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Ever wondered why Scotch whisky has to be matured for a minimum of three years? Gavin D Smith reveals how the stipulation came to be introduced during the First World War, and the subsequent repercussions for the industry.

“Drink is doing more damage than all the German submarines.”

David Lloyd George

Sometimes good things come out of terrible situations, such as the development of mass-produced penicillin during the Second World War. There is also the creation of vegetarian sausages by Germans in Cologne during the century’s earlier major conflict to consider, but whether that was a ‘good thing’ depends on one’s point of view.

It was, however, thanks to events in the UK during the First World War that a minimum age stipulation came to be applied to Scotch whisky, increasing the quality and prestige of the product in the long term.

Central to this development was the Liberal politician David Lloyd George, a noted temperance devotee and the man who as Chancellor of the Exchequer had raised the duty level on whisky dramatically during his ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909, taking the price of a bottle above half a crown (11p) for the first time.

War with Germany was subsequently declared in August 1914, and the following year Lloyd George was appointed Minister of Munitions in Herbert Asquith’s wartime coalition government. He soon declared that a perceived lack of productivity among armament workers was badly affecting the supply of shells being delivered to the armed forces.

He blamed excessive alcohol consumption for this situation, claiming it was exacerbated by the relatively high wages paid to staff in armament factories. He made the famous statement that “Drink is doing more damage than all the German submarines.”

His first instinct was total prohibition for the duration of hostilities, followed by a doubling of duty on spirits. Opposition to such a drastic measure came from many quarters, and eventually James Stevenson, joint managing director of John Walker & Sons, persuaded Lloyd George of an alternative approach.

As Ross Wilson writes in Scotch: Its History and Romance: “He was dissuaded to drop the extra tax and instead impose a compulsory minimum age of three years’ maturity before Scotch and various other spirits could be sold to the British public. A 12-month interregnum was allowed, on payment of extra tax, to Scotch of two years’ maturity.” Ross points out that Australia and Canada had imposed minimum maturation periods for whisky prior to the First World War.

The Immature Spirits Act 1915 contained the measures proposed by Stevenson, and Moss & Hume (The Making of Scotch Whisky) explain the rationale behind Lloyd George’s acceptance of its provisions, writing that: “It had always been maintained by the temperance movement, with little scientific evidence, that immature spirits caused more drunkenness than those matured for at least two years.”

Many distillers were already of the opinion that three years of ageing would be a positive move for the industry, and Ross declares that: “The minimum age requirement is a major landmark in the world development of Scotch.”

Its immediate ramifications included the sale at highly inflated prices of stocks of mature whisky which had previously been considered something of a liability by their distillers. The large producers with significant inventories of older whiskies tended to grow in scale, while smaller competitors who bought whisky on perhaps a weekly basis for blending, fell by the wayside. Another consequence was a shortage of spirits for sale to the public, and significant industrial unrest during 1917 as a result.

While there was something of a collective sigh of relief in the Scotch whisky industry at the fact that Lloyd George had accepted Stevenson’s alternative to vastly increased taxes, if only to save face and a likely defeat in parliament, less positive in their eyes was the formation of a Central Control Board (Liquor Traffic) to curb consumption of alcohol.

The Board established State Management Areas in and around Invergordon on the Cromarty Firth in the Scottish Highlands, the city of Carlisle and Enfield in Middlesex, all of which were major centres of munitions production. All on-premise and off-licence outlets as well as breweries were taken into state control, and, remarkably, in Carlisle, the State Management Scheme existed until 1973.

In the affected areas, opening hours were drastically reduced, the purchasing of ‘rounds’ of drinks was prohibited, while on a national basis the strength of spirits was reduced, initially in June 1916 to 42% abv (75° proof), and in April of the following year to 40% (70° proof). This strength has remained the industry standard ever since.

ABOVE: samples from single casks of a variety of age and ABV

This particular move was strongly opposed by the Scotch whisky industry, with The Record declaring that: “What the consumer gains in improved quality through the operation of the Immature Spirits Act, he loses by the imposition of extra dilution.”

Duty levels on spirits had been a contentious issue since the ‘People’s Budget’ of 1909, but the later war years saw savage increases, rising from the 1909 level of 14 shillings and sixpence (73p) per proof gallon to 30 shillings (£1.50) per proof gallon in 1918, and subsequently to 50 shillings (£2.50) the following year. However, the retail price of a bottle of whisky was set at 12 shillings (60p), later increased to 12 shillings and sixpence (63p), in order to protect consumers from some of the pain.

William H Ross, managing director and chairman of the mighty Distillers Company Ltd, declared during the company’s annual general meeting in July 1920, that: “When Mr Chamberlain [Austen Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer] again returned to the docile cow for a further augmentation this year of 22/6d [£1.13] per gallon – raising the Duty to the enormous rate of 72/6d [£3.63] per gallon – it was time for the Trade to protest.”

Some things really don’t change…


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