Super-fast whisky ageing was discovered and then abandoned in 1950s

Newly released documents show that a process for ageing Scotch whisky over a matter of hours rather than years was tried and then abandoned 70 years ago over fears it would damage the industry.

In a series of documents that have only just been made public, trade ministers in London and Edinburgh discuss a new process apparently developed by AJ Menzies, managing director at Fettercairn Distillery, capable of “accelerating the maturing process of whisky.”

“Mr Menzies,” the 1952 communiqué reads, “claims his process reduces the maturing time from about five to 10 years to a few hours.”

The process was apparently achieved by circulating new spirit through “active chemicals” – although the details even now seem less than clear.

After a successful trial, scientists reported: “The analysis shows the spirit to have the character of a pot still malt whisky, having a much higher alcohol content, about six times, than well known proprietary blends.”

But rather than leaping on this new discovery – and bearing in mind that the UK was still in very bad financial shape following the Second World War at this point – the Board of Trade official is concerned.

He wrote: “If the invention were to be taken up abroad, foreign distillers might possibly be able to destroy our exports by producing something nearly equivalent.

“These are gloomy prospects.”

Fortuitously, perhaps, when the experiment was tried on a larger scale by Alexander McGavin, a whisky blender in Glasgow, it resulted in “significant evaporation and loss of proof,” and thus proved to be less than a viable alternative after all.

A spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “What this failed experiment proves is there can be no shortcuts to Scotch. Consumers recognise the craft that goes into every bottle of Scotch Whisky and know that every drop has been matured in Scotland for at least three years in oak casks. This process cannot be replicated and quality cannot be rushed.”

One wonders if Scotch today would enjoy both its reputation and £4 billion export market if it had pursued a quick fix back in the 1950s.

The documents in question are now held at the National Archives in Kew and copies can be requested here.

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