In this article it is claimed that (1st paragraph):

Especially in England and Ireland, it became the drink of choice, and through taxation, came to contribute 30%-50% of the nation’s revenue.

This must be a historical figure because it doesn't seem to hold true for today:

The Scotch Whisky Association mentions that, as of 01 May 2015,

Exports generated £3.95 billion for the UK balance of trade

I take that to be whisky's contribution for the month of April 2015, though the website doesn't specify. According to this figure from the UK Trade Office, the total value of goods exports for 2015 was between 20-25 billion pounds. This doesn't take into account domestic consumption. Therefore, Whisky doesn't contribute anywhere near 30% of the UK's income. What I'm not clear on is whether the Trade Office accounts presents the good's tax value only, or the net value.

Was there a time in history when Whisky taxation contributed anywhere near 30-50% to the UK's coffers?

  • 5
    Worth noting that "percent of balance of trade" and "percent of tax income" don't necessarily have all that much anything to do with one another - especially since the whisky taxed is going to include domestic consumption. Also, your assessment that it was monthly is probably pretty out of whack. If it held to that strength over a 12-month period, it would have a total whisky export of 47.4B - about double the value listed for total exports.
    – Ben Barden
    Sep 28, 2017 at 15:31
  • @BenBarden Yup, didn't think of that
    – rath
    Sep 28, 2017 at 16:04
  • 2
    @BenBarden: more than that, Scotch whisky exports do not pay the UK alcohol excise duty at all (though they do pay the equivalent to other countries when imported there)
    – Henry
    Sep 28, 2017 at 18:16
  • 2
    "How Taxes Enabled Alcohol Prohibition and Also Led to Its Repeal" (2011) makes a claim of 30-40% for liquor taxes in the early-1900's US.
    – Nat
    Sep 29, 2017 at 2:11

1 Answer 1


I think you are misinterpreting this article slightly.

The full quote is :

Whiskey as we know it was probably first distilled in the 1400s, and probably in Scotland, according to the best hard evidence we have. Especially in England and Ireland, it became the drink of choice, and through taxation, came to contribute 30%-50% of the nation’s revenue.

Well this is talking about historic taxation, not current taxation.

This article on the history of whiskey before 1787 specifically mentions the first excise laws (1644) imposed on whiskey being made to cover the costs of the Royalist Army (and typically taxes were imposed originally for covering the cost of wars and military ventures).

I'm afraid my knowledge of 17th century public finances does not extend to a detailed analysis (or even a cursory one :-) ).

You should note that this situation was not unique to Scotland. The US had a Whiskey Rebellion as a result of George Washington (!) imposing a tax on the stuff, again to pay for the war (that is, pay for debts incurred during the revolutionary war).

As these were among the first taxes and duties on statute books, they would have quite likely been a significant portion of all tax collected at that time. By comparison the first UK income tax didn't appear until about 1799 and the first value added tax until world war two. So these kinds of duties (on wine, spirits, foods) were more significant at that time.

  • 4
    This doesn't answer the question: "Was there a time in history when Whisky taxation contributed anywhere near 30-50% to the UK's coffers?" Instead, you reiterate the same conclusion that the question reached, that this must be referring to a moment in history, as it doesn't apply now.
    – Brythan
    Sep 29, 2017 at 1:29
  • @Brythan The conclusion of the question was that there must have been a time when this was so (which is itself not necessarily true) because of an invalid calculation relating foreign trade with tax (which another comment addressed). I supplied both a historic context for why tax on whiskey might have made up a large fraction of taxation and a basis for further research into exact figures (which I'm not going to do). If you feel you can do better then supply an answer. Sep 29, 2017 at 1:59
  • 2
    The question seems pretty clear about how the claim must be referring to a historical factoid rather than a present circumstance. The title's in past tense; they stated it was historical at the start; they demonstrated why it couldn't be current in the middle; they end about asking if there was a time in history in which the claim was true; and the question's tagged history. This this seems unambiguous, so it's a bit strange to see an answer dedicated to further reinforcing that point.
    – Nat
    Sep 29, 2017 at 3:34
  • @Nat And again a critique of the only answer that supplies at least some firm for question. If you guys spent as much time researching an answer as you did exercising your typing in comments it would be more productive. Sep 29, 2017 at 12:55
  • 1
    @StephenG Go read Brythan and Nat's previous answers. They are well researched and answer the questions they were asked. Comments and feedback on other people's answers do not take much time, and are a core component of why SE has consistently high quality answers. When two high reputation users both tell you the same thing, and you see their comments upvoted, the community thinks your answer needs to be improved. Sep 29, 2017 at 15:44

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