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Ralph Steadman’s Whisky-Making Lads

Men and women of gritty and brutal intensity ran amok at the turn of the 19th century. Overnight it went from Scottleland to Bottleland and the heather heaved with the feverish activity of steaming hideyholes, wherever a pot still could be secreted and hidden with minutes to avoid discovery.

Wee Tommy Wetkneddlie did absolutely nothing for the smuggling trade but claimed blood ties with everyone. An inveterate liar, he told touring parties anything they wanted to believe in exchange for a wee dram. He had his uses, though, since he would often blab all manner of lies to roaming excise men who would take him at his word and stagger off in another direction on the strength  of a new clue. He wore a patch only to elicit more sympathy and for dramatic effect, though it was, in fact, his purse in which he kept the King’s shilling, though never found a need to spend it. He claimed he gave his sporran [a small waist pouch, part of a man’s Scottish Highland dress]to Bonnie Prince Charlie to express his generosity and loyalty. Jockler Barleycorn McVaig grew the finest barley and from it produced the silkiest peatreek through he was a farmer who loved the land and a still man second because he loved the drink. He could only grow the best barley when he was drunk and only got poetry out of a still when he was gravestone sober. His wife Ellie would only have him in the house when he was between those two states—‘when the man can gae me a sensible leer’, she said.  The gaugers [revenue officers]never caught him. He was far too drunk to talk to when he tilled his land and when he was at his still he was far too sober to let a gauger catch him at it. He was known as a well-rounded fellow. Shortas Largybeg Droon, though slow-witted, used his slow ways to invent a system of distillation that was continuous, saved time and which he kept going for 43 years though he never saved any of the whisky. That was perhaps the nature of his slowness. The whole process was arranged along the bank of a fast-flowing burn above Loch Snizart along the western coast of Skye. Water would go in through a catch funnel at one end and mix with his own mucky brown wort. He would then boil it, ferment it, percolate it like coffee through his tube labyrinth, moofle it off as alcoholic steam into an antechamber, and cool it through a submerged zigzag worm before belching it out into the burn again further down the glen. Those folk using the burn below his still walked in a perpetual stupor and never knew a sober day from birth to death. Shortas Droon pre-dated Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey with their ‘patent’ continuous still inventions by at least 26 years, though Droon was never credited with anything but slowness. Men and women of gritty and brutal intensity ran amok at the turn of the 19th century. Overnight it went from Scottleland to Bottleland and the heather heaved with the feverish activity of steaming hideyholes, wherever a pot still could be secreted and hidden with minutes to avoid discovery.
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Josh is an author, former blogger, media critic, x-Capitol Hill legislative aide and White House assistant, business consultant, idea marketing specialist, a squatter at the global village virtual bar and an alpine rock gardener where he lives in Woodstock, NY.