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The Malt Tax Riots
Malt Riot is a blended malt Scotch whisky from the Glasgow Distillery Company. Like their 1770 single malt brand, the name refers to a significant moment in Glasgow’s whisky history.
England had imposed a malt tax in 1644, in order to help pay for the country’s civil war. When Scotland and England joined together in the Act of Union in 1707, Scotland was given exemption from the tax. As early as 1713, however, there were some in the parliament proposing an extension to cover Scotland but the opposition was so stiff it resulted in a motion to repeal the Act of Union. The motion only narrowly failed.
By the 1720s support for the tax had grown and in 1725, the house of commons implemented a new version that would apply throughout Britain, albeit charged at half the rate in Scotland. The population reacted furiously. Spontaneous protests broke out in Stirling, Dundee, Ayr, Elgin and Paisley while brewers in Edinburgh went on strike. The fiercest protests took place in Glasgow, where crowds began to assemble on the 23rd of June. Demonstrators rang the city’s fire bell, summoning more citizens to support their action. When their numbers had swollen they sought out and attacked the excisemen sent to collect the new tax. Then they turned their attentions to Daniel Campbell of Shawfield, the local MP.
Campbell owned Shawfield Mansion at the junction of Trongate and Glassford Street. It was the finest house in Glasgow, possibly in Scotland. Rioters smashed the windows and looted his house, leading the authorities to call in the military. Without warning, shots were fired, killing nine citizens and wounding another sixteen. This only served to heighten tensions and the military was withdrawn. They retreated to Dumbarton, where they were set upon by a mob. Again shots were fired, killing members of the public.
Eventually, a larger military force, led by General Wade was deployed, and the demonstrations quelled. Accompanying Wade was the Lord Advocate, Forbes of Culloden. Forbes owned Ferintosh distillery, the only commercial distilling enterprise in Scotland at the time. Conveniently, his business was given an exemption from the new tax. He saw to it that many of the protestors were jailed, fined and either whipped through the town or exiled for life. Then he arrested the town council and fined them a total of £10,000.
Some of that money was used to compensate MP Daniel Campbell to the tune of £6000. Contrary to many reports on the topic, Campbell’s mansion did not burn to the ground. In fact, damage surveys put the cost of repairs in three-figure sums. The compensation payment, it would seem, was more akin to a reward. A reward for an elected politician who had voted against the wishes of his constituents.
Campbell felt it wise to leave Glasgow. With his pockets bulging, he headed west and bought a significant portion of the land that made up the isle of Islay. It would be very easy to demonise the man who brought the malt tax to Glasgow but in truth, he was good for Islay. He encouraged agricultural improvements, introducing new methods of crop rotation and higher-yielding barley strains.
The malt tax had primarily affected beer, with the majority of distillation at that time taking place in tiny stills, scattered around the Highlands and serving small rural communities. With beer rising in price, however, the people of Scotland’s major cities began looking for an alternative and what they found, was a rough barley spirit, smuggled down from the North. They found uisge-beatha.
The water of life, or whisky, would soon be facing its own battles with the excisemen but on Islay, new crop varieties were creating leftover stocks and excess barley meant only one thing, more whisky. Daniel Campbell’s grandson inherited the island from him and commissioned the building of a town, Bowmore. There he encouraged a Bridgend man to establish the island’s first distillery. Next in the family line was Walter Frederick Campbell. He built the villages of Port Ellen, Port Charlotte and Port Wemyss, named after his nearest and dearest. He encouraged more distillers to become legitimate businessmen and within a 12-month spell Laphroaig, Lagavullin and Ardbeg had sprung up along the Kildalton coast.
The malt tax had a dramatic effect on what would become Scotch whisky. Indeed, it could be argued that no single event contributed more to the development of the Scottish whisky industry. It created a market for the spirit in the densely-populated central belt and the protests sent Campbell of Shawfield to Islay, where he and his descendants would shape the island and encourage the fledgeling industry that would come to define it.
Malt Riot is a blended malt that contains a portion of spirit distilled in Glasgow. Bottled at 40%, it retails at £25.
Smell: It’s quite grain forward, to begin with – malt, grist and muesli. A little sawdust. There’s also some fresh fruit like apple, pear and lemon. Perhaps even some tropical notes like pineapple and mango. Some fresh oak too.
Taste: Fruity arrival. Reminds me of Opal Fruits. Or for those born in the 21st century, Starburst. Like the nose, there’s a malty backbone that comes across a bit like digestive biscuits. A little gingery spice but nothing too intense. A wee bit of juicy oak on the finish.
Thoughts: A blended malt at £25 a bottle is always going to invite comparison with Monkey Shoulder. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that particular dram was the inspiration behind Malt Riot. And why not? There’s always room for more affordable whisky. Perhaps now, more than ever. I can’t say I’ve been blown away by Malt Riot but it’s a tasty wee drop at a decent price.
This blended malt feels like it’s been put together with enough tact that it’s interesting without ever being too challenging. People don’t want to be challenged by a £25 bottle of Scotch. They want to get a tasty dram that will put a smile of contentment on their face, without having to dedicate much brainpower to the experience. I’d say Malt Riot achieves that goal without ever becoming dull. That wee bit of spice in particular, which may even come from some Glasgow Distillery virgin oak, adds a bit of depth that you might not find in other bottlings of this nature. It works as an everyday sipper and I suspect it would make a rather lovely highball. Fair play to Glasgow Distillery, this is a wee cracker.
For more on the Glasgow Distillery Company visit here.
*If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your attention, you can buy it from Master of Malt at the link below. Please be aware that I can be paid a commission on any purchases you make. Other retailers are available.
Buy Malt Riot here