Illegal whisky

Today illegal goods are often seen as inferior to their legal counterpart. Yet in the 18th century, both rich and poor sought after illicitly-made whisky, as it was better quality than its legal counterpart.

The poor quality of legal whisky was due to the high rate of tax imposed on the malted grain used to make whisky. To cut costs, the large distilleries began to use unmalted raw grain. This produced an inferior drink called Corn spirits.

"...chiefly drunk by the dram drinkers, who wish to get drunk at the cheapest rate, and whose corrupted stomachs prefer the hardest spirits"
From 1798 Parliamentary Papers relative to the Distilleries of Scotland quoted by T. Devine (1975) in "The rise and fall of illicit whisky making in Northern Scotland, c. 1780-1840"

The illicit stills (which paid no tax) continued to use good malted grain, and so, once it had been smuggled to lowland markets, it fetched a higher price than the whisky made by the licensed whisky distilleries.

Recognising an illicit still

How do you know when you have found the site of an illicit still?

You will probably find the remains of a small stone building, which will look very similar to a shieling hut.

Dogfalls Illicit Still

This is a sketch of still equipment from Ballygrant taken from the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

This is the case both at Dog Falls and at Newe's Craig, another illicit whisky still site. There are, however, pieces of evidence that can help you identify the difference.

Firstly, due to the illicit nature of the trade these building tend to stand alone and in remote places, often well-hidden.

Secondly, they are usually close to a water source.  The distillation process requires water.  Sometimes you can identify a lade, a small man-made water channel, that would lead the water from the stream or burn to the whisky still.

At Dog Falls, you can see a stone lined channel that runs from the River Affric to the stone walled remains of the still building.   It is rare to find any evidence of the actual equipment used to make the whisky.