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Scotch Whisky by Thomas MacCalman Morton

The Roaring Twenties. It was all speakeasy jazz and sledgehammer-smashed stills churning out rotgut. Or skirmishes on the Canadian border involving convoys of illicit booze, some of it making the fortunes of men who would later play crucial roles in the politics of the U.S. Poor old Scotland, far away across the Atlantic, simply saw its distilling industry flounder in a sea of unsold whisky for those astonishing 14 years that the Volstead Act was in force, between 1919 and 1933. Didn't it?

Not quite. Indeed, not at all, although there are still many in Scotland and especially within the Scotch Whisky fraternity who would rather not talk about the systematic lawbreaking that went on during those interesting times. I have never quite solved the mystery of whether or not a deputation of Chicago criminals made a trip to Skye to negotiate the shipment of Talisker out to within a few miles of the New Jersey coast, the so-called "Rum Row," where dozens of ships anchored just outside U.S. territorial limits. There they waited - immune, for the most part, from Coast Guard interference - for smaller boats to arrive under the cover of darkness and transfer their illegal cargoes ashore.

Were Al Capone and his henchmen resident in a certain luxury hotel in the wilds of Skye during the early days of Prohibition, entertaining or being entertained by potential suppliers? I was certainly told, 15 years ago, that the billiard table, on which I was carelessly knocking balls about, was the very one used by Mr. Capone. When I mentioned this on a TV programme, I received a lawyer's letter from the owner of the hotel, denying in the strongest possible terms that any such nefarious activity had ever taken place.

But there is simply no question that clandestine visits were made, if not to Skye, then to many other outposts of Scottish distillation. Littlemill, the now demolished distillery in Bowling, near Glasgow, thought to be the oldest in Scotland, was heavily involved in supplying the whisky-runners who sailed under the skull and crossed bottles! The rapidly running-down Campbeltown "whisky metropolis" seized on smuggling as a way of selling its product, which was dwindling in quality. And the major whisky producers were involved, too.

The full text of this column is available in the Summer 2008 issue of Scottish Life.

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