Elusive and illicit Speyside spirit

Elusive and illicit Speyside spirit

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

Production | 16 Nov 2001 | Issue 19 | By Gavin Smith

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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 terrain you are likely to encounter in Scotland. The Cabrach was a legendary haunt of distillers, and it is not difficult to see how daunting the area must have been for excisemen looking to curtail their activities.The same applies to the journey along the B9009 through Glen Rinnes and into Glenlivet. The much-touted figure of 200 stills operating in Glenlivet circa 1800 may be an exaggeration, but the glen was a hotbed of illicit distillation. One farmer recalled that at the end of the 18th century “...there were not three persons in Glenlivet in those days who were not engaged directly or indirectly in the trade”.The heritage of the old whisky-makers still remains strong in Dufftown, even today. The clocktower at the centre of the village square was reputedly home to a clandestine distilling operation for many years and in the left-hand window of the fascinating Whisky Museum located nearby is a small, illicit still discovered in one of the town’s six operational distilleries. Sadly for local lore, however, it was not actually being used when discovered.To make illicit distilling in the Dufftown area even more tangible, Geoff Armitage of Highland Activity Holidays conducts guided walks up to Corryhabbie in
Glenrinnes during the annual Speyside Whisky Festival. The trek to Corryhabbie begins on the metalled road that leads to Glenrinnes graveyard, no more than a stone’s throw from one of Speyside’s most modern distilleries, Seagram Brothers’ 1970s Allt A Bhainne facility.“There’s a ruin there which has two former barley-steeping pits,” says Armitage, “but Corryhabbie is a very remote area, so there would certainly have been quite a lot of illicit distilling going on – and not just the one operation. One of the problems of trying to bring it to life is that there is very little left on the ground to show where it took place. The equipment was easily portable and the distillers would have used heather-thatched bothies, which didn’t have long lives.”“They’d be making whisky for their own consumption and also to sell probably, until the middle of the 19th century I’d say. There are stories of pony-trains full of illicit whisky going from Speyside as far as Edinburgh to sell, but I don’t think that can have happened very often, and from the Dufftown area they’d not have gone much further than Elgin or Aberdeen.”Much of the whisky produced by the illicit distillers would probably be, to modern palates, almost undrinkable due to the basic equipment and the fact that any time spent distilling increased the chances of being caught. Therefore the practice of giving the spirit a second run to improve its quality would often be disregarded. Once the spirit was made it immediately became a liability until disposed of, so the occasions on which it would be lovingly matured for a good number of years in carefully selected ex-oloroso casks would be non-existent. Much of the spirit would have fitted the evocative American
description of ‘white lightning’, although some of it must have been of better quality since illicit Highland whisky had major markets in the Lowlands and, notably, when King George IV visited Edinburgh in 1822 he asked for Glenlivet whisky – which would have been illegally distilled. According to Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus (Memoirs of a Highland Lady): “The king drank nothing else.”Many of today’s distilleries had their roots in illegal operations, though perhaps most significantly at Cardhu and The
Glenlivet. The visitor centres of Speyside are littered with displays of small scale, home made illicit stills and references to the illegal trade – hinting at a possibly more adventurous and romantic past lurking behind today’s rows of gleaming, smug copper stills and computer-monitored warehouse stocks. At Benromach Distillery, by Forres, there is a photograph captioned thus: “An illicit still – somewhere on Speyside.” In it, a man sits at a bench, his still in front of him, gas burner aflame. What is most notable is that the man’s coat and cap suggest he is not some 19th century distiller, but he is in fact a man of the 1950s rather than the 1850s. Received wisdom is that illicit distilling had virtually disappeared by the mid-19th century but evidence suggests that it persisted until much more recently. And it’s not just anecdotal evidence either. The distilling town of Keith seems to have been something of a hotspot for latter-day unlicensed whisky-making, as evidenced by two newspaper references to court cases discovered by freelance historian Iain Russell, who has done such excellent work on behalf of Chivas Brothers’ Strathisla Distillery archive.In January 1934, a prosecution took place after a 12 gallon still was discovered in an underground cellar of the Gordon Arms Hotel and during the summer of 1937 one Adam Riddoch of Gateside in Keith appeared in Banff Sheriff Court on a charge of having an illicit still in his house. Riddoch pleaded not guilty and claimed that coils of copper tubing found by excise officers during a raid on his home were to be used in a wireless transmitter, that the purpose of a 60 gallon tank was to hold water for photographic developing purposes, and that three and a half hundredweight of barley was being stored in readiness for the purchase of hens. The Sheriff, in his wisdom, found the case not proven. Perhaps he was a customer, who knows.Down at Ballindalloch, Glenfarclas Distillery has the actual still seized in March 1888 from James Smith, familiarly known as Goshen, in the parish of Glass by a team of Revenue Officers from nearby Huntly. Goshen was one of the most celebrated illicit distillers of his day, being renowned for the quality of make he produced. One of Goshen’s descendants is octogenarian innkeeper Dorothy Brandie, who presides over the tiny, idiosyncratic Fiddichside Inn, near Dufftown. She keeps a photograph of her ancestor on the wall of the bar and is scornful of suggestions that any illegal whisky making might still go on today. She makes the point that the need to distil has long disappeared and that, despite taxation, whisky is now affordable to the average man – which wasn’t always the case.The population of Dufftown includes many retired distillery employees, and if you get a group of them together in a
congenial atmosphere and ply them with a drop or three of the cratur, the stories of smuggling spirit out of the distilleries in sauce bottles, ‘copper dogs’ and even wellington boots will come flowing out. Enquire whether any of the hills are still alive to the sound of distilling, however, and you are met with polite denials and shakes of the head.One story about the old days that was new to me, however, concerned a mill on the Cabrach, where the pond was regularly drained under cover of darkness to reveal distilling apparatus. Before the sun rose the next morning, with a run completed, the pond was filled again – leaving no trace of the submerged still! The same Dufftown source of this story also insists that even during their lifetime, what the Irish would call “parliament whisky” (poor quality spirit) was cut with the illicit stuff and
sold in the bar of a well-known, remote Speyside hostelry.While on the subject of the still-thriving art of smuggling whisky out of distilleries by employees, one former Dufftown distiller said: “Some of it was taken to be sold, but a lot of it was really just about beating the system, it was the sport.” It’s a sentiment that echoes the raison d'être behind much of the illicit distilling that formerly went on. It’s likely that many of the illicit distillers who thrived during the late 18th century enjoyed cocking a snook at the British establishment, its laws and taxes, as much as earning their ill-gotten gains.Many families did, however, supplement their meagre agricultural incomes from the proceeds of illicit distilling and rents were often paid on the proceeds of converting surplus barley into the higher value commodity of whisky. When a steep rise in duty to finance Britain’s war with France sent the price of whisky soaring during the mid-1790s, the government needed to do something to control the illicit whisky epidemic in the Highlands. Its response was the 1823 Excise Act, which effectively laid the foundations for today’s Scottish whisky industry. As a result, the number of licensed distilleries in Scotland doubled during the next two years. From an astonishing 14,000 detections of illicit operations in 1823, the level fell to 692 in 1834 and just six in 1874.It would be nice to report that I managed to taste a drop of the real stuff. However, all the spirit I drank, courtesy of The Whisky Shop’s Fiona Murdoch and Ian Millar, Manager of Glenfiddich, Balvenie and Kininvie, had been legally distilled and had vast amounts of duty paid on it.“The Cabrach was the last place they’d be making it,” stated a retired Dufftown distillery worker as we shared some of Ian’s Glenfiddich one evening. “That’s if it has stopped there yet ...”
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