Dark spirits - the history of whisky, rum and brandy

Related tags Rum

While vodka has overtaken whisky as the pub trade's best-selling spirit, there is still plenty of life left in the dark spirits category. John Porter...

While vodka has overtaken whisky as the pub trade's best-selling spirit, there is still plenty of life left in the dark spirits category. John Porter looks at the history of whisky, rum and brandy.

These are dark times for dark spirits - the phenomenal rise of vodka over the past decade or so, thanks to its versatility and mixability, has seen it overtake whisky as the on-trade's biggest-selling spirit.

However, the Publican's Spirits Report 2001 shows that the pattern is far from uniform across the pub industry's different sectors. While vodka is the best-selling spirit in 85 per cent of managed pubs, 39 per cent of freetraders say their best-selling spirit is whisky.

This is mainly because freehouses tend to be away from the youth-dominated city centres, and they tend to have an older customer base, giving them a more traditional spirits sales profile.

Many managed pubs are also reporting a rise in sales of whisky, as well as speciality rums, which suggests that there is plenty of life left in the dark spirits category for pubs prepared to take them seriously.


By law, pubs must serve spirits in either 25ml or 35ml measures, or multiples of these measures. Spirits companies are going to considerable lengths to convince licensees to trade up to 35ml measures.

The argument from suppliers is that 35ml gives customers better value, increases profits and brings the UK into line with spirits service in the rest of the world - an important point when you remember that many people's expectations are shaped by the more generous measures they get on holidays abroad.

Research for Guinness UDV shows spirits in the on-trade are perceived as being poor value for money, with the findings suggesting that 43 per cent of regular spirits drinkers at home will tend to drink something else when they visit the pub.

Bacardi Martini calculates that if a pub's spirit sales are split 70 per cent single measures and 30 per cent double measures, by converting from 25ml to 35ml you can expect a typical increase in sales volume of around 19 per cent. A 35ml measure is 40 per cent larger than a 25ml and, to maintain your profit levels, a pub only needs to charge 20 per cent more.

While the Bacardi Martini research indicates that 89 per cent of consumers would welcome the upsize, the Publican's Spirits Report survey suggests the spirits companies have a long struggle ahead of them. Nine out of 10 pubs are still serving 25ml measures.

What is probably putting licensees off the conversion is the initial cost of buying in new Optics, changing prices on lists and tills and promoting the change to customers. Because the law insists that pubs cannot mix 25ml and 35ml measures, the changeover has to be done all at once.


The art of distilling goes back into prehistory. A rather fierce spirit called arrack is known to have been produced in India around three thousand years ago. The Moors were highly skilled at distilling various plants into medicines, and the knowledge spread across Europe via various trade routes and the occasional conquering army. The more disreputable northern Europeans, who were not subject to the rules of Islam which forbid alcohol, discovered that you could drink spirits as well as rub them on your chest to ward off the flu. From there, a number of popular variations on the theme developed over the centuries:

Whisky:​ At the time the Romans retreated, the Celts were making a clear spirit from grain, known in Gaelic as uisge breatha, or water of life. The art of distilling this spirit was spread by monks of the early Christian Church, with St Patrick traditionally accredited with having bought whisky to the Irish.

The characteristic amber colour came later, when it was discovered that aging the spirit in wooden barrels added to its flavour.

Whisky production in Scotland was gradually regulated to approved distilleries, mainly owned by the nobility, to make it easy to collect the duty owed. Today, each distillery produces its own distinctive product. The traditional view has been that the art of good whisky making involves combining these single malts into a commercial blend. It is only very recently that single malts have started to be sold commercially. Another growing trend is for whisky "finished" in casks in which other drinks have already matured, such as port, sherry and claret.

Irish Whiskey:​ Distinguished from Scotch by the "e", it has its roots in the poteen which was - and still is - widely distilled through the rural areas of the country. This clear spirit is very similar in taste and potency to the original uisge breatha.

Legal distillation of whiskey in Ireland became the province of a very few large producers in the 18th century, when the duty imposed by the British government on Irish whiskey made it commercially unattractive to produce. This gave it an exclusive reputation which it carries with it to this day.

Bourbon:​ Migrants to the New World from Scotland and Ireland bought the art of whisky making with them. Bourbon County, originally in Virginia and later part of Kentucky, was named after the French royal family in gratitude for French support in the War of Independence. Barrels of corn whisky from the area were stamped "Old Bourbon", and the name stuck. Another popular New World variety is the high-quality rye whisky made in Canada.

Rum:​ With a murky history rooted in the slave trade, rum was originally a rough spirit made from molasses, the treacle-like residue of crushed sugar cane. Slave ships transported both raw molasses and rum between the West Indies, Europe and America.

Royal Navy sailors were entitled to a daily rum ration until as recently as 1970. While basic dark rums are in decline, there is increasing consumer interest in golden rums and aged rums, bringing some new life into the category.

Brandy:​ Predictably, the French applied the art of distillation to wine. The word brandy originated from brandewijn which means "burnt wine" in Dutch.

Distilled from white grapes, brandy is a generic term and can be made anywhere. However, descriptions such as cognac and armagnac can only be used to describe brandy produced in the regions the names identify. Variations include calvados, an apple brandy.

The age of a brandy is indicated on the label:

  • Three star (***) and V.S. (Very Special) - two and half years old
  • V.O. (Very Old), V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale), Rèserve - at least four and half years old
  • X.O.(eXtra Old), Rèserve, Extra, Hors d'Age and Napoleon - at least six and half years old.


Overall, licensees say their customers are now less likely to order a spirit brand by name - eg "Bells" rather than "whisky" - than in the past, but at the same time there is a growing trend towards more customers asking for premium brands, which suggests that people who do name a spirit at the bar are getting more choosey.

The brand is most important to whisky drinkers, who probably experience the most variety of flavours.

According to the Spirits Report survey, 41 per cent will name their dram compared to only 24 per cent of vodka drinkers. The Scots are most discerning when it comes to their native spirit, of course. No fewer than 54 per cent will name a brand.

Top five on-trade scotch whiskies​Bell's Eight Year Old BeneaglesFamous GrouseJacobiteTeachers Highland Cream

Top five on-trade imported whiskies​Black BushCanadian Club

Related topics Spirits & Cocktails

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