A public appeal has been launched by the National Trust for Scotland to help find more historic stills that may have been part of Scotland’s historic whisky distilling history before the practice was made legal in 1823.
In the wake of the major discoveries found at The Glenlivet Distillery in November 2021, the NTS reported that only 130 illicit stills have been listed in Scotland’s archaeological database, with thousands more likely to be hidden all around the country.
Archaeologists working with the NTS have provided clues for potential distillery discoverers, suggesting that the difference between an illicit still and a multi-purpose farm building from that era is that the building would be close to water and peat, yet also appear somewhat hidden.
They also suggested that stills near certain types of low-smoke generating trees such as juniper could also be a telltale sign, as well as having access to villages, settlements and roads, given the need to move the whisky from the hidden location to sell to the public.
These finds would not only be fascinating from a whisky investment perspective but also highlight a fascinating era when whisky was not Scotland’s national drink.
The first taxes on spirits were enacted in 1644 and were so prohibitively expensive that the Highlands became home to a major underground trade of unlicensed distilleries who developed a reputation for a cheaper, better product by virtue of avoiding the expensive malt taxes.
Whilst small scale private production was made illegal in 1781, magistrates in the Highlands were keen to turn a blind eye, acutely aware that this unlicensed whisky trade enabled tenants to pay their rents.
The law was tightened in 1815 to specifically target these tiny stills, with 1000 of them being found before 1823 when the government allowed distilleries to legally make whisky in return for a license fee.
This unfortunately has caused many of these hidden stills to be lost to history, leading to the NTS appeal for clues of potential still locations.