The art of distillation in Scotland has been developed and perfected over centuries into the skilled craft it is today. The history of making whisky or ‘Uisge Beatha’ (Gaelic for whisky, meaning ‘water of life’) is ancient and intriguing, and is closely tied to many historically significant events, from groundbreaking invention through to civil revolt and smuggling.
The form whisky takes today has been developed through both ingenuity and chance. The timeline below shows just some of the significant events in the history of Scotch Whisky production.
It is generally acknowledged that the first skills of distillation were brought to Scotland during the Christian missions of St. Columba and Irish monks in the fifth century AD.
Over the centuries, the art of distillation and the supply of whisky developed into a trade. The first evidence of this is in The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland in 1494, where the allotment of “eight Bolls of malt to Friar John Cor at Lindores Abbey in Fife wherewith to make aqua vitae” is recorded. Aqua Vitae (Latin for ‘water of life’) is what is recognised today as whisky.
Initially, whisky was also consumed as a tonic for medicinal purposes. In 1505 the City of Edinburgh awarded the medical practitioners, The Guild of Surgeon Barbers, the rights to monopolise whisky in the city.
The fight between Customs & Excise (also known as the Gaugers) and distillers began when the Scottish parliament imposed taxes on whisky. This drove many distillers to move to rural areas such as the glens, highlands and islands to set up illicit stills and avoid paying duty on the whisky they produced.
The first official written record of a commercial whisky producing distillery in the Acts of Scottish Parliament is recorded in 1690. Duncan Forbes of Culloden is granted exemption from paying duty on the whisky produced at Ferintosh Distillery in the Highlands.
After the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, it was declared that the duty on Scotch Whisky should be greatly increased to be more in line with England’s tax rates. This sparked rioting in the streets of Glasgow, Stirling, Dundee, Ayr, Elgin and Paisley, with the burning of buildings, looting and even deaths. Eventually these riots resulted in the government backing down on severe duty increases.
With an ever growing demand for whisky from outside the Scottish borders, unauthorised distillation was ubiquitous by the 1820s. Nearly half the whisky drunk in Scotland came from illicit stills, with no payment of duty, even though Excise Gaugers seized up to 14,000 illicit stills every year.
Scotch whisky enjoyed huge growth internationally and illicit distilling had almost completely died out by the late 1820s due to the introduction of the Excise Act; a licence to legitimately distil whisky could be purchased for the fee of £10.
Until 1831, whisky was distilled in pot stills. In 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still, which allowed a continuous, more efficient distillation and the production of huge volumes of Grain Whisky. This led to the widespread production of Grain Whisky and eventually the blending of this lighter spirit with more characterful Single Malts to produce Blended Whisky.
In the 1880s many of France’s vineyards were destroyed by a plague of Phylloxera beetles. This impacted heavily on the brandy and cognac industries and contributed to the huge rise in popularity of Scotch Whisky across Europe and further afield.
Perhaps one of the most significant developments in the history of Scotch Whisky was the use of oak casks for maturation. During the 1700s and 1800s, whisky was most likely drunk unmatured; however, oak wine, sherry and port casks were the most appropriate vessels available to store and transfer whisky at that time. It was soon recognised that long-term storage in oak casks greatly improved the colour, aroma and taste of whisky and removed many of the harsher characteristics of the unmatured spirit. It eventually became a requirement in the 1900s that all whisky be matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years. Today it is recognised that the wooden cask in which a whisky is matured is perhaps the single most important factor in creating its flavour.
Another significant development in the history of Scotch Whisky came from across the Atlantic. After prohibition ended in the USA, it was enshrined in federal law that all American Bourbon Whisky had to be matured in new oak casks. This presented a significant opportunity for distillers in Scotland, who were able to buy the used casks to mature Scotch Whisky, imparting the more mellow, subtle influence of used oak. This relationship between the two industries grew and, to this day, casks made from American white oak are by far the most commonly used to mature Scotch whiskies.
The 500th anniversary of Scotch Whisky production since the first recorded evidence was celebrated in 1994. It was marked by events across the globe and commemorative special releases of Single Malt Scotch Whisky from many of Scotland’s whisky producers.