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The Gladstone Axe is a new Scotch whisky brand from US-based spirits company Biggar and Leith. The whisky was inspired by William Gladstone, a titan of British politics who served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom on four separate occasions. Elwyn Gladstone, founder of Biggar and Leith, is the great-great-great grandson of William.
William Gladstone was something of a divisive character, once described by Queen Victoria as a “half-mad firebrand”. His political career began in somewhat murky territory when he was elected as High Tory MP for Newark in 1832 at the age of just 23. Known for his ultra-conservative views, he spoke in parliament against the abolition of slavery, because his family used slaves on their West Indian plantation.
When the Tory party broke apart in 1846, Gladstone became a Liberal-Conservative, campaigning for free trade. In 1847 he returned to parliament as MP for Oxford University. In 1858, he turned down a position in the Earl of Derby’s Conservative government, feeling his views no longer aligned with the party. Instead, he became Chancellor of the Exchequer in a coalition government led by Lord Aberdeen.
In 1868, Gladstone became Prime Minister after campaigning on policies that emphasised equality of opportunity and opposed trade protectionism. He also made it his mission to “pacify Ireland”. In his first term he oversaw the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland, meaning Catholic farmers would no longer be forced to pay taxes to the Church. He also pushed through the Irish Land Act. As a result, any farmer evicted after making improvements to his land would be entitled to claim compensation. He also proposed a new university in Dublin that would be open to both Catholics and Protestants but was defeated in parliament.
Gladstone suffered a heavy defeat in the general election of 1874 and retired as leader of the party. Six years later, however, he was back. This time he served for five years before his government’s budget was defeated in 1885. Once again he resigned but declined an Earldom offered to him by Queen Victoria, choosing instead to remain in office.
Gladstone became Prime Minister for a third, albeit short-lived term in 1886. Working in alliance with Irish Nationalists, he introduced an Irish Home Rule Bill that proposed a parliament for Ireland. He lost the vote and his party lost the general election in July that year. Again, William refused to go quietly and spent the next 6 years trying to convince the British electorate to grant Home Rule in Ireland. After campaigning strongly on the issue, the Liberals won the 1892 election and Gladstone returned for a fourth term. This time his Home Rule Bill was voted through parliament before being defeated in the House of Lords. Gladstone retired in 1894, having lost the backing of his cabinet.
Gladstone’s final resignation brought a political career of 60 years to a close, though his impact and legacy would continue to be felt for generations. Like so many historical figures, the Prime Minister known as the Grand Old Man seems hard to pin down using our modern sensibilities. His early views on slavery were reprehensible but he also worked tirelessly to find a solution to the situation in Ireland and pushed for equality of opportunity regardless of background. On a personal level, he devoted much of his spare time, and money, to persuading prostitutes to change their lifestyle. As always, history cannot be judged in black & white. Like life itself, it is nuanced and complicated. There are no good guys and bad guys, just human beings capable of both good and bad things.
Away from politics, Gladstone relaxed by indulging in an unusual hobby. He took great pleasure in felling trees and could often be found wielding his axe on the family estate in Hawarden. This pastime became infamous and he was gifted several axes on state visits over his long career. Whilst an unusual interest for a politician to take, the axe did his image no harm. Supporters often depicted him swinging his axe to fell the wrongdoing of his political opponents. It also found favour with the working classes, who appreciated a politician that took pleasure in a hard days work.
Another of Gladstone’s deeds was the signing of the Spirits Act in 1860. For the first time, blending of whisky held in bond was allowed without payment of duty. The act was largely responsible for kickstarting the blended Scotch industry as we know it today.
*Full disclosure: I was sent this bottle free of charge. As always I will strive to give an honest opinion on the quality of the dram and the value for money it represents.
Smell: The “rich and smoky” title is very appropriate. There’s dried fruits. Some chocolate. Toffee. Honey. Caramel. Also some varnished oak and wood smoke. With water I found apple and pear with some Scottish tablet.
Taste: The smoke isn’t as apparent on the palate. Instead there’s lots of oak. There’s also caramel and honey with red apples and a touch of citrus. Sultanas and currents too. Light peat smoke on the finish. The whisky is light-bodied but intensely flavoured.
Thoughts: No clouding in the glass when water was added so I assume this whisky was chill-filtered. Whether as a result of that, or just through the whiskies selected, I felt it lacked a bit of weight. Some flavour profiles suit a light, delicate mouthfeel but I feel like I want a lot of natural oils with a rich, smoky dram. It’s also a hell of a colour and without an assurance that no colouring was used, we have to suspect that it was.
All of that said, this is a dram of intense flavour. In fact, if anything it’s over-oaked and a bit of water is needed to get beyond the wood. The only problem there is the mouthfeel suffers a little but it was a sacrifice worth making. The dram found a better balance with less oak and more fruity malt.
The Black Axe is possibly a little flawed but there’s a lot to enjoy. It’s richly flavoured, beautifully packaged and at £30 a bottle, rather well priced. Quite a fascinating new arrival, then.
If the whisky reviewed in this article has caught your attention, you can buy it from Master of Malt. Please be aware that this is an affiliate link and I can be paid a small commission on any purchase you make.
For more on The Gladstone Axe visit here.