Irish Whiskey Pt. 11: Nothing Can Be Certain Except Death and Taxes

Where would Irish whiskey be without the excise? I'll take a deep dive into a famous quote and how Irish distillers creatively avoided taxes.

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Show Notes

No one likes to pay taxes, especially distillers. And in the early days, when the government first started reaching into the pockets of farmer-distillers in Ireland, they put a serious face on tax avoidance. Yet distillers found creative ways to avoid these taxes.

It's time to take a deep dive into how Ireland ended up with whiskey taxes and the growing pains and wars that led to more and more government intrusion into the still house.


As the curtain dropped and the applause rang out, Christopher Bullock and his fellow actors waited backstage, pondering the exact moment when they should make their curtain call. And while each actor likely felt a twinge of pride for the level of their performance that night, Young Bullock had twice the reason to celebrate.

To him, the cheers and applause couldn’t have been possible without the story he had crafted himself. Based on the recent Battle of Preston, during the previous year’s Jacobite Rising, The Cobbler of Preston was a farce with a touch of political satire. However, the work wasn’t completely original. Bullock had been inspired by Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and lifted concepts from a play, with the same names as his, that was running at his father-in-law’s theatre across town. But Bullock’s story had one thing his father in law’s performance didn’t - a memorable line that would transcend the ages. 

It occurred when the main character Toby Guzzle, a drunken cobbler, got into a heated argument with his wife. She was claiming that a woman had stolen her husband. But Toby insisted she was lying, not only about the affair but even about the fact that he was married to her. Confused, she said “On your honor, I know not what you mean.” To which he replies, “you lie, you are not true, for I say Woman, “’Tis impossible to be sure of anything but Death and Taxes,” therefore hold your tongue.”

It may have been a throwaway line to Bullock, but somehow it took on a life of its own. And even though the play closed after a handful of performances, the line would make its way into a book written by the author of Robinson Crusoe, called The Political History of the Devil. Did author Daniel Defoe attend a performance of The Cobbler of Preston, or did he overhear it somewhere in the city?

However it made the leap, neither man would earn credit for the line. That would go to Benjamin Franklin, who simply added to a letter he was sending to a French statesman while talking about the state of his new nation. In the letter he writes, “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

It is fascinating to see how history has often given too much credit to one person for an act, when in reality, they may have just been following someone else’s lead. Look up Nicola Tesla and all the famous people who have taken his curtain calls. 

But what I find even more interesting is how this quote carries on and rings true through generation after generation. A simple line in some forgotten play some 300 years ago has stood the test of time. And in a way, knowing its long history of relevance helps us draw closer to the human side of history - where we can actually laugh and commiserate with our ancestors. In other words, history doesn’t have to be all facts and figures - or learning what pitfalls to avoid. In many ways, it can help span the generations and see what we and our ancestors really are…everyday humans.


When it comes to Irish whiskey, taxes and governments have served as both a friend and foe to its development. It’s hard to imagine a 19th century golden age of Irish whiskey without the benefits of free trade throughout the British Empire, but then there was the unnecessary bloodshed that occurred thanks to government policies that pushed distillers into a war against revenuers. Was it all worth it?

Before 1556, if you owned a still in Ireland, you were free to distill to your heart's content. There was no great overseer, demanding to know volumes, quality, or proof. If the stuff was a bit harsh, which most of it likely was, you just add some botanicals like herbs and spices to tame the spirit. If you sold or traded your uisce beatha, there wasn’t a representative of the king coming from Dublin or London to take your still because you didn’t cut them in on the deal. For the art of distillation, these were simpler times.

But as for life in general in 16th century Ireland, that was anything but simple. Bad weather, loss of crops, Queen Mary stirring up religious conflicts, and Scottish Highlanders from Kintyre invading the Antrim Coast of Ireland - it wasn’t a safe or easy life. 

Into this mess came an Englishman named Thomas Radclyffe. Holding the title Baron Fitzwalter, Thomas was just returning from a visit with the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, when Queen Mary gave him a new assignment, Lord Deputy of Ireland. 

In the middle of the 16th century, Lord Deputy was a powerful position. In fact, the Irish parliament couldn’t take their seats without his permission and usually they did his bidding. 

In a country of chaos, he needed to assert his control. So when he called parliament to their seats at Drogheda, he put a target on one occupation that could solve several ills - the artisans known as distillers. And uisce beatha was an easy enemy. It was using too much precious grain and it caused drunkenness which was leading to unruly behavior and all manner of sins. Government control would give them a fighting chance to feed the people, slow the violence, and gain that other precious commodity - control.

So a statute was passed that made it illegal to distill spirits without “a license under the great seal.” And to show the Lord Deputy and parliament weren’t fooling around, the punishment for distilling without a license - was death. So, while 16th century distillers were still free of taxes, the government had at least found a way to legislate your very existence. 

Half a century later, the next change in the law came after the Flight of the Earls. This was the era of the patent or monopoly system. If you were a friend to the crown, you might be one of the lucky ones to be given the power to grant licenses for the distilling of uisce beatha. For the privilege they paid a small fee. Meanwhile “gentlemen” with property valued over ten pounds were exempted from the license requirement. Still, it was less a measure to raise revenue and more about control and patronage - and didn’t seem to be doing anything but feeding power and prestige. By 1640, the House of Commons called it an advantage “to the few, to the disprofit of his Majesty, and the impoverishment of the people.”   

What was needed was an excise system - a way to not only hold control over distillation, but fill the King's coffers. Yet, when the subject was first broached in 1625, the idea fell flat. Tracking licenses had been hard enough, the logistics of gathering taxes from distillers across a vast countryside filled with tension was a daunting prospect. 

A catalyst was needed to compel MPs to vote for an excise. And that catalyst would be the same one that drove the raising of excise taxes from distillers for the next few centuries - war. In this case, the English Civil War. 

Ireland’s first excise tax on the volume of spirits distilled would arrive with little fanfare. Passed by a royalist backed parliament in 1643, it was almost an afterthought in the middle of the bloody conflicts between the troops of Cromwell and Charles I. It would be referred to as an inland tax to separate it from import levies.

With the restoration of the Crown after Oliver Cromwell’s death, the excise on distilled spirits would take on greater importance as it became a source of Hereditary Revenues for the king. The Irish would retain control over their own Customs and Excise but it would all be watched over by a governmental overseer known as the Lord Lieutenant. On 20 December 1662, with royal consent given, the Irish Lord Lieutenant appointed revenue commissioners, a surveyor, and a board of excise. And a duty of 4d per gallon would be introduced to Irish distillers.

Duty gaugers were appointed and sent out into the countryside to get the lay of the land by visiting distillers, measuring distilling vessels and determining outputs. As you can imagine, this wasn’t the safest of jobs. Despite that, gaugers were often sent out on their own. They were given the right to randomly enter a distiller’s premises day or night, if required, yet they weren’t the ones collecting the revenue. 

That fell to the distillers themselves, who, under threat of penalty, were required to visit the revenue office weekly, or bi-weekly if they lived a distance away, to record their output and pay their duty. 

It was all done on the honor system. And many distillers avoided the Monday morning ritual altogether by simply ignoring the law. Why submit yourself to a tax and all of this extra accounting if you didn’t have to. And for those that did pay the tax, rarely were their figures ever double checked. And to those that did submit to the tax, they were given the option to submit to a process called compounding, where they could forecast their output for the upcoming year and then pay their tax in 12 monthly installments with no need for a Monday morning trip to the excise office. Since there were no penalties for overproduction, you just had to give the revenue office believable numbers.

Unfortunately for those that had already worked under the old monopoly system, after the restoration of the monarchy, the old patronage system kicked back in and those distillers were still being taxed directly by farmed out tax collectors, but that system would come to an end in 1682, when the government realized the hundreds of thousands of pounds these farmers of the revenue were handling each year.

After the Battle of the Boyne, the Irish parliament was being pushed to gather more tax revenue to pay war debts. Again, distillers were tapped as excise duties on spirits were increased from 4d to 7d per gallon. This was originally meant to be a temporary measure that would last only a year. Yet somehow, the tax was extended, first through 1695, then to 1698, then to 1702. In fact, as the years passed, it became a reliable bit of revenue to make up for any shortfalls in the Crown’s hereditary revenues. In other words, rare is the temporary tax that doesn’t become a permanent tax in the hands of a politician. 

Over the next few decades, flaws in the honor system soon drew the attention of the Lord Lieutenant and the Irish parliament. With trust in distillers waning, excise legislation was put forth in 1717 turning the collection of the excise over to gaugers, rather than the distillers themselves. This meant gaugers would move from just determining still volumes and random inspections to determining volumes for all instruments in the process, how much grain the distiller was using, the volumes of wash and low wines, as well as the final output.  

Initially, the law was confusing and the distillers who found gaugers looking over their shoulder at every corner, soon grew frustrated. They would receive their clarification, but not likely the answer they wanted. The follow-up legislation confirmed that gaugers were to be hands on and present for any significant operation of the distillery. Then a year later, another dose of clarification meant a distiller couldn’t even start distilling without a gauger on-site. These new intrusive laws were amended once again in 1720 when a system called “let-pass” was introduced. It required duty paid permits for any barrel of spirits traveling from one warehouse to another. Without this permit, the barrel could be seized. 

After years of crafty tax avoidance, distillers had entered a system that was getting harder and harder to circumvent. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t try. To get around the “let-pass” system, distillers simply forged documents or reused old permits. But the on-site gauger was a tougher nut to crack. 

One can only imagine the pressure this put on the gaugers themselves. And the job was hard enough, without the fear of bodily harm. They also didn’t have a lot of tools in their tool kit. It wasn’t until 1707 under Queen Anne that the wine gallon was loosely adopted as a measure for the product whose name was slowly evolving into whiskey. But the biggest issue was manpower. As more and more distillers were falling under the government’s control, gaugers were becoming a rare commodity.

Meanwhile, many distillers were taking to the hills and backcountry, to avoid the prying eyes of the gaugers. Their illicit spirits would earn the name poitin - a word that evolved from the Irish word “pota” meaning small pot - the very vessels they were using to create this wild spirit.

To bring some measure of organization out of chaos, on 25 of March 1732, Parliament passed a law [5 George 2,c.3, section 13-14] that restricted stills to market towns or within two miles of these village centers. The law's purpose was two-fold, clearly define who was distilling elicit spirits and make tax revenue collection easier. But what determined which villages were “market towns?” This was left to revenue commissioners to determine and approve. 

And here is where the government showed its ignorance in distilling as a part of the greater world of agriculture. When determining market towns, they thought - logically, they should be put in popular grain markets. But towns in the breadbasket of Ireland like Kilkenny and Waterford had no need for distilleries, because they never seemed to have excess grain, so there was no need to distill. Whereas, weak market towns in Donegal were remote enough, their grain went to waste, if it wasn’t distilled. Yet the revenues put very little emphasis on these areas. The result was a desperate farmer who saw breaking the law preferable to seeing his family suffer.

This law would evolve over time, but not enough to stop the rapid growth of illicit distilling in the north and west. And by the end of the 18th century and early 19th century, it would turn areas like the Inishowen peninsula into powder kegs just looking for a match.

Meanwhile smuggling was also on the rise and by 1743, a band of smugglers had apparently set up stills on what would become the future site of the Bushmills Distillery. And crafty distillers were starting to take advantage of a loophole in the gauger laws, knowing they had no right to enter the premises without the distiller being on-site. They would simply leave the work to their assistants and disappear. Parliament remedied this loophole in 1745 by including the wife or servant of the distiller as authorized approvers of entry. 

It seemed that just like with a leaky boat, every time parliament plugged a hole in the law, another gusher would present itself. The second half of the 18th century would see parliament clamping down even further.

First, in 1758, they put forth a prohibition on the use of stills between 12 and 200 gallons capacity. The most efficient and profitable revenue came from larger distillers, so why not force smaller distillers, who couldn’t afford the cost of capital, out of business, while promoting larger scale production? Plus, it was much more difficult to hide or haul around a 200 gallon still. To further stretch their fingers around smaller distillers' throats they amended the law, to prohibit coppersmiths from making stills within this illicit still size range.  

To make these laws hold, it meant the century old honor system of registering your still out of the kindness of your own heart would be terminated. As of 1761, all stills, their location, owner and size had to be registered with the excise. Officers were given the right to enter a distillery at will and confiscate any unregistered distilling equipment, while lobbying a fine on top of the confiscation.  Over the next few years, many market towns began ridding themselves of their stills and more distilling went underground. A true division was being created between illicit poitin and legal distillation that was earning the name Parliament whiskey. 

From 1556, when the first distilling license literally could save you from an early death, to the later part of the 18th century - the idea of revenue and the methods for collecting it had to evolve with the distillers mostly undermining it. Enforcement moved slowly from carrot to stick as distillers looked for any creative way to avoid the tax and parliament became more and more dependent on tax revenue. 

The results of parliament incorporating themselves in the distilling business was the transformation of farm distilling to a split between law breakers and future industrialists. And the move into scale was creating a need for great innovation in the emerging industry.  

This wasn’t happening in a vacuum. The 18th century would see the birth of the Industrial Revolution, with great industries rising up on shoulders of production innovation, new machinery, increased capital, and captains of industry. The old world was about to be left in the dust. It took 220 years to birth a whiskey industry through government intervention. The excise would still have some troubles and strife ahead, but in equal weight, technology and innovation would develop that would become the foundation of today’s modern Whiskey industry.

I’m looking forward to sharing that next 50 years with you in a future episode, so make sure you’re subscribed, so you don’t miss it. And I apologize, but if you haven’t noticed, an autumn allergie has caught up with me and keeping my voice well tuned for 40 minute episodes has become a challenge. So, please join me next week for part two of episode nine, as I visit one of the new distilleries near Belfast and Alfred Barnard takes off for one of the distilleries that evolved out of the era of this emerging excise system. 

I’m Drew Hannush and this is Whiskey Lore. 

Whiskey Lore is a production of Travel Fuels Life LLC

Production, stories, and research by Drew Hannush

And if you’re enjoying hearing about all the new distilleries in Ireland and Northern Ireland this season, and you’d like to draw up your own dream Irish whiskey distillery tour - watch out for my new book Whiskey Lore’s Travel Guide To Experiencing Irish Whiskey coming out November 15th. And if you want a chance to be on my launch team for the book and read it before everyone else, make sure to sign up for my newsletter at Whiskey-Lore.com by watching for the popup - or head to whiskey-lore.com/signup. I’ll be sending out details about the launch team and how you can take part in my next email later this week. I’d love to have you on board.

Thanks for listening! I’m your host Drew Hannush and until next time, cheers and slainte mhath!

For show notes, transcripts, and links to books and social media, head to whiskey-lore.com.

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