Those who tinker with the process of making whisky have always risked the wrath of traditionalists.
But an experiment to transform the centuries-old method for ageing the "water of life" so that it could be matured within hours was seriously considered by government scientists.
A batch made in 1951 produced promising results but a larger experiment failed and the idea was abandoned amid fears foreign competitors would copy the process and undermine one of Scotland's top exports.
The creation of Scotch is a time-honoured process of distillation and ageing protected by stringent regulations. However, it has emerged that officials oversaw a trial that tried to dramatically accelerate whisky maturation. Documents, which have been opened to the public and placed in the National Archives, reveal that one distiller claimed to have made a breakthrough that could produce mature spirit in hours rather than years.
Initial tests hinted that "new whisky", created by circulating immature spirit through active chemicals, could actually lead to an improvement in the taste. The experiment was eventually abandoned and the trial has remained under wraps for almost 70 years.
Correspondence from the Board of Trade dating from 1952 confirms that the proposed innovation was treated with the utmost seriousness. It states: "The minister recently forwarded to us a letter he had received from a friend, Mr AJ Menzies, managing director of Fettercairn Distilleries Limited, Kincardineshire, about a process which he says he has invented for accelerating the maturing process of whisky.
"Mr Menzies claims his process reduces the maturing time from about five to ten years to a few hours. If the process is successful, even if only partially so, it will obviously have a considerable effect on the Scotch whisky trade."
A small scale batch of the accelerated whisky was hailed by government chemists, who noted in October 1952: "The analysis shows the spirit to have the character of a pot still malt whisky, having a much higher alcohol content, about six times, than well known proprietary blends. The general opinion here is that there has been some improvement in the taste."
The prospect of the market being flooded by rapidly produced whisky eventually set alarm bells ringing. A letter from one Board of Trade official to his counterpart in Edinburgh outlined the escalating concerns. It states: "If the invention were to be taken up abroad, foreign distillers might possibly be able to destroy our exports by producing something nearly equivalent. These are gloomy prospects." However, a large batch produced at the premises of Alexander McGavin, a Glasgow whisky blender, resulted in "significant evaporation and loss of proof" and the project was then quietly abandoned.
A spokesman for the Scotch Whisky Association said: "What this failed experiment proves is there can be no shortcuts to Scotch."
By Marc Horne
December 28, 2017
Source: The Times
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