Distilled beverage

Adulteration of Brandy, Rum, and Gin

By the Excise laws at present existing in this country, the various degrees of strength of brandy, rum, arrack, gin, whiskey, and other spiritous liquors, chiefly composed of little else than spirit of wine, are determined by the quantity of alcohol of a given specific gravity contained in the spiritous liquors of a supposed unknown strength. The great public importance of this subject in this country, where the consumption of spiritous liquors adds a vast sum to the public revenue, has been the means of instituting many very interesting series of experiments on this subject. The instrument used for that purpose by the Customs and officers of Excise, is called Sikes 's hydrometer,[88] which has now superseded the instrument called Clark 's hydrometer, heretofore in use.

The specific gravity or strength of the legal standard spirit of the Excise, is technically called proof  or proof spirit. "This liquor (not being spirit sweetened, or having any ingredient dissolved in it, to defeat the strength thereof,) at the temperature of 57° Faht. weighs exactly 12/13th parts of an equal measure of distilled water;" and with this spirit the strength of all other spiritous liquors are compared according to law.

The strength of spirit stronger than proof  or over proof, as it is termed by the revenue officers, is indicated by the bulk of water necessary to reduce a given volume of it, to the legal standard spirit, denominated proof —namely; if one gallon of water be required to bring twenty gallons of brandy, rum, or any other spirit, to proof, that spirit is said to be 1 to 20 over proof. If one gallon of water be required to bring 15, 10, 5, or 2 gallons of the liquor to proof, it is said to be 1 to 15, 1 to 10, 1 to 5, and 1 to 2,over proof.

The strength of brandy, rum, arrack, gin, or other spiritous liquors, weaker than proof, or under proof, is estimated by the quantity of water which would be necessary to abstract or bring the spirit up to proof.

Thus, if from twenty gallons of brandy one gallon of water must be abstracted to bring it to proof, it is said to be 1 in 20 under proof. If from 15, 10, 5, or 2 gallons of the liquor, 1 gallon of water must be abstracted to bring it to proof, it is said to be 1 in 15, 1 in 10, 1 in 5, and 1 in 2 under proof.

It is necessary to understand this absurd language, which is in use amongst the officers of Excise and dealers in spirit, in order to know what is meant in commerce by the strength of spiritous liquors of different denominations. And hence, for the business of the exciseman, a table has been constructed, expressing the strength or specific gravity of mixtures of different proportions of spirit and water, at different degrees of temperature; and according to this table the duty on spirit is now levied.

Brandy and rum is seizable, if sold by, or found in the possession of, the dealer, unless it possesses a certain strength.[89] The following are the words of the Act:

"No distiller, rectifier,[90] compounder or dealer, shall serve or send out any foreign spirits, of a lower strength than that of 1 in 6 under hydrometer proof,[91] nor have in his possession any foreign spirits mixed together, except shrub, cherry or raspberry brandy, of lower strength than as aforesaid, upon pain of such spirits being forfeited; and such spirits, with the casks and vessels containing the same, may be seized by any officer of Excise."

We have, therefore, a ready check against the frauds of the dishonest dealers, in spiritous liquors. If the spirit merchant engages to deliver a liquor of a certain strength, the hydrometer is by far the most easy and expeditious check that can be adopted to guard against frauds of receiving a weaker liquor for a stronger one; and to those individuals who are in the habit of purchasing large quantities of brandy, rum, or other spiritous liquors, the hydrometer renders the greatest service. For it is by no means an uncommon occurrence to meet with brandy, rum, and other spiritous liquors, of a specific gravity very much below the pretended strength which the liquor ought to possess.

The following advice, given to his readers,[92] by the author of a Treatise on Brewing and Distilling, may serve to put the unwary on their guard against some of the frauds practised by mercenary dealers.

"It is a custom among retailing distillers, which I have not taken notice of in this directory, to put one-third or one-fourth part of proof molasses brandy, proportionably, to what rum they dispose of; which cannot be distinguished, but by an extraordinary palate, and does not at all lessen the body or proof of the goods; but makes them about two shillings a gallon cheaper; and must be well mixed and incorporated together in your retailing cask; but you should keep some of the best rum, not adulterated, to please some customers, whose judgment and palate must be humoured."

"When you are to draw a sample of goods to shew a person that has judgment in the proof, do not draw your goods into a phial to be tasted, or make experiment of the strength thereof that way, because theproof will not hold except the goods be exceedingly strong; but draw the pattern of goods rather into a glass from the cock, to run very small, or rather draw off a small quantity into a little pewter pot and pour it into your glass, extending your pot as high above the glasses as you can without wasting it, which makes the goods carry a better head abundantly, than if the same goods were to be put and tried in a phial."

"You must be so prudent as to make a distinction of the persons you have to deal with; what goods you sell to gentlemen for their own use, who require a great deal of attendance, and as much for time of payment, you must take a considerably greater price than of others; what goods you sell to persons where you believe there is a manifest, or at least some hazard of your money, you may safely sell for more than common profit; what goods you sell to the poor, especially medicinally, (as many of your goods are sanative,) be as compassionate as the cases require."

"All brandies, whether French, Spanish, or English; being proof goods, will admit of one point of liquor [93] to each gallon, to be made up and incorporated therewith in your cask, for retail, or selling smaller quantities; and all persons that insist upon having proof goods, which not one in twenty understands, you must supply out of what goods are not so reduced, though at a higher price."

Such is the advice given by Mr. Shannon.

The mode of judging by the taste of spiritous liquors is deceitful. A false strength is given to a weak liquor, by infusing in it acrid vegetable substances, or by adding to it a tincture of grains of paradise and Guinea pepper. These substances impart to weak brandy or rum, an extremely hot and pungent taste.

Brandy and rum is also frequently sophisticated with British molasses, or sugar-spirit, coloured with burnt sugar.

The flavour which characterises French brandy, and which is owing to a small portion of a peculiar essential oil contained in it, is imitated by distilling British molasses-spirit over wine lees;[94] but thespirit, prior to being distilled over wine lees, is previously deprived, in part, of its peculiar disagreeable flavour, by rectification over fresh burnt charcoal and quick-lime. Other brandy-merchants employ a spirit obtained from raisin wine, which is suffered to pass into an incipient ascescency. The spirit thus procured partakes strongly of the flavour which is characteristic to foreign brandy.

Oak saw-dust, and a spiritous tincture of raisin stones, are likewise used to impart to new brandy and rum a ripe taste, resembling brandy or rum long kept in oaken casks, and a somewhat oily consistence, so as to form a durable froth at its surface, when strongly agitated in a vial. The colouring substances are burnt sugar, or molasses; the latter gives to imitative brandy a luscious taste, and fulness in the mouth. These properties are said to render it particularly fit for the retail London customers.

The following is the method of compounding or making up, as it is technically called, brandy [95] for retail:

"To ten puncheons of brandy 1081
Add flavoured raisin spirit 118
Tincture of grains of paradise 4
Cherry laurel water 2
Spirit of almond cakes 2

"Add also 10 handfuls of oak saw-dust; and give it complexion  with burnt sugar."


The false strength of brandy or rum is rendered obvious by diluting the suspected liquor with water; the acrimony of the capsicum, and grains of paradise, or pepper, may then be readily discovered by the taste.

The adulteration of brandy with British molasses, or sugar-spirit, becomes evident by rubbing a portion of the suspected brandy between the palms of the hands; the spirit, as it evaporates, leaves the disagreeable flavour which is peculiar to all British spirits. Or the liquor may be deprived of its alcohol, by heating a portion in a spoon over a candle, till the vapour ceases to catch fire on the approach of a lighted taper. The residue thus obtained, of genuine French brandy, possesses a vinous odour, still resembling the original flavour of the brandy, whilst the residue, produced from sophisticated brandy, has a peculiarly disagreeable smell, resembling gin, or the breath of habitual drunkards.

Arrack is coarsely imitated by adding to rum a small quantity of pyroligneous acid and some flowers (acid) of benzoe. The compound thus produced, however, must be pronounced a bad one. The author of a very popular Cookery Book,[96] directs two scruples of benzoic acid to be dissolved in one quart of rum, to make "mock arrack."


Malt spirit, or gin, the favourite liquor of the lower order of people, which is characterised by the peculiar flavour of juniper berries, over which the raw spirit is distilled, is usually obtained from a mixture of malt and barley: sometimes both molasses and corn are employed, particularly if there be a scarcity of grain. But the flavour of whiskey, which is made from barley and oats, is owing to the malted grain being dried with peat, the smoke of which gives it the characteristic taste.

The malt distiller is not allowed to furnish, under a heavy penalty, any crude or raw spirit to the rectifier or manufacturer of gin, of a greater strength than seven per cent. over proof. The rectifier who receives the spirit from the malt distiller is not allowed, under a certain penalty, to sweeten the liquor with sugar or other substances; nor is he permitted to send out the spirit to his customers but of a certain strength, as is obvious from the following words of the Act:

"No rectifier or compounder shall sell or send out any British brandy, British rectified spirits, British compounds, or other British spirits, of greater strength than that of one in five under hydrometer proof [97]: and if he shall sell and send out any such spirits of a greater strength than that of one in five under hydrometer proof, such spirits, with the casks or vessels containing the same, shall be forfeited, and may be seized by any officer of Excise; and he shall also forfeit treble the value of such spirit, or 50 l. at the election of the King's attorney-general, or the person who shall sue for the same; the single value of such spirits to be estimated at the highest London Price.[98]"

If we examine gin, as retailed, we shall soon be convinced that it is a custom, pretty prevalent amongst dealers, to weaken this liquor considerably with water, and to sweeten it with sugar. This fraud may readily be detected by evaporating a quantity of the liquor in a table-spoon over a candle, to dryness; the sugar will thus be rendered obvious, in the form of a gum-like substance, when the spirit is volatilised.

One hundred and twenty gallons of genuine gin, as obtained from the wholesale manufactories, are usually made up  by fraudulent retailers, into a saleable commodity, with fourteen gallons of water and twenty-six pounds of sugar. Now this dilution of the liquor produces a turbidness; because the oil of juniper and other flavouring substances which the spirit holds in solution, become precipitated by virtue of the water, and thus cause the liquor to assume an opaline colour: and the spirit thus weakened, cannot readily be rendered clear again by subsidence. Several expedients are had recourse to, to clarify the liquor in an expeditious manner; some of which are harmless; others are criminal, because they render the liquor poisonous.

One of the methods, which is innocent, consists in adding to the weakened liquor, first, a portion of alum dissolved in water, and then a solution of sub-carbonate of potash. The whole is stirred together, and left undisturbed for twenty-four hours. The precipitated alumine thus produced from the alum, by virtue of the sub-carbonate of potash, acts as a strainer upon the milky liquor, and carries down with it the finely divided oily matter which produced the blue colour of the diluted liquor. Roach, or Roman alum, is also employed, without any other addition, for clarifying spiritous liquors.

"To reduce unsweetened Gin.[99]

"A tun of fine gin 252 gallons
"Water 36
"Which added together make 288 gallons
"The doctor is now put  on,
and it is further reduced
with water
"Which gives Total 307 gallons of gin.

"This done, let 1 lb. of alum be just covered with water, and dissolved by boiling; rummage the whole well together, and pour in the alum, and the whole will be fine in a few hours."

"To prepare and sweeten British Gin.[100]

"Get from your distiller an empty puncheon or cask, which will contain about 133 gallons. Then take a cask of clear rectified spirits, 120 gallons, of the usual strength as rectifiers sell their goods at, put the 120 gallons of spirits into your empty cask.

"Then take a quarter of an ounce of oil of vitriol, half an ounce of oil of almonds, a quarter of an ounce of oil of turpentine, one ounce of oil of juniper berries, half a pint of spirit of wine, and half a pound of lump sugar. Beat or rub the above in a mortar. When well rubbed together, have ready prepared half a gallon of lime water, one gallon of rose water; mix the whole in either a pail, or cask, with a stick, till every particle shall be dissolved; then add to the foregoing, twenty-five pounds of sugar dissolved in about nine gallons of rain or Thames water, or water that has been boiled, mix the whole well together, and stir them carefully with a stick in the 133 gallons cask.

"To force down  the same, take and boil eight ounces of alum in three quarts of water, for three quarters of an hour; take it from the fire, and dissolve by degrees six or seven ounces of salt of tartar. When the same is milk-warm pour it into your gin, and stir it well together, as before, for five minutes, the same as you would a butt of beer newly fined. Let your cask stand as you mean to draw it. At every time you purpose to sweeten again, that cask must be well washed out; and take great care never to shake your cask all the while it is drawing."

Another method of fining spiritous liquors, consists in adding to it, first, a solution of sub-acetate of lead, and then a solution of alum. This practice is highly dangerous, because part of the sulphate of lead produced, remains dissolved in the liquor, which it thus renders poisonous. Unfortunately, this method of clarifying spiritous liquors, I have good reason to believe, is more frequently practised than the preceding method, because its action is more rapid; and it imparts to the liquor a fine complexion, or great refractive power; hence some vestiges of lead may often be detected in malt spirit.

The weakened spirit is then sweetened with sugar, and, to cover the raw taste of the malt spirit, false strength  is given to it with grains of paradise, Guinea pepper, capsicum, and other acrid and aromatic substances.


The presence of lead may be detected in spiritous liquors, as stated on  pages 70  and 86 . The cordial called shrub frequently exhibits vestiges of copper. This contamination, I have been informed, is accidental, and originates from the metallic vessels employed in the manufacture of the liquor.


The quantity of real alcohol in any spiritous liquors may readily be ascertained by simple distillation, which process separates the alcohol from the water and foreign matters contained in the liquor. Put any quantity of brandy, rum, or malt spirit diluted with about one-fourth its bulk of water, into a retort fitted to a capacious receiver, and distil with a gentle heat. The strongest spirit distils over first into the receiver, and the strength of the obtained products decreases, till at last it contains so much water as no longer to be inflammable by the approach of a lighted taper, when held in a spoon over a candle (see p.160 .) If the process be continued, the distilled product becomes milky, scarcely spiritous to the smell, and of an acidulous taste. The distilling operation may then be discontinued. If the first, fourth or thirdpart of the distilled product has been set apart, it will be found a moderately strong alcohol, and the remainder one more diluted. If the whole distilled spirit be mixed with perfectly dry subcarbonate of potash, the alcohol will float at the top of the potash, as stated, p. 161 ; it will separate into two distinct fluids. If the decanted alcohol be redistilled carefully with a very gentle heat, over a small portion of dry quick lime, or muriate of lime, it will be obtained extremely pure, and of a specific gravity of about 825, at 60° of temperature. Its flavour will vary according to the kind of spiritous liquor from which it is obtained.

Table exhibiting the Per Centage of Alcohol (of 825 specific gravity) contained in various kinds of spiritous Liquors.[101]

 Proportion of
 Alcohol per Cent.
 by Measure.
Brandy, Cogniac, average proportion of 4 samples 52,75
Ditto, Bourdeaux, ditto ditto 54,50
Ditto, Cette 53,00
Ditto, Naples, average of 3 samples 53,25
Ditto, Spanish average of 6 samples 52,28
Rum 53,68
Ditto, Leeward, average of 9 samples 53,00
Scotch Whiskey, average of 6 samples 53,50
Irish Ditto, average of 4 samples 54,25
Arrack, Batavia 49,50
Dutch Geneva 52,25
Gin (Hodges's,[102]) 3 samples, procured from retail dealers 48,25
Ditto (Ditto,)[102] procured from the manufacturer 52,35



[88]George III. c. xxviii. May 1818—"An Act for establishing the use of Sikes's hydrometer in ascertaining the strength of spirit, instead of Clark's hydrometer."

[89]Sixteen and a half per cent. proof, according to Sikes's hydrometer.

[90]30 Geo. III c. 37, § 31.

[91]According to Clarke's hydrometer.

[92]Observations on Malted and Unmalted Corn, connected with Brewing and Distilling, p. 167; and Shannon on Brewing and Distilling, p. 232, 233.


[94]This operation forms part of the business of the so-called brewers' druggists. It forms the article in their Price Currents, called Spirit Flavour.

Wine lees are imported in this country for that purpose: they pay the same duty as foreign wines.

[95]Observations on Malted and Unmalted Corn, connected with Brewing and Distilling, p. 167.

[96]Apicius Redivivus, 2d edition, p. 480.

[97]Clark's hydrometer.

[98]30 Geo. III. c. 37, § 6.

[99]Shannon on Brewing and Distilling, p. 198.

[100]Ibid. p. 199.

[101]Repository of Arts, p. 350, Dec. 1819.

[102]Own experiment.