While it makes up only a small part of the sprawling whisky region of the Highlands today, Perthshire was once at the heart of the Scotch whisky industry. In fact, it could be said that much of the whisky world’s oldests and firsts come from Perthshire. The first known reference to distillation of aqua vitae, the water of life, in Scotland comes from Lindores Abbey, just south of Perth, from all the way back in 1494. The Glenturret in Crieff also famously claims to be the oldest Scotch whisky distillery still in operation. This autumn, Whisky Auctioneer is delighted to share a new, undiscovered chapter of Perthshire whisky history, with what we believe to be the oldest Scotch whisky to ever come to auction.
Manuscripts from Lindores Abbey Distillery
Illicit distilling in Perthshire
Illicit distilling is another name for illegal or unlicensed distilling, in many ways similar to moonshining in the prohibition-era USA. During the 18th century, as traditional Highland ways of life struggled to survive, illicit distilling boomed and Perthshire was a hotspot for it. Perthshire was an ideal place to make whisky, as its proximity to the urban Central Belt meant that smuggling did not demand the distances or journeys at sea required to bring whisky from similarly whisky-rich regions of the time, such as Moray or Arran. Modern research has also shown that illicit distilling was most plentiful in regions without rich farmland but with close proximity to it. Perthshire’s rich farmland to the south and wild, Highland north therefore fit the bill perfectly.
Despite being illegal, it would be a mistake to think that unlicensed whisky of the 18th and early 19th centuries was inherantly of poor quality. Indeed, part of the challenge with closing down illicit operations came from the sheer popularity of the spirit – Lowland elites and famously even King George IV claimed to prefer smuggled whisky over the licensed, increasingly commercialised Lowland spirit. Local magistrates tasked with sentencing those caught distilling were also well aware of the economic necessity of the activity, which helped struggling farmers to make more money from their crops. But illicit whisky was also far from limited to the wealthy. Gaelic cultural practice called for hospitality and generosity in a range of situations, and by the 18th and 19th centuries this was often expressed by the offering of whisky in a range of situations, from funerals to meeting other boats when at sea. And, like today, whisky was an important part of the Scottish economy – at the turn of the 19th century, Lowland whisky industrialised John Stein told a parliamentary enquiry that illegal spirits having the lion's share of the market in towns including Perth threatened the success of his legal product.
Blair Castle Estate in Highland Perthshire
The 1823 Excise Act created a path for legal and, crucially, affordable licensed distillation in the Highlands. This path was willingly and successfully taken by some, such as a group of Perthshire farmers who formed a cooperative and launched Edradour distillery just two years later. This survives to this day as one of Scotland’s original farm distilleries. By the early 1830s, excisemen and estate factors in Perthshire saw the success of the act and expressed the belief that illicit distilling was a thing of the past. Interestingly, it is said that the quality of licenced whisky improved at this time, as the knowledge and expertise of those who had previously been distilling illicitly moved across to the legal operations. Despite this, flare ups of illicit distilling continued for some time in both rural and urban settings, with The Caledonian Mercury reporting on illegal distillation and daring escapes from the excisemen even in the late 1850s. The whisky found at Blair Castle is believed to come from this exciting period, with the whisky industry just starting to develop into the organised force we know today.
Perth's Whisky History and Revival
The coming of the railways to Perth in 1848 cemented Perth’s status as a gateway to the Highlands, bringing visitors from England and the Lowlands to their fashionable Highland lodges, while also bringing quality produce down from the Highlands. This was a great opportunity for locals, and encouraged a new generation of Perthshire entrepreneurs, who opened lavish grocers in the town, supplying the visitors with quality products including whisky. Iconic and still prominent names in the world of whisky started in this way in Perth, including Arthur Bell, John Dewar and Matthew Gloag.
Traces of these days can still be seen in Perth, from ghost signs advertising long-lost whisky brands, to more subtle clues, as those who had made their fortune re-invested in their city. Indeed, Perth and Perthshire continue to benefit from the whisky industry to whom they offered a home, for example via A K Bell’s Gannochy Trust, which still plays a role in the county’s quality of life through diverse efforts in areas from affordable housing to sponsoring concert halls and theatres.
After some quiet decades, whisky is now considered to be enjoying a golden age and the industry is returning to Perthshire in new forms. Yet, as well as looking forward, the whisky industry in Perthshire is very much aware of and influenced by the heritage of our past. Kythe Distillery, currently under construction in the Hills of Bendochy, aims to create ‘old style’ Highland single malt, and the Perth-based, 2021-launched Finn Thomson Whisky independent bottlers draw strongly on the heritage of Thomson’s family, who have been a part of Perthshire’s whisky fabric from illicit distilling to blending. So, with new distilleries opening in the region, exciting independent bottlers and indeed Whisky Auctioneer based in the city, the liquid gold is once again flowing.
Joe Wilson, Head Curator and Spirits Specialist at Whisky Auctioneer
From notorious illicit distillers on the run, to the forgotten home of blending giants, Perthshire has been built upon whisky for over two centuries. Now, with what is believed to be the oldest whisky in the world coming to auction less than 30 miles from where it was thought to distilled, this story enters a new chapter, and Whisky Auctioneer is delighted to be a part of it.