The Forbes Mackenzie Act & the story of blended Scotch whisky
The passing of the Forbes Mackenzie Act in 1853 has been cited in many whisky histories as one of the key events in the story of blended Scotch and the creation of famous whisky brands.
The Act, more prosaically known as The Licensing (Scotland) Act 1853 (16 & 17 Vict. c.67) was given its popular name in honour of William Forbes Mackenzie (1807-1862), its leading promoter.
But did it really permit vatting in bond, without payment of duty, as is often claimed? And did it also encourage companies such as Andrew Usher & Co to develop the first blended malt Scotches for the mass market, another commonly-held belief?
The honest answer is: Not really.
The Forbes Mackenzie Act, as its ‘official’ title suggests, amended the licensing laws relating to pubs and licensed premises in Scotland. It required those premises to close on Sundays, and at 10pm on weekdays. It did not concern itself with the vatting or blending of spirits.
So how did this confusion arise?
There was another Act of Parliament passed in 1853: ‘An Act to Impose Additional Duties on Spirits in Scotland and Ireland…’ (16 & 17 Vict. c. 37). Among various measures designed to increase duties and punish those who sought to evade payment, the Act decreed that:
‘On payment of the duty on the full quantity of spirits contained in any one or more casks in any warehouse, it shall be lawful for the distiller or proprietor of such spirits… from time to time to rack or draw off such spirits into any other cask or casks, provided that no less a quantity than ten gallons shall be racked into any one of the last-mentioned casks…’
One can speculate that this may be the Act, mistaken for Mr Forbes Mackenzie’s, that referred to mixing or ‘vatting’ whisky in bond. But note the wording – it suggests that the transfer of spirits to other casks could only proceed ‘on payment of the duty.’ This requirement must have limited the Act’s significance to distillers and others hoping to delay the added expense of paying duty until their spirits were sold to a customer.
It seems also unlikely that the 1853 Act was responsible for the appearance of the first blended malt whisky brands.
The art of blending Scotch whiskies is as old as the business of making whisky itself. Dealers in wines and spirits had long been accustomed to mixing together different batches of brandies, rums or other spirits to create more consistent products or to ‘smooth out’ a disagreeable flavour in a particular batch. They applied their skills and experience as blenders to create whiskies to suit the tastes and the pockets of their customers. And, after the introduction of the patent still to the industry in the 1830s, many had access to patent still whiskies, as well as those made in pot stills, to add to their blends.
It is often suggested that it was shortly after the passing of the 1853 Act that Andrew Usher & Co introduced Old Vatted Glenlivet (also known as OVG), the first widely-promoted vatted (now classified as blended) Scotch malt whisky brand.
However, no evidence has yet been found to indicate OVG was available on the market prior to 1870s, nearly 20 years later. And records describe OVG as a blend of single malt whiskies and grains – what is known today as a blended Scotch, not a blended malt.
In fact, Usher had begun promoting a different brand of whisky quite heavily before 1853. Advertisements for the firm’s ‘The Real Glenlivat’ began appearing in many of the most popular London newspapers during the mid-1840s.
Usher was the agent for George Smith, a distiller in Glenlivet, and it seems likely that The Real Glenlivat came from the latter’s distillery. It is possible – indeed very likely – that Usher would have vatted different casks of the whisky before offering it for sale: but if it really was the product of a single distillery, then The Real Glenlivat was what we would classify today as a single malt, not a blended one.
Nor was The Real Glenlivat the only whisky brand to be heavily promoted before 1853. For example, Royal Brackla (so called after the distiller was granted a Royal Warrant in 1833) was advertised in the London press as ‘The King’s Own Whisky’ and sold for £1 per gallon or at £2 and 4 shillings (£2.20) per dozen bottles. Like The Real Glenlivat, it is possible that casks of Royal Brackla were vatted before the whisky was offered for sale.
But what of those famous brands of blended Scotch whisky – made by mixing single malts and grain whiskies - made famous by John Walker & Sons, James Buchanan & Co, John Dewar & Sons et al. The pioneers, such as OVG, were not widely advertised until the early 1870s.
Their rise to prominence was due largely to the business acumen of the blenders themselves, stimulated by changes in Government regulations in the 1860s to permit blending and bottling in bond for the domestic market. Sales of blended Scotch and Irish whiskey (much of it mixed with Scotch grain spirit) soared thereafter, aided initially by a growth in demand that was stimulated by shortages of brandy as the phylloxera epidemic ravaged Europe’s vineyards.
Which leaves the question of the first blended Scotch brand – if not OVG, then what could it be? The question is complicated by the sparsity of documentary evidence from the period, but one contender stands out. By the 1860s, R Thorne & Sons of Greenock were selling their Thorne’s Blend all over the UK, in casks and bottles. The whisky, which may originally have been a blended malt, was described as ‘The Eau de Vie of Scotland,’ which was ‘matured in bond and carefully blended.’
Could this be the first famous brand of blended Scotch whisky? No one can yet say for sure: Even as you read this, there are scholars scouring the archives and find an earlier contender for the title!