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The Balvenie

Malt Whisky - Illicit Stills

The Highlanders continued their illicit distilling undeterred. Their equipment was rudimentary and easy to dismantle, in case they needed to conceal it from the excisemen. Crucial to the distilling process was the 'worm', a copper pipe used to condense the hot vapours from the alcoholic wash into liquid. When the worm had reached the end of its useful life, it was not uncommon for the illicit distiller to report to the exciseman that a still had been discovered, and so claim a reward. With the money he could then buy a new copper pipe and set up in another glen!

The challenge facing a zealous exciseman was immense. Concerning the Highlands, it was reported in 1798: 'the distillery is in a thousand hands. It is not confined to great towns or to regular manufacturers, but spreads itself over the whole face of the country, and in every island from the Orkneys to Jura. There are many who practise this art who are ignorant of every other, and there are distillers who boast that they make the best possible Whiskey who cannot read or write, and who carry on this manufacture in parts of the country where the use of the plough is unknown, and where the face of an Exciseman was never seen. Under such circumstances, it is impossible to take account of its operations. . . . '

Illicit distilling helped pay the rent of the Highlanders' tenant farms, but it also produced a warming cup for their own consumption to revive their spirits in a cold, damp climate. Whisky was drunk neat or with water, but it was also mixed with water and honey or with milk and honey, or with sugar and butter which was burned until the sugar and butter dissolved. Whisky toddy - whisky, sugar and hot water - was a common drink in 18th-century Scotland, especially in the Lowlands. And the whisky certainly seemed to pack a punch: an English army officer in the Highlands recorded that a group of officers emerged the worse for wear after an heavy whisky session - one was thrown into 'a fit of the gout', another had 'a most dangerous fever' and a third 'lost his skin and hair by the surfeit'!

<-- Taxation Act of Parliament 1863 -->

 

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