History of Scotch Whisky

31 May 2012

Over the years, the art of distilling in Scotland has been perfected. Uisge beatha has evolved into Scotch Whisky - a drink made only in Scotland, but enjoyed around the world.

Early distilling appears in tax records

The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred as long ago as 1494, in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls.

An entry lists 'Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae' (water of life). This was sufficient to produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distilling was already well-established.

A potent spirit

The primitive equipment used and the lack of scientific expertise means the spirit produced in those days was probably potent, and occasionally even harmful.

However, distillation methods soon improved, and in the 16th and 17th centuries considerable advances were made.

Monks spread distilling skills

The dissolution of the monasteries contributed to this since many of the monks, driven from their sanctuaries, had no choice but to put their skills to use. The knowledge of distilling then quickly spread to others.

Initially whisky, the name of which evolved from uisge beatha, was taken for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of colic, palsy and even smallpox.

Taxes drive distilling underground

Whisky became an intrinsic part of Scottish life - a reviver and stimulant during the long, cold winters, and a feature of social life, a welcome to be offered to guests upon their arrival.

Increasing popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the 17th century.

Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, which led to moves to tame rebellious Scottish clans. The distillers were driven underground.

Smugglers versus the tax man

A long and often bloody battle arose between the excisemen, or gaugers as they were known, and the illicit distillers, for whom the excise laws were alien in both their language and their inhibiting intent. Smuggling became standard practice for some 150 years.

Even Ministers of the Kirk made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was on occasion transported by coffin - any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the excisemen.

Stills hidden in the heather

Clandestine stills were hidden in the heather-clad hills, and smugglers organised signalling systems from one hilltop to another whenever excise officers were seen to arrive in the vicinity.

By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being enjoyed without payment of duty.

Change in the law

This flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose extensive acres some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally.

In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.

Smuggling died out almost completely over the next decade and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by smugglers of old. The Excise Act laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry as we know it today.

Grain Whisky invented

Until now, we have been talking about Malt Whisky. But, in 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place.

This led to the production of Grain Whisky, a different, less intense spirit than Malt Whisky. The lighter flavoured Grain Whisky, when blended with the more fiery malts, extended the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a considerably wider market.

Scotch becomes firm favourite

The second major helping hand came unwittingly from France. In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere.

The Scots were quick to take advantage, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.

Premier international spirit

Since then Scotch Whisky has gone from strength to strength. It has survived USA prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, enjoyed in more than 200 countries throughout the world, and generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.