By Sam Bygrave
Illustrations by W. Chew Chan
Give a man a fish, and he will eat for one day; but teach him to fish, and sell that fish on and he’ll start making some money. Should he flake the fish up, adulterate it with something of a fish-like texture and then sell it on, he’ll make loads more.
It seems there is a human instinct to want to wring that little bit more value out of everything. In the UK in the 1860s you would find tobacco that had been adulterated with “sugar, liquorice, oil, carbonaceous matter, cabbage-leaves, nitrate of potash, sulphate of magnesia, common salt, ammonia-alum, and carbonate of lime,” according to The Lancet of the day. When it came to beer the spent hops were sometimes thrown back in for another go-round and it was typical of publicans and grocers to water down the beers and spirits to make a few extra bucks.
It was in this atmosphere that some of the world’s strongest spirit brands got their start. Their brand was their word and promise of quality, and importantly, consistency. That drive towards consistency played a big role in the birth of blended whisky.
In 1853 Andrew Usher, a merchant who sold, among other things, a good deal of whisky, developed what is thought to be the first blended whisky, what he called Old Vatted Glenlivet. He used malt from Glenlivet and other distilleries, and later on, a good deal of grain. In 1860, the Excise on Spirits Act was passed by the British parliament — this allowed, for the first time, blends to be made legally (though in practice, publicans and grocers were for a long time adding cheaper malts to their more expensive ones and passing them off as the real thing).
This change in the law opened up malts to be blended with the cheaper to produce, lighter grain whiskies that had come about thanks to the Coffey still. It gave the often fiery malt whiskies a partner that rounded them out and made them more approachable, leading to what would be a massive boom in blended whisky consumption as the century rolled on.
The chief reason for these blends’ success was both price and consistency, something well understood by the Americans at the time too. They also had their worries about adulteration of food and drink: the boom in so-called patent medicines, tonics and bitters that promised to cure what ailed you (and only cured you of your hard-earned dollars and sobriety) and a shift from rural life to city dwelling that saw the increasing use of preservatives, sparked a backlash — not unlike the trend towards organics and farm-to-table eating today. People wanted to know what they were ingesting, and this is a long time before truth in labelling laws were the norm.
In 1868, changes to the tax law meant that distillers of straight whiskey were able to put off the tax they were supposed to pay on their product by aging their booze in government controlled warehouses; in 1893 another law passed that allowing these producers to label their bottles with a “bottled in bond” stamp. Blended whisky producers, who had no need to age their whiskies, could not stamp their bottles with this phrase.
Makers of blended whiskies would go to extraordinary lengths to ensure their brand wasn’t being messed with: Canadian Club would send representatives to test their retailers to ensure they weren’t watering down the product. If someone had, they’d name and shame them with advertising in the local paper. Of course, those who blended whiskies and those that bottled them straight didn’t always seen eye to eye, and some straight whiskey makers, like Charles Taylor of the Old Taylor brand, sought to have the blended whiskey guys labelled as “imitation” whiskey through the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906.
Of course there was nothing imitation about these blended whiskies; most wouldn’t have objected to truth in labelling laws. It was just that their blends were cheaper and that gave them an advantage in price. Wherever there’s politics, there are winners, and always, a loser.