I was pleased recently to discover a first edition of "Scotch Made Easy" by Scots-Australian Ross Wilson. It was published in 1959, long before the age of resurgent single malt whisky. Blended whisky reigned supreme.
The book is a history of Scotch Whisky, as it was understood back in 1959. The book begins at the dawn of history with the Ancient Egyptians, and ends with the supremacy of blended whisky as a global force by the end of World War I.
If I could summarise this book's qualities, I would say that it is pretty much entirely dependent on other published material for sources (similarly to Aeneas Macdonald's book from 1930) with no insider's knowledge nor legwork-research involved. Also, Wilson loves quoting extensively from his sources, particularly poetry. He also has an obsession with liquor excise, with the majority of the book being taken up with discussions of excise and whisky, complete with figures and tables.
I am a history graduate, and have often entertained the opinion that no serious historians have tackled whisky history properly, not even the most highly regarded whisky writers (who, of course, are not really historians). So it is always fascinating to me to have access to new sources and what they reveal about whisky history.
To me, the development of wood-ageing is the most important one in the history of whisky. Most writers assume that old whisky (from before c. 1850) would have been effectively white spirit, with little or no ageing. Even the eminent Aeneas Macdonald dismisses wood-ageing as a mere cosmetic to colour the spirit.
I find it interesting that, in this book, Mr Wilson states that wood ageing of spirits began with the producers of Cognac in the 1700s. They would overproduce cognac in some years and rather than release them from bond, they would hold them back for a number of years until a lack of Cognac in a future year. Meanwhile, since barrels were the only storage method, these producers found that wood-ageing soften and mellowed the flavour.
I have also speculated that the practice may have originated from the stowage of rum or fortified wines on ships from the 1600s. After a year of voyaging, the barrels may have coloured and mellowed out the contents, thus giving people the idea of ageing spirits in wood.
Anyway, I find record in Wilson's book of an incident in 1822, when George IV visited Edinburgh in state with Sir Walter Scott. Scott had already preached the virtues of Glenlivet whisky to the King, and in particular the illegal type made in smaller stills. King George IV sent far and wide for Glenlivet, finally settling on a young lady who wrote of the incident with some venom:
"Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me - I was the cellarer - to empty my pet bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles [ie straight from the barrel], mild as milk, and the true contraband gout in it [ie it had the qualities of illegal whisky]. Much as I grudged this treasure it made our fortunes..."
The young lady Elizabeth Grant lost her father's whisky but the King in gratitude later made her father a judge. This incident shows that even in the early 19th century, at least, whisky drinkers in Scotland knew the virtues of ageing in wood barrels. Also, the bootleg stuff seems to have been better made!
Another quote in Wilson is of an Irish poem from 1869. At this time the actual Jameson's distillery was still in operation, about which the poet wrote as follows:
"It is not brandy, it is not wine
It is JAMESON'S IRISH WHISKY [sic]
It fills the heart with joy divine
And makes the fancy frisky
All other spirits are vile resorts
Except its own Scotch first cousin
And as for your Clarets and Sherries and Ports
A naggin is worth a dozen!
I have watered this, though a toothful neat
Just melts like cream down the throttle
But it's grand in the punch, hot strong and sweet
Not a headache in a bottle!
It is as amber as the western skies
When the sunset grows serenest
It is as mellow as the mild moonrise
When the shamrock leaves fold greenest..."
Again, the amber colour of whisky is alluded to, hinting at wood ageing as par for the course by 1869 (although admittedly even at this time spirit-caramel was being added to whisky to improve its colour).
Wilson's initial chapters are hampered somewhat by a lack of sources. In earlier chapters he often quotes writers who describe any sort of imbibing of drink, only to express disappointment that they clearly refer to gin, or brandy, or claret. Clearly, in earlier days whisky was confined to Scotsmen, and even among them it was not fashionable among the wealthy.
In later chapters, along with the invention of blended whisky (thanks to the Coffey still), we find whisky becoming much more of an economic force. Wilson depicts the rise and rise of Scottish entrepreneurs such as Johnnie Walker and the Walker sons, Mr Buchanan who invented "Black And White", and Mr William Teacher who invented the "Highland Cream".
I am fascinated by the fact that, despite the overwhelming economic force of blended whisky from the 1860s on, there is clear evidence from Wilson's book that single malts were still being consumed, possibly in roughly the same proportion to blended whisky as today.
Wilson describes, for instance the situation in London in 1879, when Buchanan was promoting his blended "Black And White". Pubs did sell whisky back then, and what they sold was mostly "self, or single, whiskies [ie single malts]; that is, straight unblended Highland or Lowland malt whiskies or, preferably, Irish whiskies". Of course, the success of Buchanan, the Walkers and Teacher changed that shortly after.
In 1907, Wilson says, a contemporary wine and spirit newspaper says:
"Tourists' whisky tastes - speaking of singles [ie single malts], I may remark that during the visitor season...a good many single-whiskies have been on offer at several health resorts. But they did not prove so popular as in the previous year [ie 1906]; the run seemed to be on blends....Even a couple of years ago, single-whiskies of named distilleries were quite in vogue, and distillers were enabled to deal directly with those retailing the liquor."
As for the state of wood-ageing by the late Victorian era, Wilson includes some very, very interesting actual recipes from blenders. His point is to attack those seeking to present their whisky as being highly aged (there was no rule about age-statements being restricted to the youngest whisky back then), but to me the recipes are fascinating as an insight as to exactly what single malts, at what ages and in what proportions were being blended back then.
Here are the recipes (dating around the 1890s):
100 parts new grain whisky
15 parts Bruichladdich, 10 years old
5 parts Glenlossie, 3 years old
1 part Caldonian, new
(Here you can see how small a proportion is made up of single malts, like cheaper blends today. Also, two of these distilleries no longer exist!)
DIAMOND JUBILEE SPECIAL RESERVE to celebrate Her Majesty's jubilee of 1897.
The blender alleged that the blend was "twenty years old":
200 parts Aultmore, new
200 parts Sunbeam, 4 years old
50 parts Oban, 1 year old
60 parts Ardlussa, 4 years old
30 parts Tambowie, 1 year old
460 parts Avoniel Irish Whiskey, new
All aged in sherry casks. PFC.
Not sure which of the above, if any, are grain whiskies.
Advertised as "a blend of Talisker and other ten year old whiskies".
100 parts Carsebridge, 3 years old
12.5 parts Jura, 3 years old
5 parts Miltonduff, 2 years old
2.5 parts Bruichladdich, 5 years old
5 parts Talisker, 5 years old.
Proof (ie 45.8% abv). Fife colour.
I believe Carsebridge and Miltonduff to be grain whiskies. At any rate, again, the blend is mostly grains and contains the familiar names of Bruichladdich, Talisker and Jura. I wonder what they tasted like back then!
Anyway, I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a pre-single malt era view of what whisky history was all about. Be prepared to leaf through many pages of tax information and quotes from Robbie Burns though.
O Great Sun Disc
Thou art very great.
Thou art robed in power
and in majesty.
Thou goest down
and it is night.
The young lion roars after his prey