When does a child become an adult? Is it when they take on certain responsibilities – a spouse, a job or their own child? Or perhaps when they are trusted to consume alcohol, tobacco, or over-the-counter drugs? How about when they are considered fully responsible for their criminal actions? Or maybe it’s when their body and their brain have reached maturity? These ages of adulthood are mostly subjective and they vary across countries, across time periods, and in some cases across individuals. There will never be one clearly correct answer and any one age chosen as the start of adulthood is arbitrary.
When does a spirit become a whisky? Scotch whisky connoisseurs treat the magical age of three years old with great reverence. Grain spirits aged one or two years old are merely prototypes, rough cut previews playing in the junior leagues. At three years old, they are ready to be transmitted to the world; they’re in the senior leagues playing by stricter rules against much older spirits. But there’s no magical change in quality or character when a whisky turns three. Usually, the poor young whisky doesn’t even get to enjoy a celebration ceremony ushering them into adulthood. I suppose blowing out the candles would be a bit of a fire hazard.
I previously wrote about how teetotal Chancellor (and later Prime Minister) David Lloyd George introduced the duties and legal restrictions that led Scotch whisky to be bottled at a minimum and most common strength of 40% ABV. Today is part two of our dive into history: David Lloyd George also led Scotch whisky to be bottled at a minimum and most common age of three years old. The minimum age of whisky was not decided by rigorous taste tests but by wartime political debates around productivity and drunkenness. Thankfully, we don’t have to rely on secondary sources to find out what Members of Parliament discussed at the time. Hansard contains transcriptions of all the relevant debates, so we can directly read what was said at the time, over a century ago.
The year was 1915. Britain was at war and the government thought munitions factory workers were producing less because they were drinking too much whisky. And not just too much whisky, but too much strong, raw whisky. At the time, a lot of whisky consumed was aged for only around 9 to 18 months. There was a feeling among some people that young whisky produced a very different drunkenness to old whisky. It was the Liberal Party who – rather illiberally – sought to introduce restrictions on the age of whisky. The bill sought to enforce a minimum age of three years after a transition period with a minimum age of two years. Let’s first hear from the bill’s champion, Liberal Chancellor David Lloyd George:
“There is the famous case of the two monkeys, which is not merely a sort of myth or legend. First of all you gave monkey A mature whisky. He got drunk in due course, but was friendly. You gave to monkey B immature whisky, and he was very violent and spat. After a week they changed and gave the raw whisky to the friendly monkey and the mature to the other. The first monkey, who was so kindly, so benevolent, so mellow when you gave it the mature whisky, instantly became as violent, offensive, and disagreeable as any man I have ever heard attacking a Minister on this bench. Then the other one got the same sort of kindly, benevolent, philanthropic feeling, the result of the mature whisky sold by the hon. Baronet's constituents.”
Not only were people drinking immature whisky, they were drinking it without adding water. Imagine doing that. Lloyd George continued:
“The evidence given to us is that it is the drinking of the cruder and more fiery whiskies which is producing the worst results, more especially on the Clyde, and I think the North of England. They drink them sometimes hot without dilution. That is very bad. It is bad with any spirit, but it is very much worse when the spirit is raw.”
Sir Archibald Williamson, Liberal MP for Elginshire and Nairnshire, found that publicans supported Lloyd George’s argument:
“I took the opportunity a few years ago, when this subject was before the House, of sending a letter to every publican in my Constituency asking him what his views were as to the harm of new whisky versus old. I received replies from most publicans saying that a man could get drunk on both kinds of whisky, but that if he got drunk on new whisky he got mad drunk.”
John Henderson, the Liberal MP for West Aberdeenshire saw the monkey story like some scientists see overhyped mouse studies today:
“I do not believe in that monkey story, and scientific investigators, if they cannot prove a thing in one way, will obtain monkeys to show exactly what it is they want to prove.”
And Henderson adds something many of us can relate to – people can get drunk on any alcoholic drink, no matter how strong or fine it is:
“I have seen cases of drunkenness on immature whisky, on mature whisky, on wines, on champagne, and it all depends on the nature of the man as to whether or not he will turn out a quarrelsome fellow when he is drunk. The good-natured man may become very violent when intoxicated. But it does not matter very much whether it is mature or immature whisky that a man gets drunk upon. There is quite enough intoxicating power in mature whisky, whisky ten years old, to upset our munition works.”
Ronald McNeill, Conservative MP for St Augustine’s, went a step further:
“In other words, the older the whisky the nicer it is, and it might well be argued that the older the whisky the greater the danger of excess. There is no evidence whatever that old whisky is necessarily less harmful than new.”
Despite that, some of your whisky drinking friends will no doubt ask the age of any dram you pour them. But others won’t. Over to a tremendous quote from the Conservative MP for Nottingham East, Sir John David Rees:
“It must be within the knowledge of everyone in Scotland that some of the finest men in the world, both physically and mentally, in fact, some of the finest specimens of the human race, are in the habit of drinking neat whisky without asking whether it has been in bond three years.”
Of course, not all three year old whisky is equally mature. The debate distinguished between pot still and patent still (column still) whisky. More from Ronald McNeill:
“If any whisky can be said to be more harmful when new than when it is old, it is the pot still whisky, which, according to the evidence given before the Commission, is so disgusting when new that nobody will drink it. The consequence of that is that pot still whisky is only put on the market when it is three years of age. Patent still whisky, on the other hand, is perfectly harmless when new, and therefore the legislation which the right hon. Gentleman proposes, if carried out, would have the effect of giving preference to one class of manufacture over another, which would be a very unfair thing to do.”
Pot still distillers were more likely to support the idea of an enforced minimum age. They typically aged their whiskies for three years or more already. Sir George Younger represented Ayr Burghs, a constituency that included the many distilleries in Campbeltown:
“I have the honour to represent something like twenty-three distilleries in my Constituency, and I have risen for the purpose of saying that they very strongly support the proposal for a three years' limit in this Bill. They are, of course, pot still distilleries. I dare say it is just possible their whisky is only drunk after it has reached the age of three years. It is very infrequently drunk at an earlier period.”
The measure was presented as temporary to improve munitions production during wartime. Many laws are instituted as temporary during wartime but remain afterwards – income tax being a prime example. There was the feeling that rather than being introduced purely because of the war, this was a step towards what Lloyd George had long wanted and the war was just a convenient excuse to introduce the legislation. Back to David Lloyd George:
“I should have gone very much further, and I still regret that it could not be done. It would have been a very great opportunity, but, after all, there is no question so strewn with lost opportunities as the temperance question, and this is one of the greatest opportunities we have ever missed of doing something which will not merely help munitions of war but put us in a very much better position, when the War is over, to repair its damage.”
Not everyone thought the legislation would be beneficial after the war. Sir Frederick Banbury, Conservative MP for the City of London:
“I hope we shall not, under the guise of a temporary measure, do something which will be far-reaching and remain in operation when the War is over.”
The debate turned to the topic of compensation. Lloyd George had suggested that companies forced out of business by the legislation would be able to seek compensation. MPs worried that every employer and employee connected to whisky, from mashman to distributor to publican, would seek compensation and cost the government a huge sum. An unprecedented event affecting pubs, with business forced to cease their activity, and debates over government money to support them. Remind you of anything?
Relevant to today’s Ardnamurchan, there were MPs who argued that a strict three year minimum could exclude some quality whiskies from being bottled. Even over 100 years ago, scientists and producers were hunting for a way to accelerate whisky ageing. William Henry Cowan, at the time the Liberal MP for Aberdeenshire Eastern, may or may not have inspired California’s Lost Spirits Distillery:
“I am a little puzzled to understand why no reference has been made in the Debate to the possibility of maturing whisky by artificial means. That is a perfectly relevant point on the question whether whisky should be kept in bond for two or three years. I am against the Mover of the Amendment. If distillers had taken advantage of the researches of modern science, they would have been able to produce a whisky with all the merits of maturity and age practically instantaneously by adopting the process invented and patented by Professor Hewitt many years ago. That process has the advantage of getting rid of the aldehydes which are the injurious elements in raw whisky.”
In 2020, we’re still waiting for instant whisky. MPs also pointed out that some whiskies contain whisky younger than two or three years old while having an average age of three or even well older. The bill included a transition period where the minimum age would be two years, so any whiskies already bottled with younger whisky included would be outlawed. We finish with Sir George Younger:
“I understand that in a large number of cases where whiskies are blended that the blenders have been in the habit of using a very small percentage, indeed, of newer spirit, not the immature spirit of which we have heard, but spirit about a year old, in order in some kind of way to break the blend, I suppose to put sting into it. The difficulty which arises is that very fine whiskies which were blended before the Bill was introduced placing the embargo on immature spirits will not be allowed to be sold at all, because there is a portion of whisky under two years old in that blend. The right hon. Gentleman is not thinking of that case at all; he is still preventing these blends from being sold if there is any whisky at all in the blend under two years old.”
Today’s whisky is not legally a whisky. It is from independent bottler Adelphi’s Highland distillery, Ardnamurchan, and it is spirit. While the bottling has an average age of three or older, the minimum age is two years old. The vatting is a marriage of peated and unpeated spirit aged in a variety of first fill Oloroso and PX sherry casks; two butts, six hogsheads and 21 octaves. A total of 5,100 bottles were produced at 57.4% ABV and released in 2019. You’ll still find it for sale in a few outlets. Nicholls and Perks will sort you out a bottle for £56.95.
Nose: A heavy and heady mix of sweet and spice becomes spicier with time, as the caramel, sultanas, and blackcurrant wine gums are overwhelmed by sawn wood, cinnamon, and cloves. The dram wears a musty overcoat from a rarely dusted cupboard. Water polishes that sawn wood, increases the caramel, and reduces the spice levels.
Taste: Woody and sweet, opening on blackcurrants, plums, caramel, and rubbery malt. The mid palate brings billowing smoke and the back palate growing wood tannins. Brave a bigger sip and the immature rubber notes are more noticeable, although still relatively quiet compared to the other flavours on show. Water tames the woody spices and amplifies the sweetness, turning up the youthful malt, caramel, and plums.
Finish: Drying on black pepper tannins, cloves, and blackcurrants. Water makes the finish sweeter and less drying, with more vanilla and malt.
Ardnamurchan Spirit 2019/AD may be marketed as a work in progress, but it’s better than many finished products. There’s no doubt that this tastes like whisky. And if not for a politician who didn’t drink whisky, it would be whisky. Yet one review of this dram put it in a different category, saying “It's just spirit. With potential, but spirit.” Spirit it may be, but I can’t help but feel that once that spirit has spent some time in wood it’s whisky and anything more is a matter of degrees. That’s closer to how whisky is defined in the USA, where spirit meeting certain requirements becomes bourbon as soon it enters new charred oak.
Allowing whisky to be one second old may seem silly, but it’s not arbitrary, unlike any older age requirements for whisky. The US also has more stringent whisky categories and qualifications – straight bourbon, bottled in bond – whereas the main category distinction in Scotch remains blend vs. malt.
Maybe if Lloyd George hadn’t instituted these changes, we would have eventually seen some form of even higher standard introduced. Or perhaps we’d still be “in the habit of drinking neat whisky without asking whether it has been in bond three years.”