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Smuggling in the Highlands
Highland Sentiment regarding Smuggling


WE have seen that the manufacture and consumption of whisky on an extensive scale in the Highlands is comparatively recent. So far as can be ascertained, the quantity was not large even 100 years ago. Since the beginning of the 17th century the Highland people were in the habit of distilling in their homes for their own private use, and no doubt to this practice is due to a great extent the prevalence of illicit distillation among them at one time. As late as 1859 every household was allowed to have a bushel of malt for making ale, and cottagers are to be again exempted from the brewing licence recently imposed upon them. Such a privilege as the Ferintosh exemption must have exercised an evil influence among the people. They must have looked upon illicit distillation as a very venial offence when Government would grant permission to manufacture whisky practically duty free. As a rule, spirits were distilled from the produce of their own lands, and the people being simple and illiterate, ignorant alike of the necessity for a national Exchequer, and of the ways and means taken by Parliament to raise revenue, they could not readily and clearly see the justice of levying a tax upon their whisky. They drew a sharp distinction between offences created by English statute and violations of the laws of God. The law which made distillation illegal came to them in a foreign garb. Highlanders had no great love or respect for the English Government. If the Scottish Parliament could pass an Act to destroy all pewits' eggs, because the birds migrated South, where they arrived plump and fat, and afforded sport and food for the English, it need not cause surprise if Highlanders had not forgotten Glencoe, Culloden, Butcher Cumberland, the tyrannical laws to suppress the clans, and their dress, and the "outlandish race that filled the Stuart's throne."

While a highly sentimental people, like the Highlanders, were in some degree influenced by these and similar considerations, the extent of illicit distillation depended in a great measure on the amount of duty, and the nature of the Excise regulations. The smuggler's gain was in direct proportion to the amount of the spirit duty; the higher the duty the greater the gain and the stronger the temptation. We have seen how the authorities of the time, regardless of the feelings and the habits of the people, and of the nature and capabilities of the Highlands, imposed restrictions which were injudicious, vexatious, and injurious ; which not only rendered it impracticable for the legal distiller to engage profitably in honest business, but actually encouraged the illicit distiller. We have seen how, particularly under the operation of the still licence, the legal distiller, in his endeavours to increase production, sacrificed the quality of his spirits, until the illicit distiller commanded the market by supplying whisky superior in quality and flavour. To this fact, more than to anything else, is due the popular prejudice which has existed, and still exists in some quarters, in favour of smuggled whisky. There can be no doubt that while the still licence was in force from 1787 to 1814, and perhaps for some years later, the smugglers' whisky was superior in quality and flavour to that produced by the licensed distiller. But this holds true no longer; indeed, the circumstances are actually reversed. The Highland distiller has now the best appliances, uses the best materials, employs skill and experience, exercises the greatest possible care, and further, matures his spirit in bond-whisky being highly deleterious unless it is matured by age. On the other hand, the smuggler uses rude, imperfect utensils, very often inferior materials, works by rule of thumb, under every disadvantage and inconvenience, and is always in a state of terror and hurry, which is incompatible with good work and the best results. He begins by purchasing inferior barley, which, as a rule, is imperfectly malted. He brews without more idea of proper heats than dipping his finger or seeing his face in the water, and the quantity of water used is regulated by the size and number of his vessels. His setting heat is decided by another dip of the finger, and supposing he has yeast of good quality, and may by accident add the proper quantity, the fermentation of his worts depends on the weather, as he cannot regulate the temperature in his temporary bothy, although he often uses sacks and blankets, and may during the night kindle a fire. But the most fatal defect in the smuggler's appliances is the construction of his still. Ordinary stills have head elevations from 12 to 18 feet, which serves for purposes of rectification, as the fusel oils and other essential oils and acids fall back into the still, while the alcoholic vapour, which is more volatile, passes over to the worm, where it becomes condensed. The smuggler's still has no head elevation, the still-head being as flat as an old blue bonnet, and consequently the essential oils and acids pass over with the alcohol into the worm, however carefully distillation may be carried on. These essential oils and acids can only be eliminated, neutralised, or destroyed by storing the spirits some time in wood, but the smuggler, as a rule, sends his spirits out new in jars and bottles, so that the smuggled whisky, if taken in considerable quantities, is actually poisonous. Ask anyone who has had a good spree on new smuggled whisky, how he felt next morning. Again, ordinary stills have rousers to prevent the wash sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. The smuggler has no such appliance in connection with his still, the consequence being that his spirits frequently have a singed, smoky flavour. The evils of a defective construction are increased a hundred-fold, when, as is frequently the case, the still is made of tin, and the worm of tin or lead. When spirits and acids come in contact with such surfaces, a portion of the metal is dissolved, and poisonous metalic salts are produced, which must be injurious to the drinker. Paraffin casks are frequently used in brewing, and it will be readily understood that however carefully cleaned, their use cannot improve the quality of our much-praised smuggled whisky. Again, the rule of thumb is applied to the purity and strength of smuggled spirits. At ordinary distilleries there are scientific appliances for testing these, but the smuggler must guess the former, and must rely for the latter on the blebs or bubbles caused by shaking the whisky. On this unsatisfactory test, plus the honesty of the smuggler, which is generally an unknown quantity, the purchaser also must rely. This is certainly a happy-go-lucky state of matters which it would be a pity to disturb by proclaiming the truth. Very recently an order came from the South to Inverness for two gallons of smuggled whisky. The order being urgent, and no immediate prospect of securing the genuine article, a dozen bottles of new raw grain spirit were sent to a well-known smuggling locality, and were thence despatched South as real mountain dew. No better proof could be given of the coarseness and absolute inferiority of smuggled whisky.


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