Malice in the mix
A book on the great Glasgow whisky scandal of 1872 is set to be republished.According to Ian Buxton,it makes essential reading
Ah, the good old days. Whisky just a few pennies a glass; hundreds of independent companies competing for our business; distilleries now lost in the mists of time sending forth their wonderful drams. On every street corner a Dickensian pub stands ready for our business, the ruddy-faced landlord dispensing wisdom and whisky in equal measure.
How wonderful it seems. Surely, the Victorians lived in a golden age. And, today, those distillers who survived the challenges of war, recession and competition from trendier spirits are anxious to remind us of their heritage.
Half the visitor centres in Scotland are full of faded sepia pictures of a whiskered workforce dating from the 1800s, their curiously fixed stares offered up as evidence of the enduring values of the proprietors. A good number of the bottles we buy are proudly adorned with the legend ‘established 1817’ or some such, the longevity of the firm a guarantee of quality, a reassuring bastion in troubled times.
It seems that heritage is big business.
Great efforts go into convincing us that nothing has changed in the whisky we drink. I’ve lost count of the number of shiny big distilleries I’ve visited, controlled by one man and a computer, where I’ve been assured that “of course, we still make it the same way”.
That’s the same way, allowing for new varieties of barley; wholly mechanised malting; precisely controlled fermentation; distillation in stills with the rummagers removed and heated by steam pipes rather than direct flame; closely managed wood policies and so on. Yes, everything’s changed but it’s just the same.
Well, it’s a comforting vision.
Personally, I’m reassured by progress. I don’t fear the arrival of the computer in the still house and, as for some of the practices of the recent past, such as the ‘dramming’ of new made spirit that were widespread in living memory, well goodbye and good riddance.
There may still be a comforting glow in nostalgia, however. Or so I thought until exploring the history of the great Glasgow whisky scandal of 1872.
The late 19th century represents the zenith of Victorian Britain. The British Empire – of which Scotland was a proud part – was still expanding; a growing prosperity was spreading throughout the nation and Glasgow was very much in its heyday. There was much to celebrate – and whisky filled the glass that made the toast.
But what exactly was this whisky?
In September 1872 the North British (i.e.
Scottish) Daily Mail reported some alarming findings.
In a pioneering piece of investigative journalism the paper had obtained samples of 30 whiskies from different public houses (licensed and unlicensed) in Glasgow and subjected them to independent analysis. The results were staggering, demonstrating – or so the paper claimed – that only two were genuine whisky.
The rest were diluted, often with nothing more harmful than water from Loch Katrine (Glasgow’s public supply), but in some cases the additions were more sinister. The ‘whisky’ so freely enjoyed by Glasgow’s citizens was shown to contain turpentine, methylated spirits, sulphuric acid and a varnish used to polish furniture and manufacture hats!
The story is told in It’s a bad thing whisky, especially bad whisky by Edward Burns. First published in 1995 by the obscure Balvag Books it’s now been reprinted by Neil Wilson Publishing. At £4.99 it’s an essential buy for the whisky enthusiast (collectors will want to find the original Balvag edition – expect to pay up to £15 on eBay or through a dealer).
Burns carefully documents the whole saga, in a thorough piece of historical writing which author Pip Hills has described as “a welcome antidote to the heritage crap with which some distillers adulterate the history of whisky.” The story revolves around two men: Dr James Cameron, editor of the North British Daily Mail and Dr James St Clair Gray of the University of Glasgow, who undertook the tests.
They moved into an area fraught with difficulty. The problem was not so much with the manufacturers or distillers, but with unscrupulous retailers, especially in poorer areas. It was relatively common practice to pad out products such as tea, sweets, bread and even meat to boost profits or simply to make a living.
Bread, for example, was recorded as containing mashed potatoes, rice, beans, rye, bone dust, plaster of Paris and copper sulphate. Children’s sweets were coloured with red lead, copper, zinc, prussic acid and arsenic! Meat, as in one case in Paris in 1872, might consist of the flesh of cats, dogs and other animals off the streets.
In response to growing public concern over health and safety, Parliament had just passed the 1872 Adulteration Act so product tampering, especially with food and drink, was much in the news as young Dr Gray went to work.
The result, as no doubt Cameron had predicted, was a satisfying outcry and a healthy volume of correspondence to the paper. A disingenuous defence from the Glasgow Wine, Spirit and Beer Trade Association claimed that, “few, if any persons in the trade in Scotland would knowingly adulterate drink” and one councillor Steel made the remarkable claim that “nearly all the substances noticed by your analyst will be found in a greater or lesser degree native to whisky – many of them are quite as harmless as alcohol”.
Perhaps councillor Steel had taken one too many glass of methylated spirits.
Amusing as this is, at this distance in time, it illustrates a serious point.
In 1872 there was no agreed definition of whisky (‘good old days’ indeed). Blending was in its infancy; there was no legal requirement to age whisky for three years, as today, and trading standards were not a priority for local authorities.
Much of Glasgow’s drinking, particularly amongst poorer folk, was done in unlicensed sheebeens, illegal drinking dens and the city’s numerous brothels. Little attention was paid there to quality control and the ‘house blend’ was, as often as not, designed simply to intoxicate at the lowest cost.
One sample analysed by Gray of ‘shebeen whisky’ was found to contain no whisky whatsoever, consisting of Berlin spirit, wood naptha (methylated spirit) and water. It was described as pinkish green in colour, having an “indescribable” smell and “disgusting” taste. Indeed. Tasting notes will never be the same again.
So why did anyone drink it? In a word, poverty and the desperation that goes along with extensive social deprivation and short life expectancy (not that these drams were going to help any). Glasgow’s douce middle classes were comfortingly ignorant of much of the squalor at the heart of their city and Gray’s work came as an uncomfortable wake-up call.
The controversy over the Glasgow whisky adulteration scandal rumbled on. Some doubts were cast on the analytical work but Gray himself died, of diphtheria, only two years later at the age of 27.
Methylated spirit was still being detected in 1885 when the Northern Provision Trade Journal reported a case in Leith and commented “it would seem that the practice of mixing the vile wood spirit with ordinary coarse strong Scotch whisky is of wider range than the authorities at first imagined.” But, slowly at first, the whisky business got its house in order. Metallic capsules were fitted to bottles to prevent tampering; strong brands were developed to guarantee quality; a Select Committee of the House of Commons enquired into whisky, resulting in the celebrated Royal Commission of 1908/09 and progressive legislation to protect the consumer and whisky’s good name.
So, raise a dram to Edward Burns for a fascinating piece of social history and to the pioneering Dr James St Clair Gray for beginning the process of guaranteeing the contents of your next glass.
And, unless you’re a Time Lord, don’t worry about ordering whisky in Glasgow.
It’s a bad thing whisky, especially bad whisky by Edward Burns is available from Neil Wilson Publishing, price £4.99