A Christmas Barrel, Starring Alistair Darling as Ebenezer Scrooge

If Scrooge had been visited by the ghost of whisky past, his journey back in time would have probably returned him to witness the start of distilling in western Europe as distant traders arriving with the secrets of the still.

The next scene would reveal Irish based Christian missionaries enlightening Scotland from their foothold in Iona.

Come 1494, he would witness the king ordering malt to make aqua vitae. As time passes on further, the art of the alembic would no longer be reserved for the apothecaries and alchemists but would have filtered all the way to those simply turning the soil for their sustenance.

Ebeneezer would have started paying attention by 1644 when another king decreed uisge beatha suitable for taxing. To Scrooge, the idea of extracting fiscal benefits from the water of life must have appealed to his acute sense of profiteering. And why shouldn’t such an unnecessary luxury go free of duty? Fuel, food and shelter are essentials so shouldn’t be put out of the reach of the lowly due to their impecuniosity.

A levy on a mere alcoholic beverage however was an opportunity to raise essential funds for generals, judges, statesmen and royals. If you can afford it you can afford the tax and contribute your bit for the good of all. Our hero may have pondered, why stop there? Surely dancing and singing deserved similar attention?

Down through the years his spirits would lift by the repeated increases the excise would demand from the maturing industry. Only when producing affordable quality spirit became impossible due to the unbearable pressure from the treasury might Scrooge become unsatisfied. The Highlander would look upon the right to convert his labour spent in the fields into a warming cup as he would have thought natural the catching of a wild salmon for his plate. So the drink was drunk and the tax uncollected as the stills went literally underground.

By 1823 however, the balance was struck, which meant the distiller could meet the demands of the gauger and still find a legal and appreciative market for his efforts. From this point Ebeneezer would rub his hands as distilleries would pop up all over looking to be part of the liquid gold rush. It wouldn’t be long before science would come to the aid of the accountant’s dreams and production could actually increase while overheads dropped – blended whisky had arrived.

But what would he think of the greed that got the better of some ‘businessmen‘? Perhaps he would have admired their cunning but even he might have called for restraint. In the fervour to supply the apparently insatiable demand, the bubble burst with the industry imploding thanks to the fraudulent practices of the overconfident and the unwisely generous banks (sound familiar?). So followed the fallow years with depression, prohibition and war. Only until fifty years ago would the revenue again begin to realise the potential of the popularity of Scotland’s national drink.

And so the parallel between the strength of the economy and the health of the whisky industry can be seen. The ghost of whisky past was a restless spectre but his predator shadow was usually well fed.

Whisky present
How would Mr Scrooge feel about a visit from the ghost of whisky present? Would he ever have known such an indulgent feast? Distilleries are expanding, re-opening and even being commissioned. Warehouses emptying to meet exports while new ones are being built in readiness for the futures’ anticipated thirst. Jobs are secured and new ones advertised. Raw materials are increasing in price as the demand for barley and oak strains the supply chain. Consumption, production, export and earnings are all healthier than could have been believed just even ten years ago. So what would strengthen this exception to the current economic troubles? Higher taxation? The continuity of disparity in domestic alcohol duties? Restrictions on trading practice? What about all three?

Whisky Future
As for the ghost of whisky future, are we to expect this lifeboat from a sinking economy to indefinitely float under the burden of  legislation? It has proved itself watertight against centuries of boom and bust after all. But the world itself is beginning to challenge. Distillation is an energy hungry process. The increasing efficiency of the heating and cooling of liquids within a distillery is easing the demand on the environment but carbon neutrality is not yet a reality.

The recycling of waste through such things as dark grains (nutritious animal feed left over from brewing and distilling) has long been an essential part of the agricultural chain. Now, however, the attractiveness of the combustibility of these left-overs may provide an alternative energy source for powering boilers. Perhaps the biggest question is, with fossil fuels running out and the world’s population rising, can we envisage a time when our acre of land will be split between essential food crops, bio-fuel or….

If that’s not a sobering thought, remember all of these are taxable. For your part, please remember whisky is a luxury but a life without luxury is a life without pleasure. Let’s raise a glass for the health of Tiny Tim.

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