Even in times of restrictive upheaval, new business opportunities emerge. As it is now, when whisky clubs and producers have seized their captive audience and sent out more Zoom invites than any single liver could cope with. As it was then, when the 1920-1933 prohibition of alcohol in the United States destroyed some brands but opened the door for others. Cutty Sark was a new brand created in 1923 so it was considered less likely to be counterfeited than the established likes of Johnnie Walker and Chivas Regal. The story goes that it benefitted from the seal of approval of its importer Bill ‘Real’ McCoy. This enabled the brand to grow even while it was prohibited.
After prohibition, Cutty Sark became more and more popular, eventually becoming the best-selling whisky in the USA. Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition was introduced in 2013 as a reference to the brand’s origins during prohibition in the USA. Indeed, even in the UK today, the word prohibition brings to mind images from America of back alley bars, mafia dons, and PD raids. But the prohibitionist movement was popular in other countries too. In 1920s Scotland, prohibition wasn’t about Al Capone – it was a domestic issue.
The Scottish Prohibition Party argued for alcohol cessation from 1901 to 1935. In 1922, the party even managed to have Edwin Scrymgeour elected as the Dundee member of Parliament elected, ahead of some chap called Winston Churchill. The biggest test of Scotland’s attitudes to temperance was shortly before this in 1920, when voters in 572 of the 1,214 Scottish alcohol licensing districts were polled on whether they wanted their district to reduce or prohibit alcohol licenses. Overall, 38% voted for all alcohol licenses in their district to be prohibited, and 2% for a reduction in local licenses. Prohibition was enacted in around 40 districts, many of which were in the Lowlands. Some polls were overturned in the years that followed, while others lasted for decades. Despite its lasting effects, this chapter in history seems rarely talked about in whisky circles and we’re still waiting for the bottlings commemorating the story of prohibition across Scotland.
Back to US prohibition - today’s whisky, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition, stands out from the contemporary blended Scotch crowd because it is bottled at 50% ABV, a much higher strength than the 40% ABV that blend drinkers are used to. The higher strength harks back to before US prohibition in the early 20th century, when the average whisky was bottled at a higher strength than it is today. In the US, the bottled-in-bond standard of 50% ABV was common while the typical Scotch ABV was around 46%. To find out why today most whisky is bottled at 40% ABV, we have to go back to just before the time of US prohibition.
David Lloyd George served as the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1908 to 1915 and Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922. He was a teetotal prohibition advocate who saw alcohol as an impediment to success in World War I. Prohibitionists like him argued that workers in munitions factories were drinking undiluted underaged whisky like water and it was affecting their productivity. This led to fights between the government and the whisky industry over spirits duties, bottling strengths, and the minimum age of whisky.
During and after World War I, the government sought to lower the ABV of whisky (and other spirits), particularly in areas of munition production. The compulsory ABV of whisky was lowered to 37.2% ABV in 1915 and then moved up and down between 28.6% ABV and 42.9% ABV in the following years – odd-seeming strengths that were round numbers in old UK proof measurements. In 1917, the strength in non-munitions areas had to be 40% ABV and the strength in munitions areas 28.6% ABV. Later, distillers were again allowed to bottle at higher strengths. But spirit duty rises in 1920 – which producers were not allowed to pass on as price increases – meant that it was not economically feasible for whisky to be bottled above 40% ABV. The standard strength we see across the shelves came not from master blenders carefully diluting and conducting taste tests, but instead from a teetotaller who may never have tasted whisky at all.
Spirit duty kept rising after 1920 and duty remains a primary reason why most Scotch whisky is bottled at exactly 40% ABV. In the UK, a 70cl bottle of whisky at 40% ABV will incur £8.05 in alcohol duty, plus 20% of value added tax or VAT on the duty, a price of £9.66 before actually budgeting for the production of the stuff. At the 50% ABV of Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition, the numbers are £10.06 of duty and £12.07 including VAT on the duty.
The whisky industry bemoans the taxes placed on their products, but they might have to thank those taxes for a segment of their success. Because in many countries the alcohol taxes on spirits are higher than those on wine and beer, spirits are not the best value option for drinkers who simply want to get drunk. If you already need to sell a bottle of your whisky for at least ~£10 for tax purposes, why not spend a bit more on production, marketing, and presentation, and then charge £20, £30, or £100? The premium on spirit alcohol might have inadvertently made whisky a premium product itself. David Lloyd George pushed cask strength whisky away from working class drinkers and into hand-blown decanters.
The other lasting legislation from this period specified that Scotch whisky must be at least three years old. But that’s a story for another time.
Today’s whisky, Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition, is indeed at least three years old, but as it has no age statement we don’t know if it’s any older. It is a blended Scotch whisky bottled at 50% ABV. The recipe is mostly a mystery but the whisky is said to contain a portion matured in American oak sherry casks. You can pick up a bottle for the eye-openingly low price (when you take duty and VAT into consideration) of £23.25 from The Whisky Exchange.
Nose: Opens on malt and a dessert tray of buttercream, toffee, and vanilla wafers. Behind the tray is some salted white bread dough being kneaded on slate. Fruit is here too: green apple and orange rind. Water amplifies the malt and vanilla wafers.
Palate: A sweet entry on sherried raisins and oranges. The mouthfeel is medium with some slight woody astringency. The mid-palate brings toffee and caramel, which are the dominant flavours here. The back palate gets just a touch of cinnamon and clove spicing. Throughout there is a pinch of salt. Water erases the dried fruits and adds some cream.
Finish: Medium to long on toffee and caramel with hints of cinnamon, salt and smoke. Water lengthens the finish, making it woodier and more drying.
Cutty Sark Prohibition Edition is one of the best value Scotch whisky blends available. It’s the sort of bottle that a drinker in the know adds to their basket to reach the magical threshold for free shipping. They might later find they reach for it more readily than the other, more expensive bottle they bought with it.
The malt, the casks, and the alcohol strength make this an enjoyable sipper from start to finish, avoiding the common pitfalls of widely available blends. There are no cardboardy offnotes and the finish stays around for a fair while. If there are any offnotes here they are from the young malts in the recipe – reminiscent of some immature indie Glenrotheses – but what you think of those is a matter of preference. Buy this whisky and you too can celebrate 100 years since prohibitionist referendums and reforms by paying more than half of the cost in alcohol-linked taxes. Just make sure you don’t try to produce any munitions while drinking it.
But don't take our word for it..
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