We’ve spoken about old whisky in the past with price tags bigger than your life savings, but nothing like this. Archaeologists have just commenced excavation at one of Scotland’s earliest legal whisky distilleries which began production way back in 1823.
According to the BBC, Blackmiddens was one of the country’s earliest small-scale whisky farms to be granted a license to produce thanks to the Excise Act of 1823. Whilst archaeologists on the ground were a bit more reserved about their work on the Cabrach site – the dig hopes to explore the “character and extent” of the distillery and its relationship with an adjacent ruined farm steading – Anna Brennand, chief executive of the Cabrach Trust was a bit more excited and said that the area was a place of “many secrets”.
“For decades local farmers secretly distilled whisky and smuggled it away under the noses of excisemen. Then, when the law was changed to make small-scale whisky production profitable, Blackmiddens was one of the first farms to take advantage of this.”
Brennand says that during its time of operation, Blackmiddens would have had a small 180 litre still, a significant difference to today’s whisky stills which can hold thousands of litres. History also indicates that whisky production on the farm ceased just after eight years from the year it commenced. After that the site fell to ruin and has been left in the hands of Mother Nature since.
“The hidden history of Blackmiddens is fascinating,” says Forestry and Land Scotland’s national environment advisor Matt Ritchie. “Illicit whisky stills can be found throughout the Highlands but they were particularly common in the Cabrach. They are difficult to spot, but once you know what you are looking for, you can find them tucked away next to burns in the hills.”
“When the Excise Act changed in 1823 and smaller distilleries became legal, the illicit distillers came down off the hills and set up in farmsteads like Blackmiddens.”
Local resident Joan Harvey has ancestors who were part of this audacious group who smuggled illicit whisky to Aberdeen before the legal distillery was established. The 66-year-old says that “I was always told that my great, great uncle was the head of the gang at the time. Stories about their adventures were passed down my family.”
“Apparently my great, great grandfather had a white stallion and when the excisemen were billeted locally he would ride his white horse, alerting everyone that the excisemen were there so that the whisky smugglers could go to ground. I was also told that, one time, the excisemen were trying to catch the smugglers and had set up barricades all around Aberdeen.”
“My great, great uncle hired a horse-drawn hearse and loaded the coffin with whisky. When he reached the excisemen, they all took off their hats as a mark of respect for the dead, and the whisky went through.”
The historical facts are rather intriguing but the one thing on everyone’s lips? Will there be 200-year-old buried or hidden whisky uncovered? Only time will tell but we’ll be sure to keep you posted.