Large scale distilling by the ‘great and middleclass distilleries’ was only made possible by the availability of surplus grain crops brought about by the agricultural revolution which gathered pace in Scotland from the 1750s.
Landowners and farmers acknowledged distilleries as being essential to the prosperity of lowland agriculture. Farmers by now were locked into the cycle of growing wheat and barley for the whisky industry, on a scale never seen before. Kennetpans and Kilbagie had in excess of 850 acres of farmland for their exclusive use. To this day, Craigton Farm, located at Kennetpans (once owned by the Steins from the 1200s until 1835) still produces quality barley for the whisky industry. By 1777 Kennetpans and Kilbagie consumed 100,000 bolls of grain annually from which 5,000 tons of whisky spirit was produced.
The waste produce, draff, from the two distilleries was used as animal fodder, enough for 11,000 cattle and over 3,000 pigs to be fattened. The cattle were then driven to Glasgow or Edinburgh for slaughter while the pigs were killed locally, salted and cured into pork and bacon for export to England shipped out through the port of Kennetpans usually on one of the Steins many ships. The other by product of this operation was vast quantities of manure which was said to increase crop growth by 2 – 3 times.
The Great Dearth 1782 – 84
The summer of 1782 was a climatic disaster in Scotland. The harvest was poor throughout the country and failed completely in the Highlands where by the spring of 1783, the whole area was gripped by famine.
While many counties banned distilling to improve grain supplies for food purposes, the government sought to restrict distilling by almost doubling the duty per gallon of spirit. As a result, consumption of legal whisky dropped by 50% in 1783.
The five large distilleries belonging to the Steins and Haigs managed to increase their output by importing supplies of non food grains from abroad. They even managed to export 427,000 gallons of spirit to England.
The continued production of spirits throughout 1783 – 84 caused resentment when large numbers of people were starving to death. On June 4th 1784, James Haig’s Canonmills Distillery in Edinburgh was stormed by hungry crowds who believed that oats and potatoes were being used for distilling. The mobs were repelled on the first occasion by the Haig’s armed servants. When the rioters returned in greater force three days later they were met by a strong militia presence who wounded several people. The magistrates sentenced the ringleaders to be publicly whipped through the streets before being deported to the colonies for fourteen years. On 8th June, James Haig issued a printed statement rebutting absolutely the accusation he was distilling from food crops.