A History of Scotch Whisky

Few would venture to assert the precise moment at which Scotch Whisky was first distilled. The exact origins of distilling itself are obscure, and it is unclear precisely when the techniques first reached Britain's shores. What is certain is that the Ancient Celts practised the art of distilling, and over the years, the Scots have perfected the art, using elements so generously provided for them by nature. 
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurs as long ago as 1494, when an entry in the Exchequer Rolls listed "Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae". This was sufficient to produce almost 1500 bottles, and it becomes clear that distilling was already a well-established practice. The primitive equipment used at the time 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.

 Early illegal stills were described as 'bothies', a roughly built dwelling often in the mountains. 
Landseer's painting "The Highland Whisky Still" (c.1820) captures the scene perfectly.

Initially whisky was lauded 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. It 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 arrival at their destinations. This increasing popularity eventually attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament, which introduced the first taxes on malt and the end product in the latter part of the 17th century. Ever increasing rates of taxation were applied following The Act of Union with England in 1707, when England set out to tame the rebellious clans of Scotland. The distillers were driven underground.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.

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 and there was no moral stigma attached to it. Ministers of the Kirk made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was, on occasion, transported by coffin - in fact any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the excisemen.

Clandestine stills (such as the primitive one illustrated at right) were cleverly organised and hidden in nooks and crannies of 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 swallowed painlessly and with pleasure, without contributing a penny in duty.

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 ten years 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. However, two further developments put Scotch Whisky on firmly on the world map.

Until now, we have been talking about what we now know as Malt Whisky. But, in 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still (below) which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place. This led to the production of Grain Whisky, a different, less intense spirit than the Malt Whisky produced in the distinctive copper pot stills. The lighter flavoured Grain Whisky, when blended with the more fiery malts, extended the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a considerably wider market.

The second major helping hand came unwittingly from France. By the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle had devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. The Scots were quick to take advantage of the calamity, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced Cognac as the preferred spirit of choice.An 1870 illustration showing the inner workings of the Coffey Still. As can be seen from the modern photograph in the 
"Making Scotch Whisky" section, the basic design of this still has changed little over the decades.

Since then Scotch Whisky, in particular blended whisky, has gone from strength to strength. It has survived US prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice, extending its reach to more than 200 countries throughout the world - not to mention that it's also Scotland's biggest indigenous industry supporting many local communities.

Key Dates in the Early History of Whisky

8th Century BC First Evidence of distilling in the Far East
4th Century BC Greeks know of distilling
6th Century AD First mention of distilling in Britain
1494 First record of distilling in Scotland. James IV on throne in Scotland. Henry VII on throne in England
1513 Battle of Flodden
1539-1550 Dissolution of Monasteries, spread of distilling as a trade
1558 Queen Elizabeth I on throne in England
1560 Mary Queen of Scots returns to Scotland from France
1567 Mary Queen of Scots abdicates and flees to England and Imprisonment
1579 Temporary ban on distilling, except by noblemen, because of a bad harvest
1588 Spanish Armada
1603 Union of Crowns-James VI of Scotland became James I of Britain
1636 Charles I granted charter to the "Worshipful Company of Distillers"
1644 First excise duty imposed -2/8 per Scots pint
1660 Charles II restored to throne - excise duty reduced
1666 Great Fire of London
1689 William of Orange proclaimed King after Revolution. Ferintosh Distillery burned by Jacobites. Battle of Killiecrankie
1725 Malt tax leads to riots in Glasgow. Scotland and Ireland develop reputations for their quality whiskies
1726 General Wade started road building programme to open up the highlands so that troops could control the region more easily
1736 Porteous riots in Edinburgh
1747 Repression in Highlands imposed by Duke of Cumberland
1760 Start of "Highland Clearances"
1775 Dr Johnson toured Highlands with James Boswell
1776 American Declaration of Independence from Britain
1784 Ending of Ferintosh's exemption from Excise Duty
1785-1803 Series of huge increases in Excise Duty led to bankruptcies among licensed distillers and a big increase in the amount of smuggled whisky which was often of superior quality because of the short cuts taken by the licensed distillers to try and keep costs down
1788 Roberts Burns became an Exciseman.
1790 Forth and Clyde Canal opened. All goods still had to be transported by horse drawn cart on poor roads. There were no railways and the internal combustion engine had not been invented.
1793-1819 War with France; shortage of brandy made people turn to whisky
1791 In America the Act of 1791 (popularly called the "Whiskey Tax") enacted a tax on both publicly and privately distilled whiskey.
1793 The 'Whiskey Rebellion' of Pennslyvania, America during which government troops were used to make arrests of a handful of distillery leaders who were refusing to pay taxes on their products.
1802 The 'Whiskey Tax' was repealed by Thomas Jefferson in America who called it 'infernal,' and 'hostile to the genius of a free people'.
1822 George IV visited Edinburgh and is reputed to have asked for Glenlivet whisky which could only have been illicit; widespread acceptance of whisky smuggling; Union Canal opened, linking Edinburgh to the Forth and Clyde Canal.
1822 New Whisky Act encouraged the setting up of licensed distilleries at reasonable cost but under close supervision
Early 19th Century Development of the continuous still makes the process of alcohol distillation cheaper and easier to control.
1941 The SS Politician bound for America with a cargo of whisky founders off North West Scotland. Her "liberation" provides the natives of war rationed Eriskay with a welcome tonic.
Present Scotch Whisky is Scotland's biggest indigenous industry supporting many local communities.