The sacred arts of both smuggling and whisky have been intrinsically linked for hundreds of years.
Many would argue that smugglers were merely helping poor starved whisky lovers access to the dram they craved. Others may say the smugglers were simply crooks on the make, selling over priced spirits to a desperate market. No matter what your view, it’s best to simply quote the sage mind of Arnold Jackson who said “It takes different strokes to rule the world.”
Whisky smuggling taps into a very Scottish strain of anti-authoritarianism and remains a source of great amusement and nostalgia for many. It has seeped into culture and infiltrated all parts of society. From the brutality and lawlessness of Scotland’s coastal smugglers in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Guy Mannering (1815) to the community minded whisky heist of Whisky Galore (1947) the public have loved a tale of whisky smuggling. So much so that Compton Mackenzie’s novel Whisky Galore has twice been turned into a film, most recently in 2016. Both versions are great fun, the most recent features comedian Eddie Izzard, check it out, she’s great.
The tale I'm telling today, however, is about the art, or is it artful, way of smuggling good whisky. The specific styles, tips and tricks used throughout the years to skim just a little extra from the barrels.
Distillery dogs, or, copper dogs
Distillery, or copper, dogs could be dipped into casks to smuggle whisky out of the warehouse
Always kept on a leash and never made a sound. These ‘dogs’ were designed to hide in your trousers. You may well ask “What is this rare breed?” or “Don’t you mean ferrets?” but the answer would be no.
Distillery dogs, sometimes known as ‘Copper Dogs’, was the term given to a couple of foot long copper tubes with a welded on English penny sealing one end and a cork at the other. These were suspended by a length of twine around the neck and hidden under the shirt or collar and down into the trousers. The smuggler would very furtively fill these with whisky and then walk the precious liquor out of the bonded warehouses. In the old days every distillery in Scotland had a resident Customs & Excise man to make sure no whisky left the warehouse, as duty had not been paid. With a couple of dogs swinging softly below, a man could walk away with a fine haul to be shared with family and friends or surreptitiously sold to knowing consumers.
Obviously there was an art to it and many a man who hoisted his dogs too high was brought low by a noticeable clanging, or worse, a fleshy crunch, allowing the Customs & Exercise men to swoop in and cart you away. The smuggler’s tears not always to do with his fate.
Keeping whisky in your shoe? Not as crazy as it sounds, it seems!
This widely used term was originally coined during the American civil war. With the majority of the armies made up of ‘ordinary’ folk away from hearth and home, the requirement for hard to obtain liquid refreshments was high. Being resourceful and clever men they soon realised that their wide brimmed boots would allow them to hide “pints” of whisky in there and the most popular of smuggling terms “bootlegging” was born. It would have been a site to see, some brave soldier trying to stride past the camp guards with a pint of whisky in each boot. Presumably the guards thought the man may have either just got off a horse or be on a straight line to the latrine, either way their gate would’ve been easier to hide at sea.
Rum and whisky prohibition ships
Rum runner schooner 'Kirk and Sweeney' with contraband stacked on deck
From as early as the 1530 smugglers have used ships to smuggle booze around the world. Four hundred years later America introduced Prohibition and the trade ramped up again. There are many tales of celebrated booze runners making fast trips past the excise men in the dead of night from the West Indies, speeding rum to Florida for distribution around the country. As demand grew so did the brazen nature of the captains and the range of product they supplied. Seemingly egged on by the huge amounts of contraband flowing across the long and porous border between Canada & the USA; many prohibition ships began to diversify and were soon smuggling not only rum, but whisky and champagne as well. All of these deliveries helped supply the thousands of speakeasy’s which sprang up to serve the “illegal hard liquor” American’s would drink covertly for over a decade.
Piano Parts or Whisky Bottles?!
"Now where did I leave my whis... I mean piano parts?!"
Still one of my favourites: with the Iraq war in full flight and whisky being one of the few reliable hard currencies, one particular famous whisky house came up with an ingenious way to continue supplying the Middle East market. In a stroke of superior shipping strategy, the aforementioned whisky house decided to label its 20 foot containers of 12 year old whisky as “piano parts”. All the subsequent documentation made sure this was the listed goods being transported until one fateful day when the crane depositing one of these special containers dropped it, fairly harshly, on the concrete wharf. The subsequent desperate message sent by the shipping agent read as follows
“Urgent container of piano parts leaking badly.......advice please”
Needless to say when the container was salvaged there were a lot of very happy musicians...
So let's raise a glass or two to the ingenuity & creativity of these fantastic forebears. Forget the mail, the dram must get through!
Another whisky tale in the journey of the Firkin Founder, written by Mike Collings, Firkin Whisky Co, and Nick Venus, Whisky Lover and Raconteur.