1786 Wash Act

The Wash Act of 1784 considerably reduced the level of duty and simplified regulations as well as establishing a precise geographical ‘Highland Line’ which separated the lowlands from the highlands for the purposes of differential excise levels.

The Act aimed to stimulate legal distilling in the highlands and to reduce illicit distilling. Accordingly lower rates of duty were applied to small scale distilleries north of the line.

There were strict regulations concerning the highland distillery’s new privileges: stills were regulated in size to a maximum of 30 gallons, only one still per distillery and only grain grown within the Parish could be used and the whisky made had to be consumed within the local district. Infringements carried heavy penalties.

Another outcome of this Act was Ferintosh Distillery lost its perpetual right to distil free of duty and a payment of £21,580 compensation was made to Forbes of Culloden prompting Burns’ famous line “thee Ferintosh o sadly lost”.

The Wash Act satisfied no one. Highland distillers were outraged at possible fines and lowland distillers were furious about the highland privileges.

1786 The Amended Wash Act

William Pitt’s government amended the 1784 Act by restricting the number of highland distilleries to two per Parish, restricting the consumption of grain used to 25 ton per annum per distillery and increasing the maximum size of the still to 40 gallons. Duty was slightly increased to £1.10s per gallon capacity.

In relation to lowland distilling it abolished the tax on wash and applied the highland system of taxing on still capacity at a higher rate of £2.10s per gallon capacity. Stills were to be licensed on their expected annual capability and the assumption was that a still could only be discharged about seven times a week. 

As it was clearly in the lowland distillers interests to speed up the rate of distillation, the Steins developed shallow broad saucer shaped stills that could be discharged much quicker. It was alleged by the Lord Commissioners of  the Treasury that the Scottish distillers had “by the ingenuity of their contrivances, found means to discharge their stills upwards of forty times a week”. Little did they know John Stein’s Canonmills Distillery could achieve this in just 12 hours! As a result of this rapid distillation. Lowland whisky gained a poor reputation and was only really fit to be rectified into gin. The effect of the Amended Wash Act brought about the creation of the great middle class distilleries owned by the Steins and Haigs. The Act created a phenomenal increase in production and exports to England accounted for a quarter of the English market in 1786. 



1786 Scottish Distillery Act

This Act was brought about by the lobbying of Parliament by the London Gin Distillers who were not going to stand back and lose their markets to the Scots. James Stein’s Kilbagie plant had been geared up to supply the English market and it alone had a capacity of 5,000 gallons of Holland Gin per day. The Act imposed an extra duty of 2s per gallon on spirits exported to England. Scottish spirit became uncompetitive and exports collapsed to a thirteenth of the previous year.



1788 Lowland License Act

Early in 1788 an investigation took place by the House of Commons Committee into the Scottish distillers methods of production. It was inferred that they had misrepresented the discharge rates of their stills and by doing so had obtained an unfair advantage over the English distillers. Duty on exports were increased by a further 6d a gallon and the Scottish distillers were required to give 12 months notice of intent to export for one year.

This Act single-handedly wiped out the great Scottish Distillers in one fell swoop. 

See the Gin Trade.