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ales of late-night whisky drinking are very much part of the mythology of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (PM: 1979-1990), but what is perhaps less well-known is that many of her political forebears long had a significant relationship with the amber fluid. In fact, whisky has played a crucial part in the economic life of Britain and – by extension – in its political life for centuries. Most of our greatest premiers have debated excise duties, tinkered with licensing laws and hours, and ruled on export regulations affecting the whisky industry. And some of them, like the redoubtable Mrs T, have personally benefitted from a wee dram in their efforts to cope with the demands of Britain’s top job. Take William Pitt the Younger (PM: 17831801 and 1804-1806), for instance. He became prime minister at the tender age of 24 and found himself faced with an enormous national debt of £243 million due largely to the American War of Independence 1775-1783. To replenish the coffers, Pitt sought to raise taxes by any means possible. His Wash Act (of 1784, amended 1786) divided Scotland into Highland and Lowland areas. It was deemed that north of the line producers could make only malts (whisky made from malted barley) and they would be taxed on the capacity of their whisky stills. South of the line, in the Lowlands and England, on the other hand, producers would be allowed to make whisky from any type of grain, and it would be the fermented ‘wash’ itself (the liquid from which the whisky was distilled) that was taxed (at a rate per gallon). This ‘Highland Line’, as it became known, was drawn as a means of lowering duties on whisky in the Lowlands and England to stimulate more legal distilling there and ultimately to raise funds for the government.

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Pitt himself was a notorious heavy drinker who favoured port and became known as a ‘three-bottle man’ because it was said that he could drink three (350ml) bottles a day. Suffering from chronic ill-health he was advised to drink whisky by his doctors and developed a real taste for the stuff. Unfortunately, such ‘medicine’ on top of his regular intake of alcohol caused him to suffer even more greatly from gout and biliousness and he eventually died at the still relatively young age of 46. The next significant moment in the political history of whisky came in 1823 under the premiership of Lord Liverpool (Robert Banks Jenkinson, PM: 1812-1827). Whether Liverpool himself particularly enjoyed whisky is not known, but his dinner parties were deemed to be ‘sober’ occasions, and his character has been described as ‘careful’ if not ‘mediocre,’ so perhaps it is unlikely. Nevertheless, Liverpool was to grant a boon to whisky producers in the last years of his office. During the early 1820s, the taxes payable on whisky had increased to such an extent that it was almost impossible for Scottish producers to make a profit legally and thousands of illegal stills were in operation. To attempt to rectify these problems, the Excise Act of 1823 sanctioned the distilling of whisky for a licence fee of £10 and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit. In effect, this meant that the rate of duty payable on whisky by the producers had been cut, large-scale production now became viable, and illicit stills were all but wiped out. The 19th century saw repeated political moves to tighten and relax the licensing laws, legislation which affected how alcohol of all kinds was consumed in Britain. But during the First World War, whisky was again singled out for particular attention. Prime Minister David Lloyd George (PM: 1916-1922) had been accused of trying to break the whisky industry. He was, in fact, a teetotaller and it is possible that his personal renunciation of alcohol affected his policies to some degree. Certainly, it was on his watch that the Immature Spirits Restriction Act

09/11/2017 11:41:13

Cask & Still Magazine - Issue 6  

Behind the scenes in the Arctic Circle at the world's most northerly distillery. Also, the Irish whiskey industry is growing rapidly, but co...

Cask & Still Magazine - Issue 6  

Behind the scenes in the Arctic Circle at the world's most northerly distillery. Also, the Irish whiskey industry is growing rapidly, but co...

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