison's The House-Keeper's Pocket-Book, and Compleat Family Cook first appeared in 1733 but shortly ran to several expanded editions. Along with several hundred recipes and medical advice, it described “distilling strong waters, &c. after the most approv'd method”.

Probably written under a pseudonym, Arabella Atkyns' The Family Magazine (1741) purported to offer “several hundred receipts [recipes] in cookery, pastry, pickling, confectionary, distilling, brewing, cosmeticks, &c. together with the art of making English wines” and went on to offer a “compendious body of physick; succinctly treating of all the diseases and accidents incident to men, women, and children”. The similarity to Hartman (1682) is unlikely to be coincidental.

Elizabeth Raffald, the Housekeeper to Lady Warburton, published her The Experienced English Housekeeper in 1794, including, amongst the claimed 900 original recipes, two for distilling, including instructions on refining malt liquors.

By 1808, Duncan Macdonald, the Head Cook at the Bedford Tavern and Hotel, Covent Garden, could offer The New London Family Cook; or, Town and Country Housekeeper's Guide, which was described as: “comprehending directions for marketing… practical instructions for preparing soups, broths, gravies, sauces, and made dishes… with the respective branches of pastry and confectionary, the art of potting, pickling, preserving, &c., cookery for the sick, and for the poor; directions for carving… Also a collection of valuable family recipes, in dyeing, perfumery, &c. Instructions for brewing, making of British wines, distilling, managing the dairy, and gardening. And an appendix, containing general directions for servants relative to the cleaning of household furniture, floor-cloths, stoves, marble chimney-pieces, &c., forming in the whole a most complete family instructor”.

Volume I of the Cabinet Cyclopædia of 1830, entitled Domestic Economy by Michael Donovan, Professor of Chemistry in the Company of Apothecaries of Ireland, expounds upon distilling, giving recipes and instructions in copious detail, along with a brief history of intoxicating liquors and spine-tingling tales of spontaneous combustion in habitual drunkards.

As many of the cookery titles were reprinted several times without significant revisions, references to domestic distilling carry on well into the Victorian period.

However, a curious late survival of this genre is The Still Room by Mrs Charles Roundell and Harry Roberts, published in London by The Bodley Head in 1903 as a stand-alone volume but described as volume IV of The Country Handbook series. As well as a number of illustrations of more or less fantastical medieval stills, a practical looking ‘portable copper still’ is illustrated and its operation briefly described. Distillation is described thus: “there is no occupation that comes nearer to the work of gods than this occupation of distilling” and in terms reminiscent of alchemy the author continues: “the distiller can but smile at the impotence of those who are unable to conceive the possibility of a post-physical human existence, for, day by day, as he stands before his stills he sees the miracle performed whereby the spiritual, the essential, is separated and continues to exist apart from the material body in which it previously dwelt”.

Mrs Roundell gives a number of recipes, including various cordials: ‘Benedictine’, ‘Green Chartreuse’, ‘Kummel’ and absinthe, all involving the redistillation of rectified spirits. Recipes for usquebaugh and the delightfully named ‘Sighs of Love’ are essentially infusions, not involving any further distillation. The significance of this title seems to us to lie in the suggestion that distilling was fairly openly carried on in respectable houses as a branch of cookery as late as 1903 and thought unremarkable.

In Edinburgh, The Society of Improvers in the Knowledge of Agriculture in Scotland, founded in 1723 and presided over by Thomas Hope of Rankeillor, who had studied agriculture both in England and on the European continent, promoted the adoption of improved farming methods. Their Transactions (published in 1743) include a discussion of distilling as an adjunct to the farm. Similarly, subscription volumes, such as the Annals of Agriculture and the early 19th century Farmer's Magazine, aimed at the progressive landlord or improving tenant, from time to time carried information on distilling.

Distilling had now taken root in the American colonies and a number of textbooks appeared. First amongst these was The American Distiller (Philadelphia, 1804) by Michael Krafft who evidently worked as a consultant to a number of operations, stating in his advertisement (i.e. the preface) that there were “not less than two hundred and seventeen distilleries working on my plan” and that he was willing to “attend the erecting of stills or distillerieson terms that will sufficiently meet the interests of the proprietors.”

Note the date of Krafft's work. In her powerfully suggestive, albeit geographically constrained, study of early distilling in colonial Chesapeake,12  Sarah Hand Meacham convincingly demonstrates that “making alcoholic beverages was something that women did as part of their share of the household labor”; that “making alcohol used to be women's work” and that it was primarily the arrival of technology that permitted men to claim “that making alcohol was a science that belonged within men's domains'“. As Meacham goes on to show, the role of women in early distilling practice has largely been ignored and that “by the early twentieth century, most American women and men had forgotten that making alcohol was once part of women's cookery”. No doubt, much the same could be said of the UK.

Notwithstanding Krafft's claim of more than two hundred satisfied clients, only five years later, Samuel McHarry (the title page reads M'Harry, presumably because the printer lacked the correct type) published his The Practical Distiller (Harrisburgh, PA; 1809) claiming in the preface that “I thought there must be books containing instructions, but to my surprise, after a diligent search of all the book-stores and catalogues in Pennsylvania, I found there was no American work extant, treating on this science…”. Perhaps his search lacked some diligence or possibly he and Krafft were commercial rivals, but this sentence has led a number of commentators to conclude that McHarry's was the first work published in America, whereas this honour rightly belongs to Michael Krafft.

The third early American work is Hall's Distiller (Philadelphia, 1813) by Harrison Hall, which concludes with a seven page “list of patents granted by the United States, for improvements in distillation, on stills, and refining of liquors” covering the period 1791–1812.

Later American works include The Art of Making Whiskey (Lexington, 1819 by Anthony Boucherie); The Complete Practical Distiller (1853) by Marcus La Fayette Byrn; Lewis Feuchtwanger's Fermented Liquors (1858, an early example of self-publishing); The Brewer, Distiller and Wine Manufacturer (1883) by John Gardner; Joseph Fleischman, of the famous distilling family, with The Art of Blending (1885); The Practical Distiller (1889) by Leonard Monzart; and, following the repeal of Prohibition, The Manufacture of Whiskey, Brandy and Cordials (1934) by Irving Hirsch.

So far as the UK is concerned, there appears to be a gap of nearly 50 years in the technical literature after MacDonald's rather rare work of 1828. The next relevant title that we can identify – and a highly specialized one at that – is the Tables of Spirit Proofs, published in Edinburgh, 1877 and compiled by Duncan McGlashan of the city's Caledonian Distillery,15 a large grain whisky operation.

The Tables are, as the name suggests, exactly that – several hundred pages of figures allowing the quantity of spirits at a given proof to be easily determined.

In 1878, the four principal Irish distillers (John Jameson and Son; Wm. Jameson & Co.; John Power and Son; and George Roe & Co.) issued a powerful and vehement denunciation of the trade in ‘silent spirit’ or ‘sham whisky’. Truths About Whisky (note the spelling) was part of a sophisticated lobbying and P. R. campaign to defend the reputation of Dublin pot still whisky from the impact of blending and from ‘passing-off’ and counterfeit Irish whiskies. The campaign ultimately failed, but the book is a wonderful polemic giving a valuable insight into some of the darker and more nefarious practices of the late-Victorian whisky trade. Without it we might have forgotten all about ‘grogging’ and the charms of ‘Hamburg sherry’, ‘prune wine’ and ‘cocked hat spirit’ – though it will be recalled by recently-retired production managers that the ‘wine treatment’ of casks with paxarete was not uncommon up until the late 1980s.

In 1887, Alfred Barnard's magnum opus The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom appeared, a collection of his reports for Harper's Weekly Gazette, and this has been reprinted on a number of occasions since as the main reference source for Victorian distilling in its heyday.16

It is not, however, a working guide to operating a distillery. That arrived in 1896 with the publication of J. A. Nettleton's first major work, The Manufacture of Spirit in the United Kingdom, which he subsequently revised and updated just prior to World War I.

In 1903, Sir Walter Gilbey, then owner of the Glen Spey, Strathmill and Knockando distilleries, published a slim pamphlet, titled Notes on Alcohol, which strongly advocated the merits of direct firing and pure pot still whisky. “When a plain, flavourless spirit, the produce of the patent still, is blended with a pot still whisky”, he wrote “it is but a very poor compromise”. However, as the history of the firm records,20  by 1905 “it was gradually appreciated that malt whisky was too heavy for a southern climate” and grain whisky was admitted.

Gilbey was writing against the background of an increasingly heated debate on the nature of whisky. Easily the most significant publication of the twentieth century was the 1909 report of the Royal Commission on Whiskey and other Potable Spirits (again, note the spelling of whisky). This followed a long period of public debate,17 culminating in the famous ‘What is Whisky?’ question arising from the 1905 test case prosecution in Islington Magistrates Court of two unfortunate publicans accused of supplying both Irish and Scotch whiskies not “as demanded by the purchasers”. Found guilty, they immediately appealed and, after lengthy machinations in which William Ross of The Distillers Company (DCL) played a prominent role, a Royal Commission was announced in February 1908.

Its determinations, by allowing grain spirit to be used in blending and accepting the result as whisky, laid the foundations of the modern industry. Most in the Scotch whisky trade were satisfied with the result, though not all, and it certainly did not appeal to the traditionalists in Irish distilling. Amongst other prominent critics was J. A. Nettleton, who wrote: “the opinions of medical men cannot be cited as expert evidence in regard to whisky” – a pointed reference to the make-up of the Royal Commission, which was heavily weighted in favour of the medical profession. But, regardless of criticism, the conclusions of the Commission held and went on to determine whisky's future course.

Nettleton, a former Inland Revenue analyst, had previously published on The Flavour of Whisky (1894 – this may have been an article in a trade journal; we have been unable to definitively establish any detail on this) but the work for which he is best remembered is the successor to his earlier work The Manufacture of Whisky and Plain Spirit (Aberdeen, 1913). This remained the standard work for a number of years afterwards and, in some ways, has never been entirely replaced or superseded – to our knowledge, it was consulted by a well-known Irish distiller as recently as 2011 as they endeavoured to re-start and re-use a vintage column still.

Smuggling in the Highlands, a lively account of the clandestine trade in Highland whisky appeared in 1914, presumably for a general audience.

Prior to World War II there were comparatively few publications by individual distilleries but we may note slim works, largely aimed at the blending trade from Highland Park (A Good Foundation, 1924); and Glenlivet: Where Romance and Business Meet (1924). The History of the House of Buchanan appeared in 1931 and The North British Distillery, a large Edinburgh grain distillery, published an account of its 50 years history in 1935.

Two of the most attractive small books on whiskey were published by John Jameson & Sons in Dublin. The History of a Great House (1924) and Elixir of Life (1925), are both notable for stunning illustrations by the Irish artist Harry Clarke, on account of which they are highly collectable.

The first recognizable title aimed at the general public was by Aeneas MacDonald (pseudonym, George Malcolm Thomson), entitled simply Whisky which appeared in 1930 and subsequently in 1934 in an American edition. A romantic and polemic book, it is beloved of whisky enthusiasts and remains in print to the present day.

William M. Bergius, a member of the Teacher's family, published his Reminiscences in 1938 apparently for private circulation, reflecting on a lifetime spent in the drinks industry in the family business.

A year earlier, William Birnie, an accountant and Charles Mackinlay's partner in Glen Mhor and Glen Albyn distilleries, circulated a slim typescript entitled Notes on the Distillation of Highland Malt Whisky, which was later printed as a small booklet by the Glasgow firm of blenders, Brodie Hepburn (1964).

Apart from this latter edition, however, it is beyond the scope of this review to consider work published after World War II. It may be regarded as a point of interest that in recent years there have been a number of works published to guide the small-scale distiller, presumably in response to the boom in craft distilleries.

Finally, it should be noted that there are many valuable and useful books on such as cooperage, malting and gauging. These have not been considered here but their omission demonstrates a need for a thoroughly comprehensive bibliography of titles related to whisky, distilling and related subjects.


Should any reader doubt the relevance of citing Primo Levi's The Periodic Table here, consider that in 2006 the Royal Institution considered it “the best science book ever.”


Avoniel enjoys a curious distinction as being the sole distillery to refuse access to Alfred Barnard who, understandably aggrieved, wrote: “the proprietor stands conspicuous as being unwilling to allow an inspection of his works – for what reason we are unable to explain”. The proprietor's son did, however, provide Barnard with some scanty statistics.


What was originally Quebec Province was split into Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec) by George III in June 1791. They were unified in 1840.


The campaigning pamphlet “A Plot Against the People”, issued by Hiram Walker in 1911 as they lobbied against the Kentucky whiskey interests, is a minor classic of its kind.


Said to be a larger army than any that faced the British.


In the sour mash process, some of an older batch of mash is retained and used to start fermentation in the following batch.


Illinois was, at that time, a major distilling centre. During the years 1837–1919 Peoria housed 24 breweries and 73 distilleries but the activities of the Trust silenced most of them.


Often known as the Volstead Act after its sponsor Andrew Volstead, a Republican Congressman from Minnesota.


He had made the error of drinking with the American author, Christopher Morley, noted for his enthusiastic consumption and great love of whiskey; brother to Frank, Blake's colleague at Faber & Faber.


Quoted in Spirits & Cocktails by Dave Broom, Carlton Books: London, 1998.


See, for example, the 2013 release of a 1964 distillation from the closed Karuizawa distillery, which retailed at £10 000 per bottle. See Figure 1.6.


Dr, then Miss Glen also notably contributed a scholarly introduction to the first facsimile reprint of Alfred Barnard's The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (David & Charles, 1969).


One can never assert with certainty when such guidance may prove of assistance. Perhaps all future titles on distilling should carry similar intelligence.


At one time, the ‘Caley’ as it was known, was one of the largest distilleries in Scotland. Little remains today, save for a chimney and some buildings. Most of the site has been redeveloped for housing.


Some years later, Barnard wrote a number of commissioned pamphlets, probably six in number, for different companies, which go into greater detail than the fairly terse entries in his book. These, however, are now very rare.


See, for example, the pamphlet The Practice of Substitution in the Spirit Trade reproduced in The Lancet in February 1903. There was also extensive correspondence in the press.

The Periodic Table
Michael Joseph
The Vertuose Boke of Distyllacyon
, 1st English ed.,
Laurens Andrewe
, et al., in
Medieval Distilling
J. Medieval Archaeology
vol. 16
An Itinerary Written by Fynes Moryson Gent.
John Beale
E. B.
Irish Whiskey
Gill & Macmillan
The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom
Harper’s Weekly Gazette
Truths about Whisky
Sutton Sharpe & Co
The Story of Canadian Whisky
Fitzhenry & Whiteside
de Kergommeaux
Canadian Whisky
McLelland & Stewart
Haidin Regan
The Book of Bourbon
Chapters Publishing
Inebriating Liquors
William Curry, Jun & Company and others
Hand Meacham
Every Home a Distillery – Alcohol, Gender and Technology in the Colonial Chesapeake
Johns Hopkins University Press
T. R.
A Ramble Round the Globe
Chatto & Windus
Correspondence with Frank Morley of Faber & Faber
, unpublished
Japanese Whisky Scottish Blend
Scottish Cultural Press
Ocean’s early years (Part I) – Daikoku Budoshu and the birth of the brand,
, available at 2012/03/oceans-early-years-part-i-daikoku.html, accessed 24thJuly 2013
History of Japanese Whisky Exhibit,
, available at, accessed 24th July 2013
The Porpoise Press
I. A.
A Maker of Illicit Stills
, in
Scottish Studies
School of Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh
vol. 14
, part 1
Merchants of Wine
Cassell and Company
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