Distillers vs. Brewers: Tabulated Expenses from 1736

I know I promised a post on the South Sea Bubble next, but, well… it’s become a series, and the series isn’t done, so in the meantime, an interesting snippet from an anti-Gin tract.


Take note: Thomas Wilson’s Distilled Spirituous Liquors The Bane of the Nation (1736) has a clear agenda.

(Also, an amazing title. 18th-century people just did titles like nobody else!)

The agenda was to get the trade in gin banned in England; with that in mind, one should be careful how seriously one takes its content, especially concerning anything about distilling. It is, after all, a pamphlet written to rebut the claims by the Company of Distillers that they were doing a great social good in their work. (By turning otherwise unusable agricultural products into value for landowners, mostly.)

The rebuttal is pretty wide-ranging, but one section compares the expenses of distilling with the expenses of brewing, and that is pretty interesting:


The pages before and after this chart spell out some of the other advantages of distilling, and details on some included here: one needed far fewer laborers, far fewer horses (because transporting a more concentrated final product was much easier), and could get away with swapping in all kinds of bizarre ingredients–stuff like peas and beans originally cultivated for hog feed–which meant they could get around the malt-tax, and also pay less for their raw ingredients altogether. Likewise, distillers were making their base liquors with a portion of “raw corn” (that is, unmalted barley) and that was practicable: presumably the barley they used , though probably lower in diastatic power than the malt brewers use today, likely were able to convert a fair amount of of the starch in unmalted barley to sugars for fermentation.

(The stuff about “hogs-pease” and “beans” in the mashes leaves me wondering what the fermented washes smelled like… I’m guessing they were pretty horrendous, and I doubt that said horrors would fully disappear when they distilled the stuff. Even without getting into the terrifyingly toxic adulterants that always get mentioned when the Gin Craze is discussed–turpentine and other horrors–I’m guessing this stuff tasted like distilled prison hooch. Which is to say… still nasty, but strong enough to get you drunk real quick.)

Note, however, the author is not talking about the mom’n’pop brewers and distillers.

Which, in 1736, represented considerable portions of both trades. If I remember Peter Mathias correctly (aha, chart on page 377 of his wonderful book), in the 1730s approximately twice as much malt in England was made into beer privately than publicly; and of what beer was made for public sale, 48% of that was by Common Brewers… which could include relatively small operations. Likewise, small-scale distilling was so widely practiced in London that it was simply impossible to track and punish everyone who practiced distilling illicitly in London–skipping the new taxes and licensing fees–after the Gin Act of 1736. Sometimes it seems like anyone who had a little extra space, devoted it to distilling gin, or “parliamentary brandy,” as they snarkily called the stuff made without juniper (to evade the Gin Act of 1736).

Still, it’s an interesting comparison. Of course, refinements in efficiency and profitability were coming–as were shifts in what could be charged for beer–that would change the fortunes of brewers forever. (Engines taking the place of horses, improvements in the quality of malts, and innovations in brewing technology and practice, for example, would all come into play… but, mostly after the Gin Craze waned on its own, when the profitability of distilling tanked for economic and agricultural reasons, rather than because of legislation.

But it does seem that, at least in 1736, distilling was a much more efficient to turn a small amount of startup capital into much more capital, more quickly, if you had the dough to build an actual small business around it. What isn’t mentioned here are the attendant costs: social costs, such as the need to apprentice with a brewer, and the barriers to entry. (Especially for women, who brewed even in this era, but who were not really seen on equal terms with male brewers in London. No such barriers faced women getting into distilling.)

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