Bristol whisky ?
Imagine going into a pub and asking for a glass of Bristol whisky ? You could at one time.
It may have been cheap but Bristol spirits caused - drying up and hardening of the fine vessels and nerves, rendering them impervious, producing paralytic strokes, hemiplegies and apoplexies. Whiskies these days come from Scotland, Ireland or America.
But there was a time when they also came from Bristol. It seems unlikely but Bristol did have a flourishing whisky industry that was big enough to supply other towns and cities. Whether the product was worth drinking is another matter, of course.
Bristol was once a centre for apple brandy which sold well while Britain was fighting the French. Once French brandy became available again, apple brandy declined and it is only in recent years that it has been revived again in Somerset and Herefordshire.
Until the seventeenth century anyone could set up a still and many did. In 1684, excise-men were given the job of monitoring production but they were mainly concerned with the tax due, not the quantity.
Nearly two million gallons of spirits were distilled in England in 1694 and the vast majority was poisonous rot-gut, sold to the poor to drown the sorrows of life.
Bristol whisky distillery was set up in around 1761 in Cheese Lane, St Philips. It was owned by Thomas Castle and Co. in 1821, Thomas Harris and Co. in 1830, and by the Board family who named it the Bristol Distilling Company in 1863.
The whisky trade was transformed in the nineteenth century by the patent which still allowed mass production of spirit. But the result was tasteless and it had to be mixed with single malts to make an acceptable drink. It was the beginning of blended whisky.
There was a large barley field next to the Cheese Lane distillery to provide grain for the stills, and by 1887, it employed 100 and used three pot stills with capacities of 10,000, 7,000 and 6,000 gallons, and patent stills for the grain spirit.
The company was taken over by DCL just after the First World War and DCL itself became part of United Distillers. But distilling was a major activity in the city for two centuries. In 1789, Bristol historian William Barrett wrote of 'many great works ( distilleries ) being erected at amazing expense in different parts of the city'.
Barrett was convinced that spiritous liquors caused 'slow but sure death' and added: The quality of gin and brandy made at home indicates and proves what a great consumption of these liquors there is now.
It may have been cheap but Bristol spirits caused - drying up and hardening of the fine vessels and nerves, rendering them impervious, producing paralytic strokes, hemiplegies and apoplexies Barrett added.
By 1825 the city had five distilleries, Bristol Whisky including Cheese Lane, and was sending boat-loads of drink to London and other places. And apart from disapproving on moral and health grounds, Barrett also made the valid point that the distillers were using grain at a time when harvests were poor and bread was expensive. Needless to say some of the blends were highly suspect.
Cheaper brands used immature whiskies which meant that some toxic elements remained in the drink anyway but they were boosted with meths, and creosote ( which was said to give the true smoky taste of good Scotch ).
Some whiskies were also given a kick by maturing them in sherry casks - a practice once frowned on but now used to give extra body to the finest single malts. Bristol whisky never had the impact of gin, the success of which turned many Victorian pubs into gin palaces
( the ornate Midland Hotel in Old Market is still nicknamed the Gin Palace ). Gins had exciting names like Cream of the Valley The Real Knock Me Down and The Regular Flare Up but the quality was still questionable.
As early as 1751, there was worry at the excessive drinking of spirits and gin among the working classes, leading to frequent instances of sudden death, the deprivation of health and morals and the increase of crime and poverty: Laws were swiftly passed banning manufacturers from selling direct to the public and threatening unlicensed sellers with transportation.
It didn't work. What really killed off the local distillers were heavier and heavier duties and taxes and a more discerning public that appreciated quality. Welsh whisky hangs on as a tourist attraction, but Bristol whisky is little more than a passing reference in a handful of history books.