Robin Butler on Twitter

January 2012

There are many in Scotland who would prefer independence from the rest of Britain - a situation which has probably changed little since the Act of Union in 1707.  The difference between the past and now, is that the Scottish National Party have a majority in their own parliament and are threatening a referendum, which if it goes their way, may drastically alter the constitution of the British Isles.  With that in the air, and their national celebration of Burns' Night almost upon us (Wednesday, 25th January), it seems reasonable to depart from my usual strictly-kept policy of only concerning my business and writings to wine and its accessories, and giving some consideration to Scotland’s most famous export - Whisky.

The distillation of grain and wine has been practised for a thousand years or more, and there are references to distillation both in Scotland and Ireland dating from the 15th century.  However, it was the English parliament, intent on curtailing the activities of the unruly Scottish clans, which brought about the 1725 English Malt Tax, which caused distillation to be driven to remote areas of Scotland and Ireland to be carried on illegally, usually at night (hence the term ‘moonshine’).  It was nearly 100 years until the Excise Act of 1823 legalised distillation, and whisky became accepted in ‘polite society’.   Whisky (or whiskey if you are in Ireland or America) is derived from the old Scottish word usquebaugh - literally water of life - which was shortened to ‘usky’, and hence whisky.

But whisky is not the only spirit that has wide appeal.  It is a commonly held misconception among the English that the last conqueror of our island was William the Conqueror in 1066.  In fact another William, William of Orange, brought over an army from Holland in 1688, although unlike William the Conqueror, he met little resistance.   With him he brought a hugely improved system of government and he was responsible for founding the Bank of England.  Among other introductions that came with him were tulips and gin.  His entourage brought the expertise of gin distillation, and through the 18th century, gin was both plentiful and cheap, in contrast to heavily taxed imported spirits.  One London gin house, in reference to gin,  advertised "drunk for a penny, dead drunk for tuppence - free straw".  The evil of gin is vividly expressed in William Hogarth's engraving 'Gin Lane'.  Its ability to dull the senses and diminish worries gave rise to the expression ‘Dutch courage’.  Before about 1810 gin was always known as ‘Hollands’, and there are many ‘wine’ labels for Hollands.

Despite spirits becoming socially accepted, it can be reasonably assumed that they did not become fully integrated with the ‘establishment’ for many decades into the 19th century.   There are many thousand silver labels which are simply initials - B, R, H,W, S and P among others.  It cannot be a coincidence that B, R, H and W are the initial letters for Brandy, Rum, Hollands and Whisky, and that S & P (presumably for Sherry and Port) are also strong in alcohol content.   Why were they not spelled out in full like all the names of wines, if it were not that their true identities should be kept, if not secret, then at least partially hidden?  One of the joys of my business is that such observations can be made when those who might have provided the answers are long gone.

In 1295, John Balliol, King of Scotland and King Philip IV of France, signed a treaty of friendship to oppose King Edward I of England.  The treaty started an alliance popularly known as ‘The Auld Alliance’.  Originally intended as a treaty of mutual defence against the English, it spilled over into other walks of life and continued to do so down the centuries.  There are times when it seems undiminished to this day.  One consequence was the Scottish love of French wine at a time when England was giving tax advantages to Portuguese wine exports over the more heavily-taxed French wines (see my newsletter of August 2011).   The outcome was that while Englishmen drank Madeira, Calcavella,  Bucellas, and port (to excess) the Scots kept to claret and Burgundy.  It is for this reason that when the toasts are given on Burns' Night, it may well be in claret - although, of course, whisky will be on the agenda also!

Slainte mhath!


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