Legalization of Scotch whisky is full of revolutionary passion, hidden craft, and unending adventure. Shortly after the Union of the Scottish and English Parliaments in 1707, there were numerous attempts by the English to control whisky production. With excise laws in disarray and industrial development flourishing during the 1780’s illicit distilling flourished. (By 1780, there were about eight legal distilleries in the Lowlands and 400 illegal ones in the Highlands.)
The illicit world of whisky-making fit very well with Highlanders who epitomized defiance, not wanting anything to do with being taxed or with government. Typically, whisky distilling took place in the winter months when access to the Highlands was limited. And, when they would move their whisky to market a great deal of ingenuity was applied. One such story was to send a party with a few casks strapped to a mule in one direction as a decoy. And when the Government troops and excisemen went out to investigate, they would send the actual whisky in another direction undetected.
Many years later, after a lengthy Royal Commission, the Excise Act of 1823 sanctioned legal distilling. What makes this date interesting is that in 1822, George IV was the first British Monarch to visit Scotland in 170 years. Sir Walter Scott organized the King’s itinerary prior to his arrival in Edinburgh. This event was marked by the introduction of the Highland tartan and kilt, which had been banned by the English following the Battle of Culloden and looked on with disdain by the Scottish gentry who considered the Highlanders ‘savages’.
Sir Walter Scott toasted the King’s health with the finest Highland whisky, amusingly from an illicit distiller, rather than one of the licensed Lowland distilleries. The King was impressed and demanded more of this fine whisky until it eventually ran dry.
The problem was that there was none of this illicit whisky to be found in Edinburgh or any other parts of the Lowlands. Sir Walter Scott had procured the best whisky he could find from the Glenlivet distillery, which was produced in Highland bothies, hidden in the hills of the Speyside region in north-eastern Scotland. This was to evade tax collection and confiscation of the stills.
So a year later, the Excise Act of 1823 sanctioned legal distilling and, in 1824, Glenlivet distillery was the first in north-eastern Scotland to come into ‘official’ existence.
George Smith who was one of the illicit distillers in the parish of Glenlivet decided to go it alone and applied for a license under the new Excise Act with the help of Alexander Gordon the 4th Duke of Gordon who happened to have George Smith as a tenant and who played a key role in seeing the Excise Act of 1823 proclaimed. For doing so, George endured attacks by other illicit distillers and smugglers in the area who were not happy with this radical move. To defend himself, George Smith carried a pair of pistols, offered to him by the Laird of Aberlour, to protect his family interests. As for the other distilleries, they eventually gave up resisting and licensed their distilleries as well.