The ‘What is Whisky’ Case: Part 2

Welcome back to an abridged retelling of the ‘What is Whisky’ case of 1909 – a defining moment in Scotch Whisky history. When we left off both sides were preparing to battle it out in court by creating pamphlets and adverts galore. Yet the question remained – what would the court specify as the exact recipe for Scotch Whisky? Would it be malted barley in a pot still? Would the newcomer, grain whisky made in a coffey still, be allowed a hand in this game we call whisky? Read on to find out!

The Case

Barristers in wigs at a court case in the 20th centuryThe battle was fought on many fronts. Both sides claimed scientific evidence that the other produced whisky that was much worse for human health. Both sides essentially based their argument around the marketing of their spirit. Both wanted to reign supreme in those Islington pubs. But what did the Royal Commission actually hope to discover?

Sir Lockhart lists the commission’s mission as the following:

‘To consider whether, in the general interest of the consumers, or in the interest of the public health it is desirable

  1. To place restrictions upon the materials or processes which may be used in the manufacture and preparation in the United Kingdom of Scotch and Irish whisky or of any spirit to which the term whisky may be applied;

  2. To require a declaration of the age of the whisky and the materials and processes used in its manufacture and to fix a minimum period during which any such spirit should be matured in bond.’

Essentially grain whisky was on the defence, refuting the claim from the maltsters that ‘Scotch Whisky was clearly definable as a spirit made from malted home-grown barley, distilled by a special process, and matured to a recognised flavour and quality.’ The “special process” was pot still distillation and “the flavour and quality” was to be those only associated with malt whisky. These parameters were designed to keep grain whisky out. Forever.

‘Go Down Singing Hymns’

Traditional church hymn signThe strongest argument they would have had, in my opinion, would have been along the lines of global recognition and branding. Scotch, as well as Irish, had a reputation to uphold and the more variance in the flavours and quality, the harder that reputation would be to keep. Then following that, if Scotch Whisky was to become less popular around the world, the UK economy would suffer.

Instead, it appears that the representatives for Malt Whisky fully embraced the romantic element of their argument. To them, malt whisky was traditional, was an artform and was in fact so imbued with artistry that it sang lyrically to the drinker. Yes, you did read that correctly. Those on the malt side argued that grain whisky was a lifeless, ‘silent’ drink as opposed to malt whisky which would ‘go down singing hymns’.

They had spent so long seemingly incensed with rage at the changes to the whisky world, and had gone so deep into their whisky purism that they had in fact become religious about it. They were about to become martyrs to the cause…

The Result

This may be a classic case of ‘the lady doth protest too much’ – here ‘the lady’ is Malt Distillers – because the result was not what they wanted, at all. I don’t think their lyrical style impressed anyone. 

I have seen the result defined by many as a win for the grain distillers. Sir Lockhart calls it their “triumph” but to me it appears rather neutral. The commission’s conclusion, issued on July 28th, 1909, was that whisky was

The front cover of the book 'Scotch, The Whisky of Scotland in fact and story'‘a spirit obtained by distillation from a mash of cereal grain, saccharified by the diastase of malt’.

There were to be no specific parameters, no side was to have the ultimate win.

The commission offered no distinction between pot-still and patent-still or even between the nationalities of whisky. You also may have noticed that they did not specify a maturation period, that was to come later. In a way they revealed their lack of passion for the subject, going for the simplest and cleanest definition. Perhaps they just wanted everyone –  Team Malt, Team Grain and Islington Borough Council – to leave them alone so they could get on with other business.

Malt purists certainly felt this was the case, including Sir Robert Lockhart. He claims that they were obviously the wrong people to ask and that the case was doomed from the beginning because the whole thing happened in the realm of the sassenachs…


Whisky bottles in a bottling lineIt is interesting to look back on this historic case and then forward through time, to what happened next. Blends did well out of this, becoming even more popular at home and around the world. Johnny Walker is still one of the world’s most famous Scotch brands.

However the world is full of natural checks and balances and blended whisky of late has again fallen out of favour. Enthusiasts will often tell you how they prefer single malts and more and more distilleries are opening up and offering their own.

Who knows, perhaps another council may be incensed against the grain once more?

For my part I wouldn’t force grain whisky out into the cold. I think the light, fresh fruit, biscuity flavours from grain have their place among the whisky spectrum. Blended whiskies are, on the whole, sweet and easy going; perfect for introducing your non-whisky friends to the water of life. In fact, one of the most mouth-watering, heaven-sent whiskies that I have ever tried was a 40 year old grain. They have earned their place.



If you are now wondering “what are the laws for Scotch Whisky in this century” I have the current rules listed below. They were in fact created at the end of the last century in the 1980s, along with punk rock and Mr Whippy soft serve. A truly great decade.

For the purpose of the Scotch Whisky Act 1988 ‘Scotch Whisky’ means whisky –

(a) which has been produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley (to which only whole grains of other cereals may be added) all of which have been –

(i) processed at that distillery into a mash;

(ii) converted into a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems; and

(iii) fermented only by the action of yeast;

(b) which has been distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8 percent so that the distillate has an aroma and taste derived from raw materials used in, and the method of, its production;

(c) which has been matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 700 litres, the period of that maturation being not less than 3 years;

(d) which retains the colour, aroma and taste derived from the raw materials used in the method of its production and maturation; and

(e) to which no other substance other than water and spirit caramel has been added – The Scotch Whisky Order 1990 s3

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