widespread rejoicing among whisky enthusiasts this summer, with the publication
by James Eadie Ltd of The Distilleries of Great Britain and Ireland. This
lavishly illustrated volume stretches to 617 pages, featuring articles on 124
Scottish, Irish and English distilleries which appeared originally in the
monthly The Wine and Spirit Trade Record during the 1920s. Iain Russell delves
into the publication to find that the more things change, the more they stay
The Record’s articles were written primarily for a specialist readership – distillers, blenders and brokers across the country – and in an advertorial style to promote each distillery and its ‘make’. But the detailed descriptions of plant and processes, alongside hundreds of original high-quality black and white photographs, offer fascinating insights into the state of the whisky industry in the wake of the First World War and in the midst of Prohibition. Many of the issues of the day remain topical 100 years later.
The book contains entries for 106 Scottish malt distilleries, and some of the most intriguing stories and themes emerge there. On the fundamental question of what makes good Scotch whisky, for example, the Record was adamant: “Ripe barley, malted and peat-dried, is the only material which imparts the true Scotch flavour.”
It seems that every distillery malted its barley on-site. But while many used grain imported from as far afield as Australia and India, the Record’s authors suggested that those which used locally-grown barley were able to produce a more distinctive spirit. It’s enough to gladden the hearts of modern ‘ terroiristes’.
The distinctive characters of whiskies such as Edradour and Isla in Perthshire, for example, were ascribed to the use of local barley. And the grain from the rich farmlands of the Mearns, used in distilleries in Aberdeenshire and Kincardineshire, was considered the best of all. The Records says: “For distilling purposes it is the barley par excellence, as it naturally produces a real, rich Scotch whisky.”
It was as well-known then as it is today, that the quantity and type of peat burned in the process to dry malted barley has a major impact on the flavour of single malts. And it appears that, in the 1920s, the liberal use of this smoky fuel was not confined to what we think of today as the homelands of peated malts, in the islands and the west coast.
Take this comment about The Glenlivet: “In creating a world-celebrated whisky the richness and fragrance of [Faemussach] peat has doubtless played an important part.”
Yet The Glenlivet has scarcely a trace of peatiness today. Nor do the whiskies from many other distilleries in Speyside and beyond, which were nevertheless identified in the Record as burning a high proportion of peat alongside coke or anthracite in their malt kilns. It’s obvious that many of today’s most popular single malts must have tasted quite different a century ago.
One frustration often expressed by those who read Barnard’s work is his reluctance to actually describe the characters of the spirits produced in the distilleries he visited. That’s certainly not the case here. Of the Islay malts, for example, we learn that Ardbeg is “at its best about seven years old”. Laphroaig is matured in sherry wood for five years and is “second to none as a liqueur whisky or for medicinal use”. Lagavulin is “a soft peaty spirit of fine flavour” while the whisky from its sister distillery, Malt Mill, is “a much heavier whisky suitable only for blending”.
Elsewhere in Scotland, the Lowland malts were described as “perhaps the least picturesque of the categories of single malt whiskies” characterised by “a distinctly malty character”. Cardhu was more heavily peated than other Speysiders. And the whiskies from the distilleries in and around Keith were “milder than some of those produced in other parts of the Speyside district, and taken ‘single’ they provide an excellent drink”.
The Record recognised the five whisky regions that were subsequently enshrined in the Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009. There were heavy hints, however, that the Campbeltown distilleries were struggling to adapt to changes in the world of whisky.
“For many years the trade in Campbeltown suffered from rigid adherence to whisky-making traditions handed down from generation to generation.”
The Record congratulated a new generation of owners who took over many of the distilleries after the First World War: “In most cases [they have] taken the local trade out of an old-fashioned rut that was slowly paralysing initiative and diverting the eyes of the distillers from the up-to-date methods that modern science has placed at their disposal.” Nevertheless, Campbeltown’s reputation for the inconsistency and poor quality of whisky it produced could not be shaken off in the 1920s, and its distillers struggled to obtain profitable contracts from blenders. Only three of the region’s distilleries survived into the 1930s.
Finally, the Record focussed a great deal of attention on one of the most pressing issues to have affected the whisky industry in recent years. Scottish distillers happily flaunt their green credentials today, not least in boasting about the innovative and effective ways in which they have tackled the challenges of treating distillery waste, to prevent damage to the environment. The Record’s articles reveal that inland distillers in the 1920s were also greatly concerned about pollution and give very detailed descriptions of the filtration beds, effluent purification plants and ingenious plant and processes they adopted to prevent untreated liquid waste from entering the country’s rivers and streams.
It would be wrong to ascribe 21 st century sensibilities to the Scots distillers, however. The Record’s authors suggest that they were motivated less by lofty ambitions to save the planet, than to avoid costly litigation from local authorities and landowners seeking to prevent the contamination of Scotland’s great rivers and tributaries. One quote sums up the prevailing attitude: “The disposal of effluent has long been a thorn in the side of the distillery managers… Proprietors of distilleries on the sea coast [where untreated effluent was commonly discharged directly into the oceans] perhaps fail fully to appreciate their good fortune in being free from this problem.”
The Distilleries of Great Britain and Ireland is a welcome addition to the rapidly expanding library of books on the story of whisky. It offers a snapshot of the whisky industry at a crucial point in its development, and background and context to some of the great issues that were to affect it over the coming decades.
The volume has already sold well, and it seems unlikely it will be the last of its kind. There is an even greater thirst for information about the remarkable Scotch whisky boom of the later 20 th century, and the distilleries that produced some of the most expensive vintage bottlings offered for sale and at auction in recent times. It surely can’t be long until a companion volume appears, chronicling the rise of the industry and its distilleries in the 1960s?
The Distilleries of Great Britain & Ireland is published by James Eadie Ltd (£150) and is available via Royal Mile Whiskies at https://www.royalmilewhiskies.com/distilleries-of-great-britain-and-ireland-1922-1929/