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A short history of Scotch whisky

While whisky is now made all over the world, Scotch whisky is made only in Scotland and it has a venerable history, incorporating distilling monks, royal approval, tax evasion and smuggling.

Water of life

The Gaelic term ‘uisge beatha’ or water of life is thought to have been the origin for the word whisky. The first recorded evidence of distilling dates from 1494 when the Exchequer Rolls in Scotland, which were tax records, stated “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”

As this was sufficient for about 1,500 bottles, it suggests that distilling was well under way by the end of the fifteenth century. In fact, in 1506 when King James IV visited Dundee a local barber was paid for a supply of ‘aqua vitae’ for him, according to the treasury accounts.

A potent brew

As equipment and expertise improved, the early spirits which were very potent and may have even been harmful, gave way to slightly more sophisticated techniques. These were mostly mastered by the monks at the time. During the dissolution of the monasteries the monks’ knowledge of distilling quickly spread and by the 17th century the Scottish parliament was introducing the first taxes on malt as well as on the spirit.

Going underground

The increasing taxes imposed following the Act of Union with England in 1707 drove many distillers underground and there were frequent clashes between the excise men and those operating illicit stills.

For another 150 years it was standard practice in Scotland to smuggle whisky and the local ministers of the Kirk evidently didn’t regard it as sinful. They made space for smuggled goods to be transported in coffins and stored under the pulpit.

Despite all this illicit whisky being made, it took until 1823 before the London government introduced the Excise Act and a license fee of £10 for distilling whisky. Distillers also had to pay a set amount per gallon of spirit. Over the next ten years smuggling ceased altogether.

From malt to grain

During the early years of production, whisky was produced from malt, then in 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still. This made it possible for distillation to take place in a continuous process and led to the production of Grain Whisky. While Malt Whisky had been produced in copper pot stills, the Patent Still gave Grain Whisky a lighter flavour and allowed it to be blended with the stronger malts, making it more popular.

French connection

The appeal of Scotch Whisky was confirmed when it became popular outside England and Scotland. In 1880 French vineyards were devastated by an infestation of the phylloxera louse and the production of wine and brandy ground to a halt: the French promptly swapped the grape for the grain and Scotch Whisky soon became the spirit of choice.

About the Author

This article was written by John Fuster, in collaboration with Boisdale of Canary Wharf. The bar at Boisdale of Canary Wharf boasts one of the biggest whisky collections in Europe, displaying over 1000 different types whiskies.

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