Addicted to Pleasure: Whisky (2012)

Hosted by legendary actor Brian Cox, Addicted to Pleasure is a 4 part documentary series encompassing the history and reality of 4 controversial substances that have become almost indispensable commodities for the world:  sugar, opium, tobacco and whisky. Produced by BBC, the episode on Whisky takes us on an intriguing journey of the amber spirit as it travelled down from the stills to societies through time, seasoned with a captivating narration by Cox.

Here’s a look at the content that comprised the documentary:

The world knows that whisky was born in the Scottish Highlands – a place that had the perfect ambience among the nippy moors garlanded with crystal clear waters from the snow peaked mountains. With grain and water aplenty, farmers had enough time and surplus harvest on their hands to convert this grain into alcohol. In fact, believe it or not, whisky is actually a by-product that arose from farmers looking for a way to store grain or rather to make the most of it.

The Scots made whisky from barley like the French made wine from grape and other fruits. Nonetheless, the age old process of distillation remained the same. While in the old hay days, this spirit was a part of the traditional ways to celebrate occasions, there were times when a small quantity of it was also administered to the ailing as a tonic for wellbeing.

But with the passage of time whisky took a turn that perhaps can’t be completely undone. In the late 18th century many distillers cropped up all over Scotland, both in the Highlands and Lowlands. History witnessed an unusual era. The initial Highland distillers were small in number but took great care to produce good quality whisky. But a number of the new distillers, particularly from the Lowlands, compromised on quality to boost quantity.  For instance, the infamous Stein family had for long been emptying bottles of toxic whisky down the throats of many through speedy distillation.

By the time the people turned to the Highlands for their drink, the government was already amending The Wash Act of 1784 to increase the tax on the Highland whiskies. The result? Smuggling to an extent that even the excise men and ministers of the time could do little about, as they themselves were covertly a part of the crime. The only Lowlander who managed to flagrantly break the law was King George IV. Coveting the Highland spirits, he brought home a part of The Glenlivet Distillery for himself and no one laid a hand on him.

The next century was even darker for the world of whisky. While tax laws on whisky improved, the massive population shift due to urbanisation brought with it a great deal of financial and societal repercussions. The meagre state of living, rent, debt and hard labour found nothing but drams of whisky to drown itself in. Families were shattered as violence increased. At this point, the drink in which the nation beamed, became a cause of its own shame.

It is in the wake of this reality that the government began to take solid measures, as far as it could. In 1909 tax levied on whisky skyrocketed to a 30 percent increase. More importantly, the Immature Spirits Act of 1915 declared all whisky must be sold only after maturing them in casks for a minimum of 3 years and one day. This set down the course of whisky today. For distilleries that couldn’t afford to wait, meant a complete shut shop, while for those who could, it meant silver lining.

Ever since, the tax on whisky has only been soaring in Scotland, making it an excellent export commodity, responsible for almost 25% of the country’s wealth. The demand has never been better and the Scots are happier as they have learned to respect, fear, and enjoy their national drink.

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