Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format



Master of Arts




Forster, Benjamin

2nd Supervisor

Rhoden, Nancy


This thesis aims to fill in gaps in the study of whisky history that exist and explore how whisky culture was used by Scots to protest taxes, the Act of Union, the British government, English influence in Scotland, and to assert nationality. Throughout the 18th century, whisky was used as a political tool by the illegal and legal whisky trades and the Scottish and British governments for political and financial gains. How whisky was politicised and used is examined throughout this study to understand better how whisky moved from a cottage handicraft to a commercial industry. Excisemen played a critical role in how illicit distillers, smugglers, and legal distillers operated, and how the British government finally gained control over the illegal whisky trade. Early authors viewed these men as anti-heroes, but through the use of the Board of Excise records, court documents and private correspondence, this study re-evaluates their importance and place in whisky's history.

Summary for Lay Audience

This thesis explores the history of whisky, and excise laws and excisemen. The role of excise laws and excisemen are as important to the history of whisky as illicit distillers and smugglers. Without knowing the complicated history of whisky, and how excise fits into that history, it is difficult to appreciate how Scotch whisky became so popular. Scotch whisky is steeped in rebellions, riots, illicit stills, smuggling and violence all to protect whisky from high taxes and poor-quality whisky that threatened to outprice and outpace good quality whisky. Many Scots, who were otherwise law-abiding citizens, were willing to commit crimes to produce good quality whisky without government interference and industrialized ideas. They used whisky as a political pawn to protest the British government’s whisky taxes and the authority of excise officers within the Scottish borders. Whisky was ingrained in Scottish culture as it was used in wedding, funeral and christening rituals; it was also used for medicinal purposes, to heal the sick or wounded. Whisky was an important aspect of Scottish life, and high taxes threatened the poor Scot’s way of life which they wanted to protect. The history of whisky is not merely the story of the amber liquid, but the history of Scotland and the Scottish culture.