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
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
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
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
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
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
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.