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A brief, but definitely not dull, History of Scotch Whisky

The origins of whisky

Whisky was originally invented by a Scottish caveman, who inadvertently collected the steam from a bowl of fermenting barley, which he was boiling to make porridge. He discovered that if he chilled an old skull in the snow, and then held it over the porridge, the liquor that collected inside made him feel as if he could rule the world, or at least use the spirit as a contra for some early Haggis.............Well, OK, not really, this is pure fantasy, but it’s a nice thought!

 In actual fact, the process of distilling alcohol was most likely discovered approximately 3000 BCE  by Arabian alchemists ,  and used for the production of perfume and cosmetics.

 By the 12th century the technique had spread via Spain to the rest of Europe and whilst Muslim culture in the Middle East forbade the consumption of alcohol, the Christian Monks had no such scruples. Soon they were happily distilling spirits from a variety of local produce for alcoholic beverages. Very happily! Whilst one culture smelled good, the other no longer cared what they smelt like.

 It is likely that the art of distilling in the British Isles began in Ireland, introduced with the arrival of St Patrick and his monks. Barley being a relatively abundant crop was the natural choice as a base for the spirit. From Ireland the distilling of ‘aqua vitae’ spread to Scotland.

 The first official historical reference being famously in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494, where the following transaction is recorded: ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae”.

 Whisky - The water of life.


For many years whisky continued to be produced for consumption as a tonic, at least that was their excuse!Finlaggan Known in Gaelic as Uisge Beatha or Usguebaugh, ‘the water of life’, it was used to cure all known ills and to generally make one feel better about life.

  For many, not much has changed, and because everyone felt so good, drinking whisky soon became a common social event. In those days they drank it as a rough spirit, they were too impatient to age it or Nancy around with different wood finishes.

 Uisge Beatha is pronounced Ooshka bar or ishkabar, dependent on your Gaelic roots. This became abbreviated to ishka by the English, (who probably found it too hard to pronounce correctly). From that, possibly during a game of Chinese whispers, it became ‘whisky’, which the English have proved to be very good at pronouncing ever since.

The next chapter

Fast forward to 16th Century Scotland; by now home brew on the farm was commonplace, minimal sunshine and lots of rain, although not good for grapes are great for Barley. Thus the Scots had plenty of barley. If they’d had grapes they might have used those and invented Cognac before the French.

 Barley is quite hard to store in damp conditions, so it is far better to turn it into ale or whisky, and then you can snuggle up in front of the fire and forget about the rain and lack of sun. Even the discarded barley residue was not wasted; the warm draff was fed to the cows. Although there is no alcohol left in draff, the farmers didn’t tell the cows that. Result? Happy cows.

Too much of a good thing! Let’s apply excise duty.

By the mid-17th Century, both the English and the Scottish parliaments decided that enjoying yourself at home, in your own time, was ‘too much of a good thing’. Excise duty was introduced in England in 1643 by Charles 1st, which did nothing to improve his popularity, and although it is not specifically recorded as a reason for his execution in 1644, one can’t help but wonder. A year later excise duty was introduced in Scotland.

 To enforce the taxes Gaugers, who ‘gauged’ the quantities produced by the distilleries, and Excise men, whose life ambition was to be very unpopular, were introduced to keep an eye on things.

 Robbie Burns, who had given up on his poetry making him popular, spent his last years as an excise man. Of course we’ve all now seen the light and ‘Burns night’ is the most popular occasion on the whisky drinkers social calendar, giving many an Englishman the opportunity to further mispronounce things, and demonstrate how bad they are at accents.

 The end result was that the distillers went into hiding, often to remote Islands where it was easier to conceal their illicit stills from the authorities. Hurray for Islay, Skye, Orkney and the rest!


Back to the future of whisky

The industrial revolution of the seventeenth century led to much improved farming techniques and increased barley yields, making commercial whisky distilling a viable proposition. Many new distilleries appeared, particularly in the lowlands, near the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but they soon began to suffer with even more punitive taxes.

 Higher taxes encouraged illicit distilling, which continued in the highlands and Islands, distributed by smugglers. Bloody battles ensued between excise men and smugglers and new legislation was introduced to make the ‘day job’ of smuggler, less financially rewarding.

 In 1823 the Excise act made it possible for distillers to be licensed, and cut the duty on spirits by over 50%. The first few licensees were seen unfavourably by their former smuggling acquaintances, and lived in fear of their lives.

 The whisky industry continued to expand and towards the end of the 18th century the process of blending single malt with industrially produced cheap grain whisky, (see the coffey still), created a spirit that was both smooth and many found easier to drink, particularly the French, who had a grape crisis, (Phylloxera), and ran out of Cognac. To this day Whisky is still a very popular tipple with the French, making France the number one export market.

 The devout single malt producers naturally objected to the practice of blending, and contested its legitimacy. However, in 1909 a royal commission ruled in favour of the blenders and gradually blended whisky became the most commonly available type of Scotch until the revival of single malt in the late 1970’s.


And now back to that Scottish caveman’s desire to rule the world

Although the production of Scottish whisky had been coming on nicely, globally it had been eclipsed by Irish whiskey. In 1834, for every one illicit still in Scotland, there were almost 12 in Ireland. By the middle of the 20th century all that had changed.

 Prohibition in The States, between 1919 and 1933 allowed the Scottish to capitalise on all that smuggling experience and before long the Americans developed a great appreciation. The building of the commonwealth after the 2nd World War, paved the way for even more export opportunities and soon Whisky, not Whiskey, really did rule the world. Until recently there were only three active distilleries in Ireland and almost 100 in Scotland.


The future of Scotch whisky

In recent years there has been a boom in the whisky industry, with particular interest around older bottlings. This has caused the cost of older whiskies to increase and most distilleries are keeping their stocks close.

One result of diminished stocks of older whisky has been the recent distillery releases of un-aged bottlings, either as special limited editions or as in the case of Macallan, an entire new core range.

An important fact to remember is that age is not the only factor determining a good whisky. Some excellent younger single malts are being bottled, particularly by independent bottlers like The Ultimate Selection.