How Whisky Came of Age

19 May 2015

It's Whisky Month here in Scotland and, as you enjoy a dram, raise a glass to the centenary of something we today take for granted. 

The whisky in your glass is influenced by many factors, from the water used to the shape of the still.  And, of course, maturation is a key element of what makes whisky special.  The years spent maturing in an oak cask impact on the spirit's colour, composition and taste to create something unique. 

Today, the Scotch Whisky Regulations set out clearly that the spirit must be matured for at least a minimum of three years in Scotland.  Along with the raw materials, upper distillation strength, and minimum alcoholic strength of 40% vol., it is seen as an essential part of the definition of Scotch. 

Cast back to the 19th century, however, and it is likely that you would have found unmatured whisky on the market.  By the early 20th century, there was significant industry debate over what constituted whisky, leading to a famous Royal Commission on the subject.   In the end, however, it would be war that indirectly led to the introduction of a minimum bonding requirement for Scotch Whisky.

In early 1915, debate raged as to why armaments production was failing to deliver the guns and shells needed on the Western Front.  Rather than manpower or equipment, Lloyd George instead seized the opportunity of a speech in Bangor to argue that the blame lay at the door of the alcohol trade, suggesting that drinking was undermining industrial efficiency or as he put it 'drink is doing more damage in the war than all the German submarines put together'.

Hyperbole but the speech marked a political watershed.  A series of proposals followed aimed squarely at restricting the trade.  First, a policy of prohibition was floated, followed by the establishment of Lord d'Abernon's Central Control Board, which went on to restrict pub opening hours and ban the buying of rounds. 

The next move came in the 1915 Budget, with a doubling of spirits duty proposed.  Vigorously opposed by a combination of Irish and Scottish representatives at Westminster, in the end a compromise was brokered by James Stevenson (John Walker & Sons) who had been seconded to the Ministry of Munitions.   He skilfully argued for the introduction of compulsory bonding of whisky for a period of years, putting in place a quality threshold that removed immature spirits from the market. 

As a solution, it was ingenious and to have long-term impact.  Facing defeat on his Budget, Lloyd George dropped the duty proposal and into force from 19 May 1915 came a new two year bonding rule, extended to three years in 1916.    It has stayed the same ever since. 

The so-called Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act 1915 is a long forgotten war time restriction but it laid an important foundation of our modern Scotch Whisky industry. 

David Williamson
Public Affairs & Communications Director