Celebrating Whisky’s Marketplace Journey

Ostensibly, Spartan mothers, as their sons went into battle, would say, “Come home with your shield, or on it!” I did not say such encouraging words to my son when he left on a trip across the Pond, but I did impart a modified version: “Come home with a bottle of whisky, or not at all.”

Last summer, he and a high school pal spent 10 days traversing Scotland. They went for the usual reasons: family history, collegial adventures, and spreading their wings of independence. As I have frequented the “auld country” many times, I was able to offer assistance with their itinerary.  I insisted their trip be properly bookended—a special tour upon arrival to learn the distillation process and experience the unique varieties that are single malts and an actual distillery tour on their last day.

There was much they wanted to do, of course. What they did in between? Up to them. But if they followed my advice, I’d feel I’d done my job—and get that bottle of whisky to boot.

I have been informed that today is Saint Patrick’s Day. I am not Irish. When equal aplomb accompanies Saint Andrew’s Day, I will acknowledge the day. I might even wear green. That said, I do share some important things with my Celtic cousins, mainly a snarky attitude about all things “Aenglish” and an absolute love for all things “uisge beatha.”

Whisky is more than God’s greatest creation. It symbolizes the spontaneous order of free markets and the unplanned innovations they yield. It is the story of happy accidents, unforeseen circumstances, and twists of fate that created a spirit made perfect by its very imperfections.

These flaws tell a story. While whisky sanitized drinking water, it also offered an ideal method to utilize available raw resources in an environment of extreme scarcity. Farmers preserved their excess crop yields by distilling it into whisky and used the product as a unit of exchange. In other words, whisky became a commonly accepted currency. In fact, America’s own Whiskey Rebellion may have been prevented had the government allowed citizens to pay their distillery taxes in whisky.

The story of whisky is a story of tradition. Over the centuries, the essential distilling process has largely gone unchanged. If you’ve have the chance, as I have, to travel throughout Speyside and Islay and other Scottish regions, you can see it for yourself and up close.

It is also a story of globalization and exchange. Distilling technology has traveled as cultures migrated and interacted. At times, government intervention forced distilleries out of one region, then springing up elsewhere to meet demand. James Anderson, driven from England by Parliament’s Scottish Whisky ban, immigrated to America, where he assisted George Washington in creating the renowned, and now recently revived, Mount Vernon distillery.

Whisky production continues to celebrate the spirit of the individual. Distillers rely on resources in their particular environment to create distinct products, often through mishaps and accidentally discovered techniques. Consider the aging process: The unavoidable delay of slow shipping taught distillers the benefits of aging as the marketplace revealed consumers’ preference for whisky that had sat in a warehouse for an extended period of time.

Similarly, distillers first began charring the inside of reused barrels to eliminate the fish flavor from them. Charring kept costs low and accidentally imparted the smoky taste now expected in a good glass of bourbon and many other whiskies. Today, spirit barrels are reused and exchanged in a complex network connecting whisky producers with winemakers and many other varieties of spirit maker. Many spirits require aging in a barrel that previously held another product in order to impart a certain characteristic or flavor.

It is a story of entrepreneurs. In that spirit, I offer a special toast to the First Lady of Laphroaig, Bessie Williamson, owner and operator of the distillery during World War II. In the postwar years, she pioneered the introduction of peaty single malts into a market then dominated by blended whiskies.

It is, most importantly, a story worth telling, one that my friends at the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States recount well. To that end, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in partnership with Passing Lane Films and the Motion Picture Institute, will be producing a narrative film about how the hand of the marketplace influenced the development of one of the world’s most celebrated spirits. Stay tuned for more details as the release date gets closer.

My son sent me a text from Edinburgh shortly after he arrived. It read, “Islay peatiness too much; like vanilla notes in highland malts”” While my parenting will not be complete until he does appreciate those Islay gems, he is clearly on the path to enlightenment.

And, yes, he brought me home a bottle.