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June 21st 1644

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Alcohol tax

It was in 1644 that the Scots Parliament first imposed an excise duty on alcoholic beverages, a duty of 2s 8d “on everie pynt of aquavytie or strong watteris sold within the country.”  It was a swinging tax and should have brought in a great deal of revenue, but being very difficult to collect, it was generally ignored.

But if the first practical efforts had been largely unsuccessful, the principles of the tax remained. Cromwell, during his control of the country, reduced the rate but proved more efficient in collecting it. Later, modifications and refinements were made until in 1725, Sir Robert Walpole decided to change the whole basis of taxation. Instead of taxing whisky direct, the tax was levied on malt at the rate of 3d per bushel. The new tax was universally unpopular and caused riots in Glasgow but remained in force. The long term effects of the tax were considerable. Because it was also a tax on ale, it put up the price or lowered the quality of the product. This resulted over a period, in the popularity of ale diminishing and whisky replacing it as the main drink of the people.

In the large licensed distilleries of the Lowlands the distillers increasingly used unmalted grain together with the malted barley to minimise the effects of the tax. It certainly did not improve the quality of the whisky and contributed to the demand for the product from the Highlands which was of better quality though most of it had probably paid no duty at all. Much of the product of the distilleries in the Lowlands was exported to England to be re-distilled and rectified to form gin.

Illicit distilling was widespread throughout the country and tolerated by most sections of the community - witness Col Thornton, himself a magistrate. “As I passed, we saw a tribe of gentry, whom I took to be smugglers, and being in good spirits, I gave them to understand some custom-house officers were behind in search of them. They thanked me for my hint, and availed themselves of it by leaving the road instantly, which confirmed my suspicions, and I thought they unloaded their goods on the moors, but the day turning foggy and we soon lost sight of them.” 

The Distillery Act of 1786 taxed the production of whisky at the rate of 30/- per gallon of still. The rate increased year by year until in 1802 it had risen to £162 per gallon of still. The final heights of absurdity were reached in 1814 when the Government prohibited all stills within the Highland line (which took in Crieff, Dunkeld, Callender and all areas to the north) of under 500 gallons capacity. This was in effect a complete interdict on the legal distilling of whisky in the Highlands. The result inevitably was that even more illicit spirit was produced.

General Stewart of Garth summed up the effects of the Government’s legislation for the fifty years to 1822 as it affected Highland Perthshire and particularly Glen Lyon. “So little was it (smuggling) practised in the Perthshire Highlands that a tenant of my grandfather’s was distinguished by the appellation of Donald Whisky, from his being a distiller and smuggler of that spirit. In the year 1778 there was only one officer of Excise in that part of Perthshire above Dunkeld and he had little employment. In the same district there are now eleven resident officers in full activity, besides Rangers (as they are called) and extra officers sent in to see that the resident officers are doing their duty; yet so rapidly did illicit distillation increase that it would seem that the greater the number of officers appointed, the more employment they found for themselves; and it is a common, and I believe, a just remark, that whenever an officer is placed in a glen he is not long without business……” 

An early example of Parkinson’s Law? Both the unfairness and the inefficiency of the 1814 legislation was at last admitted and in 1823 an Act was passed reducing the minimum size of still to 40 gallon, making a flat rate license of £10 for all stills and a duty of 2s3d for each gallon of proof whisky distilled. There was still plenty of incentive for the illicit distillers but it is interesting to note that before 1823 only two million gallons of whisky were paying tax, two years later the figure had risen to six million. Legal distilleries were constructed in the Highlands and the production of illicit spirits slowly declined.

In the early 1930’s the Coffey or patent still began to be used. This allowed for continuous distilling of whisky produced from grain with the addition of a small quantity of malt and was the foundation of the large modern distilleries in the Lowlands. The spirit produced was very much cheaper than malt whisky, but the final product lacked character and modern blended whiskeys all contain a proportion of malt.

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