Skip to content


Age verification

By clicking "Enter" you are verifying that you are of the legal drinking age in your location.

Shortcut: The “What is Whisky” case

Shortcut: The “What is Whisky” case

Name: “What is Whisky?” A huge lawsuit in which the single malt (or “self”) whisky industry lost emphatically to the blended whisky industry.

Age: We’re talking turn of the Century. Nineteenth and Twentieth, that is.

Appearance: That bashful blush when a cunning plan has backfired spectacularly.

Who started it? The Irish. Sort of. It’s complicated. Four of Dublin’s biggest pot still distillers, joined forces to lay down the law (as they saw it) in Truths About Whisky, published in 1878. Thing is, their distillation method was also used in Scotland at the time…

So, we have the pot still purists on one side. Who were they against? Everyone else, really. Specifically, the Irish and the Scotch blended whisky industries. Determined to ostracise the blenders, the purists launched a highly publicised and righteous campaign claiming that blended whisky wasn’t really whisky at all.

Why wasn’t it whisky? Because they said so.

Were they right to say that? Therein lies the problem. At the time, there was no formal definition of the spirit. The 1875 Sales of Food and Drugs Act was the only piece of legislation to safeguard whisky drinkers.

What a headache. That’s where your wrong, actually. “Not a headache in a gallon” was the notorious claim of the Cambus pure patent still Scotch grain whisky ad that appeared on the front-page of the Daily Mail.

That doesn’t seem very responsible. Not a grain of truth, you might say. Anyway, that’s beside the point. The tale takes a turn to the London Borough of Islington.

I didn’t see that coming. Nobody did. In an unprecedented move, local magistrate Edward Snow Fordham fined two publicans £100 each for serving their Islington customers “poor quality” whisky containing 90 per cent grain spirit that was no more than one year old.

Fordham was a purist? Correct. He decreed that whether grain or malt, unless made in a pot still, whisky could not be called whisky.

Purer than pure. What did the blenders make of that? They were understandably furious and appealed, hence the Royal Commission of 1908. After much debate (in some 37 sittings), it was decided that grain whisky – and therefore blended Scotch whisky – could in fact be called whisky after all.

A big win for the blenders! Huge. Undoubtedly a significant development, the “What is Whisky” case in many ways shaped the whisky industry as we know it today.

Do say: Thank heavens for legal definitions.

Don’t say: Sometimes you have to take pot luck.

Older Post
Newer Post

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Related posts

Meet the Educator: Daniel Whittington

Daniel Whittington is our Approved Course Provider in Austin, Texas. He teaches EWA courses on the campus of Wizard Academy and Whisky Marketing School.

Meet the Educator: Samantha De Noia

Samantha De Noia, founder of creative whisky agency 9 Smoking Barrels, is our Approved Course Provider in Madrid. Tel...

Meet the Educator: Joe Cabassa

Based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Joe Cabassa is our Approved Course Provider for Latin America. He is the founder of whisky and spirits education company, Academia De Whisky.

EWA Alumni: Can Ekinci

Tell us a bit about yourself. I am a bartender who loves my job very much. I enjoy doing research for my profession a...

Meet the Educator: Lia Niskanen

Lia Niskanen is the founder of Barrel Strength Talent, a bespoke whisky events and education business. Her focus is o...

EWA Alumni: Martijn van Opstal

Tell us a bit about yourself. I'm a 34-year-old whisky enthusiast who decided to turn his passion into his career. ...
Back to top

Shopping Cart

Your cart is currently empty

Shop now