The ‘What is Whisky’ Case: Part 1

Whisky fans are familiar with the historic but oft debated laws in regards to Scotch. This is the kind of nerdism we revel in. The recipe for the rules contains: three cups of economics, two of tradition, the same again for identity, and then a pinch of flair – so it’s never been simple.

The @scotchwhiskyswa instagram account providing a succint explanation of their campaign

In fact, there is a powerful body in the industry called the Scotch Whisky Association who, to this day, work tirelessly to ensure that whisky laws are upheld and Scotch kept pure. They are campaigning at the moment for a review on an old and out-of-date tax on whisky, which they believe unfairly stifles the economic potential of strong spirits and therefore of the country. They hope that Rishi Sunak will respond to their call in his forthcoming March budget. Laws on whisky remain a lively subject.

Laws are rooted in history, moments of change. Avid readers of this blog may remember Sam’s deep dive into how grain whisky, through the Coffey still, came into existence. A pivotal moment in whisky history. We take our story from a little afterwards, the turn of the 20th century. By this time, distillers and blenders had had a few decades to experiment with grain whisky and they were distributing a number of blends, a mixture of grain and single malt whiskies, all over the UK.

They were selling so successfully that the malt makers began to grumble… 

Why The Case Happened

As Sir Robert Lockhart’s tells us in his book Scotch: The Whisky of Scotland in Fact and Story, trouble for blenders and grain-ists brewed from an unusual quarter:

Islington, London. Shutterstock.

‘It was from London of all places that the first sign of serious trouble came to the confident and by now highly prosperous grain distillers. It arrived suddenly and unexpectedly when in 1905 the Islington Borough Council took out summonses against a number of local publicans and off-licence holders for selling ‘an article not of the nature and substance demanded’

Malt distillers and their associates had been protesting this newcomer whisky for years, grandstanding on the subject and creating malt purists – the ranks of which now included Islington Borough Council. The council had been so incensed that they wanted to invoke the law. Much like the recent Handforth Parish Council meeting, things escalated quickly but the discourse was then stymied. Someone had to read the rules. Read them and understand. And that meant writing them, first.

If anyone doesn’t understand what I am referencing when I speak of ‘Handforth Parish Council’ it is in reference to a provincial online council meeting that went astray, was recorded and his since become an internet sensation. You can watch the highlights on Youtube (by clicking here). Those interested in getting to the heart of British culture need look no further than this video. Long live Jackie Weaver.

The Case Wasn’t Going Anywhere

The two sides went back and forth with officials officiating decisions and then non-officiates appealing. The underlying issue was that no-one with the power to decide felt that they could decide one way or another. Sir Lockhart suggests that these legal workers didn’t have enough technical knowledge. They went through various courts and eventually reached a deadlock. 

Then, they were put on the agenda of a very important person: The President of the Board of Trade. The hope being that he might sort out somewhere for them to have an official argument about this. Back to the book and Sir Robert Lockhart has some things to say about this President of the Board of Trade…

‘The President of the Board of Trade was Mr John Burns, the first working-man to be a Cabinet Minister…he had seen something of the evil effects of drink in big cities, and on his first visit to Chicago he had shocked the local Press by comparing the city to hell. Urged by the journalists to give himself more time to see the city before condemning it, he requested them to come back in three days. When they returned and asked what his views now were, he lifted his hat and said solemnly: ‘I apologise to hell.’ 

Chicago circa 1870. A few years before John Burns arrived but the little fires probably more accurately reflect the fiery hellscape that he imagined. Shutterstock.

A Royal Commission

Suffice to say The President of the Board of Trade was as ruthless and stubborn as the Handforth Parish Council Clerk. Mr John Burns, in short, turned his nose up at all things sinful and alcoholic. He would not let this case be taken anywhere, preferring to have nothing to do with whisky and it’s dirty associated vices. He ignored it completely.

Islington Borough Council, surprising us once again, played the Jackie Weaver of this tale and with some help managed to pressure Mr Burns into finally doing his job and appointing a Royal Commission. Finally, an official group of people who would once and for all decide the matter of ‘what is whisky’.

How They Prepared

A copy of the 1909 advertisement. Taken from in their article ‘what is whisky the legal fight’

Both sides went pamphlet mad. Pamphlets were very big in those days. To prepare for the battle Team Grain even put out an advert in the Daily Mail. A very respectable thing to do in those days. This ad was for a new whisky, a pure grain whisky. A yet unheard of product!

The whisky, from the Cambus distillery, was deemed by them not only worthy of the level of esteem attributed to a fancy ad in the Daily Mail but also to be an actually very enjoyable dram. Or so they said. Their angle was that this whisky was lighter than pure malt and was therefore more adequate for the sensitive stomachs of the city-slicker elite. They may not have had the hearts of Islington Borough Council but they would damn well try for the rest of London. This ad was designed to change the course of history!


…and that is where we will leave this story for this week! Come back next week to find out how the case went, what claims they made in court and what the result was.

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