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Wednesday, 15 August 1906

Mr JOHNSON (Lang) . - I understand that the general contention of the honorable member for Perth is that the best classes of spirits for consumption are those which have not" been distilled at a higher strength than about 35 per cent, overproof. In support of that contention the honorable member has referred to an article which appeared in the Lancet. As laymen, we cannot pretend to set our own personal views against those of experts in chemistry ; but, at the same time, we may hold different opinions on the evidence that we have been able to gather in regard to these matters. The honorable member for Perth has just stated that patent still spirit improves with age, just the same as does a spirit-

Mr Watson - The .honorable member said it improved " in the same measure," not " just the same as " the other spirit.

Mr JOHNSON - I understood him to say that patent still spirit is purified in exactly the same way as is spirit distilled at a lower percentage of rectification. He subsequently pointed out that patent still spirit, after being highly rectified, possesses, although in a lesser degree, the same impurities as are found in pot-still spirit.

Mr Watson - They are " characteristics," not " impurities."

Mr JOHNSON - I use the word " impurities " in the sense in which it is employed in chemistry. As against the contention of the honorable member for Perth, I may say that I have made personal inquiries from those engaged in distillation, and also from experts, who have informed me that when spirit is distilled above 60 per cent, over-proof - as in the case of that produced by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company - the elements called " impurities " are existent in it in only the most infinitesimal degree.

Mr Watson - Any expert can, without analysis, distinguish between" the Colonial Sugar Refining Company's spirit and potato spirit, even although it is 68 per cent, over-proof.

Mr JOHNSON - I am informed that that is not so - that the process by which spirit 38 per cent, over-proof has been distilled cannot be detected by any form of analysis.

Mr Conroy - I would close up a distillery which distilled spirit of that strength for human consumption.

Mr JOHNSON - The honorable member may have certain information respecting this matter, but that which I have secured comes from those who are qualified to express an expert opinion. In support of the position which I took up yesterday, and as opposed to the contention of the honorable member for Perth, I propose to quote the opinions expressed before the Tariff Commission by Mr. Wilkinson, the Government analyst of Victoria, in reference to the impurities of spirits which are alleged bv many to be injurious to health. At page 15 of the digest of the evidence given before the Commission, we have the statement under the heading of " Spirits generally - Alcohol " - :

Mr. Wilkinsonwould define spirits as alcoholic liquids made from the distillation of wine, beet, cereals generally, and the by-products of sugar manufacture. - (Q, 2626-7.) From quotations read by him before the Commission, it appeared that all the alcohols, taken in certain doses, were poisonous. The least toxic was pure ethyl alcohol. - (Q. 2677.) Ethyl alcohol was the main constituent of all spirits. - (Q. 2712.) The toxicity of alcohol was correspondingly larger 'as its chemical formula was more complex.

At page 16 of the report we find the statement that -

In the more volatile portions of the secondary products of commercial spirits, there were aldehydes. These were the products of oxidation principally from alcohol. In the higher boiling portions, there was what was called " fusel oil." This consisted of alcohols higher in the series, for instance, propyl, butyl, and amyl alcohols. In distillation, the impurities were in part eliminated, but they were necessary for flavour.

These foreign elements have the effect of imparting certain flavours, or a piquancy, to certain spirits. As far as I have been able to discover, that is their sole use. I have also formed the opinion from what I read on the subject that their effect on the health of the consumers of spirits, is injurious rather than beneficial, more injurious, in fact, "than the pure ethyl alcohol.

Mr Fowler - I admit that chemical knowledge is so defective in respect to this matter that there is room for all sort's of opinions in regard to it.

Mr Conroy - All the more reason "why we should not insert this provision in an Act of Parliament.

Mr JOHNSON - The report continues -

A spirit containing none of them was practically featureless. It had no character, and wasneutral in taste. - (Q. 2634-6.) Mr. Wilkinson, quoted extracts concerning the toxicity of variousalcohols, and the laws of Switzerland and Belgium with respect to the limit of impurities al-, lowed in certain spirits. He summarized these articles by stating that the so-called impurities of any spirit, upon which for commercial value1 the flavour was largely dependent, possessed toxic properties greater than those of ethyl alcohol, the main constituent of all spirit.

That is the pure alcohol. According toMr. Wilkinson, all the elements which thehonorable member for Perth contends are; necessary to give added beneficial value and greater purity to spirits possess in thegreatest degree those toxic properties which* are injurious to health. The report proceeds -

If alcohol were pure, it would have no injurious effect other than that due to alcohol, nomatter its origin. - (Q. 2667.) So far as scientific-: knowledge goes, the substances removed in therectification of spirit were more injurious than,, alcohol itself.

That is a very definite and positive statement, and since it is the opinion of one. who, by reason of the position he occupies, is supposed to be an expert in such matters, it should receive careful consideration.

Mr.- Fowler.- He is an expert in>. analyses, but I do not know that he is an . expert in spirits.

Mr JOHNSON - If he is an expert irc matters of this kind, I take it that he must: have studied the effect of the constituent' parts of all spirits on those who consume them. I shall quote only one or twomore passages from this report. At page 16 we have the statement -

Mr. Wilkinsonhad examined some of thecheap spirits imported, and had found that they were highly rectified, and contained very few impurities indeed. They might have been of any origin. Physiologically thev could not beconsidered injurious. - (Q. 2655-6.) So far asscientific knowledge went, the substances removed" by the rectification of spirits were more injurious-' than alcohol itself.

Then, 'in another paragraph, under the1 heading of "the Maturing of Spirits," wehave the statement -

There was no proof that the keeping of spirit for a time would eliminate certain poisonous? elements.

I have quoted these statements in order that the Committee may learn the opinion held' by Mr. 'Wilkinson with respect to the benefit alleged to be derived from the retention of spirits in wood for a period of two years before if goes into consumption - a question which has been much discussed during this debate. The statement which I made yesterday - based on what I had read and heard with respect to this subject - was that the . result of keeping spirit in wood for a long period is to disguise from the palate of those who consume it all impurities which have notbeen removed, and which are! not so easily defected as they would be if the spirit went into immediate consumption.

Mr Fowler - I suggest that the honorable member should experiment on himself with both new and old spirit. If he does so, he will soon ascertain the difference.

Mr JOHNSON - I prefer to allow the -honorable member for Perth himself, or the honorable member for Melbourne Ports, to make such experiments. In support of what I said yesterday, let me quote the following passage from the same report, : page 1 6 : -

Medical men were very much divided in opinion upon this subject. Only an improvement in flavour would be gained.

The Government Analyst of "Victoria expressed the opinion that the keeping of spirit in woodfor a period of two years does not remove deleterious elements, though it may improve the flavour of the spirit.

Sir John Quick - He was the only witness who took that view.

Mr JOHNSON - He said-

It was a scientific fact that, no matter how long spirits were kept, the poison in them remained.

Sir John Quick - He was contradicted by all the distillers in Australia.

Mr JOHNSON - Last week, in Sydney, a gentleman who regards himself as an expert in these matters, having had to do with the distillation of spirits during the last forty years, both in Australia and elsewhere, assured me that it is a scientific fact that, no matter how long spirits are kept, any deleterious substance that may have been left in them after the process of distillation remains, although the' flavour may improve.

Mr McCay - Surely we must determine these mattersby the weight of evidence.

Mr JOHNSON - The statements of experts such as those which I have quoted must be taken into consideration in dealing with a proposal like that before us, and the weight of evidence must depend on the qualifications of those who give the testimony in matters of this kind.

Mr BRUCE SMITH (PARKES, NEW SOUTH WALES) - But to act on the opinion of one or two witnesses and against the opinions of a large body of other witnesses, would be like determining a case on the evidence of a witness in opposition to the verdict of a jury who may have heard the evidence of twenty witnesses.

Mr JOHNSON - If time permitted, I might quote theopinions of other experts. We should have as much enlightenment as we can get on this subject, and I am therefore justified in placing before the Committee the views of competent authorities which have come under my notice. I admit the difficulty of laymen coming to a definite conclusion in regard to questions such as this.

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