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Issue 19 - Elusive and illicit Speyside spirit

Whisky Magazine Issue 19
November 2001


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Elusive and illicit Speyside spirit

Gavin Smith traces the reportedly romantic but often mercenary history of illicit distilling in Speyside

A great deal of romance has grown up around the figure of the noble Highlander, distilling without benefit of a licence in order to feed and clothe his family, opposed by the brutal forces of the excise officers, or ‘gaugers'. Stories of the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the whisky-makers are legion and well-documented, with stills being constructed behind waterfalls so that the tell-tale smoke from distillation would appear as water spray, while mock funeral corteges with coffins full of whisky would pass under the noses of the hapless law-enforcers.

The reality, inevitably, was less simplistic than the myth suggests. Not all ‘home' distillers were motivated by family values and by no means everyone in the Highlands approved of the trade in illicit whisky. Many of the same factors that influence the location of legal distilling operations also influenced the illegal trade, so it should come as no surprise that Speyside, with its concentration of distilleries, was also one of the principal centres for illicit distilling two centuries ago. At the heart of distilling in Speyside was Dufftown, home to a great deal of unlawful whisky-making.

Ready access to a good water source was essential and convenient supplies of barley and peat were also required, but remoteness was the most priceless asset. Take a drive today from Dufftown over the Cabrach to Rhynie, and before you drop down into lush Aberdeenshire farmland you pass through some of the most bleak yet beautiful terr...

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