Islington's Surprising Whisky History

Islington's Surprising Whisky History
Image by psyxjaw in the Londonist Flickr pool

When is a whisky not a whisky? In 1905, nobody really knew or cared about the definition. Unscrupulous distillers were free to use whatever grain they had to hand. They could slap on a label proclaiming it Irish or Scotch malt whisky, then charge a premium price for their less-than-premium product.

All this changed when, as unlikely as it seems, Islington Council brought the legal case that answered the question, “What is whisky?” and changed the future of whisky forever.

Islington cheats

The defendants, spirit merchant James Davidge and publican Thomas Samuel Wells, had been cheating their patrons for years by selling inferior whisky at premium whisky prices.

Modern malt whisky is made exclusively from malted barley and is distilled in small batches using pot stills shaped like giant copper kettles. Grain whisky, on the the other hand, is made in a patent still (also called a continuous, Coffey or column still) that continually churns out very pure, very strong spirit made from cheaper corn, wheat, rye, unmalted barley, or other cereal grains. Blended whisky — a mix of these two types — was very popular in Victorian England, though purveyors of pot still whisky promoted and lobbied for their product above that of the 'inferior' blends, as they saw them.

They could call it ‘malt whisky’ and many of their customers would be none the wiser.

The two canny merchants soon realised they could use greater amounts of the cheaper grain whisky in their blends, add just a splash or two of malt for a smoky or fruity flavour, and continue selling it at their previous prices for a bigger profit. Further, they could call it ‘malt whisky’ and many of their customers would be none the wiser.

Step forward Islington Council

The metropolitan borough of Islington was beset by health problems and, in 1905, the temperance-sympathetic council believed that drinking cheap, industrial grain spirit was a major culprit (perhaps inspired by the campaigns of the pot still distillers). They wanted to stop it being sold under the guise of the better, ‘less harmful’ Irish or Scotch malt. What they needed was a conviction against adulteration of alcoholic drinks. The council needed a test case.

Edward Snow Fordham, Illustrated London News, 17 September 1898. (c) Illustrated London News Group courtesy of the British Library Board via the British Newspaper Archive.

Enter the eccentric magistrate Edward Snow Fordham, who had previously waged war against those selling counterfeit brandy. A strong advocate for prohibition, he was a colourful character on the bench, unafraid to speak his mind. Now his determined gaze turned to whisky, as Islington Council brought not one, but two local drinks merchants to trial.

Dodgy labels

On 12 September 1905, the council sent an agent of the Inspector of Nuisances to Samuel Wells’s pub (the Duchess of Sutherland, 66 Hazellville Road, Hornsey Rise — since demolished) to ask for a pint of Irish whisky. Wells produced a plain bottle of brown liquid for 2 shillings and 4 old pence. Three months before that, the same undercover agent had been to James Davidge’s shop at 327 Hornsey Road, and asked for a bottle of Scotch. In an amusing attempt at disguise, a label bearing the words 'Fine Old Scotch Whiskey' had been stuck on the bottle.

At court, the council’s analyst described how samples of the purchased drinks were found to contain 90% patent still grain spirit and were chemically very similar, with few defining flavours or aromas.

In an amusing attempt at disguise, a label bearing the words 'Fine Old Scotch Whiskey' had been stuck on the bottle.

Fordham's task in prosecuting Davidge and Wells was complicated by the lack of any common definition of what whisky should be, beyond "a spirit distilled from grain,” meaning that whisky could be almost any strong alcohol. This is not what the anti-patent still brigade wanted to hear.

But one-by-one, the prosecution brought an array of experts, from chemists and medics to the heavyweights of the whisky industry, each persuading Mr Fordham of the true nature of this magical spirit, and why Irish and Scotch whisky should be distinct, not indistinguishable from one another.

Islington defines whisky

The defence, meanwhile, made little ground. Fordham concluded that Irish and Scotch whisky are inherently different, made from indigenous grains: malted barley, plus unmalted barley and wheat for Irish. His mind was made up against patent still whisky, declaring that it could not be named or sold as either Irish or Scotch whisky.

The pair were found guilty, fined 20 shillings and asked to pay £100 costs, or spend two months in jail.

Following the ruling, 11 summonses were made against retail offenders in Islington. The case had established a standard for whisky and set in motion a Royal Commission in 1908 that led to stronger, more considered regulations over grain, malt, blended, Scotch and Irish whisky.

All because of two greedy Islington drinks merchants, an exasperated council, and one very zealous magistrate.

By Louise Crane

Last Updated 08 January 2018