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Issue 17 - Owing it all to Islington

Whisky Magazine Issue 17
July 2001


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Owing it all to Islington

Gavin Smith recounts the early days of blending, when a court case in north London helped secure the future of the Scotch whisky industry

By an historic quirk of fate, the present day Scotch whisky industry does not owe its existence to happenings in some remote Highland glen, nor even in the boardrooms of Edinburgh, but rather to a series of events that began in 1905 with legal proceedings in the London Borough of Islington.

The ‘What is Whisky?' case concerning the legitimacy of blended whisky was one of the most significant milestones in the history of the national spirit. However much we may love our single malts, it is an undeniable fact that it was the commercial application of the blender's art that allowed Scotch whisky to become a drink for the world.

Without the earlier development of grain whisky distillation, however, there could have been no blends. The man who started it all was Robert Stein, a member of a famous Lowland distilling dynasty, who in 1827 pioneered the construction of a revolutionary new kind of still that worked on a continuous rather than a ‘batch' basis in the manner of the
established pot still.

Stein's early work was refined by a former Inspector-General of Excise in Ireland, Aeneas Coffey, who patented his eponymous still design in 1831. Coffey or ‘Patent' stills could produce far greater quantities of spirit than their pot still counterparts, though the make was quite bland and much of it was rectified into gin in England, rather than being consumed in its original form. Some, however, was drunk in working class communities in the industrial Scottish Lowlands on acc...

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