Scotch Whisky - the world’s leading spirit drink! Over the last century it has become popular in just about every country in the world and advertisements for Scotch have become familiar to people in all but the most remote regions.
Its basic roots are probably not in Scotland , but in the middle east where Arab alchemists in the 10th Century discovered how to distil alcohol while making cosmetics and perfume by distilling flowers. Indeed the word alcohol is derived from the Arabic, Al kuhul, or eye makeup. The word Kohl is still used for this today. As Muslims, the Arabs had no use for alcohol as a drink but the Moors brought the technique to Spain from whence it spread throughout Europe . By the 12th Century people were distilling spirit from grape, grain, fruit or vegetables, whatever they had available locally.
Many of the distillers of the time were learned people including monks and university scholars. It is believed that the first “aqua vitae” was distilled from fermented barley by monks in Ireland sometime in the 11th or 12th Century.
At this time there was a lot of movement between Ireland and Scotland so it is likely that distilling soon spread over here. There is a reference in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 (records of the income and expenditure of the Scottish royal court and household), thus, "eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae". Apparently this was enough to make the equivalent of about 400 of today’s bottles.
Back then distilled spirit was used more as a medicine or tonic. This is why it became know as Aqua vitae or “Water of Life”. (Gaelic: Uisge Beatha, pr. Ooshki – Bah, from whence ooshki – whisky.) It was taken at regular intervals throughout the day by people in the Highlands and it no doubt had the desired effect. It is said that from the cradle to the grave people in rural Scotland used whisky as a treatment for many health problems including smallpox and palsy.
It is easy to see why it was thought to be health preserving back then with the feeling of well being it produced almost immediately after it was taken. Whisky was certainly an integral part of Scottish life at this time and it was also taken socially. At social gatherings the custom was for the men to sit round a table where each of them would take turns to dispense the whisky from a container round the table to each of their glasses. This is perhaps the source of the term “round” as used in Scottish pubs today, where when “your round” means that it is your turn to buy the drinks.
By the end of the 16th Century whisky distilling in the Scottish Highlands had become quite widespread amongst the farming communities. There was a good reason for this. The main food crops in much of Scotland at the time were barley and oats. The rough type of barley that was grown at the time was known as “bere” from whence came the word beer.
Our cold, damp climate did not permit dry grain to be stored for any length of time. Maximising the crop returns from this harsh Scottish soil and climate meant that some of the crop that could not be used immediately was turned into ale. Ale could be kept for longer than dry grain but not indefinitely so the farmers soon learned that turning the ale into Alcohol was an even better solution. It is worth noting that the production of whisky and ale or beer involves essentially the same process up to the point before it is distilled.
Another benefit was that the barley residue left over from distilling could be used as an excellent animal food known as draff. To this day draff is still used for this purpose … and the cattle love it even though there is no alcohol remaining at this stage. The cattle just seem to enjoy what amounts to a cooked meal. Draff can also retain some heat from the production process and this seem to be to their taste. I suppose if you spend most of your life chewing grass, hay and raw turnips draff must be an enjoyable variation.
Governments, then as now, soon seized upon the opportunity to tax anything that people use for enjoyment. The English Parliament introduced excise duty in 1643 and the Scottish Parliament followed their lead in 1644. (Remember that the union of the Scottish and English crowns did not take place until 1707). To enforce the payment of duty Gaugers or Excisemen were introduced about 1660. Their job was to gauge or measure the production from the distilleries. The act also gave them the right of entry at any time.
At this time there few commercial distilleries. Most whisky (and ale) was still made on farms and crofts. After the Union taxation on malt and whisky continued to rise and many of the distillers could not or would not pay and were forced into hiding. There was no moral stigma attached to this at the time. Payment of duty on something that people were making at home, for themselves, and had done for hundreds of years was incomprehensible.
Evading the excisemen and smuggling became a way of life at that time and fighting between excisemen and the distillers became quite commonplace.
All sections of the local communities were involved, even the Kirk (Church). People kept watch for the arrival of the excisemen who were mostly strangers in the community and easily spotted.
As soon as they arrived everyone in the
vicinity was soon informed and they set to work concealing their activities.
Note: While researching my own family history I discovered that my family had originated in the village of Glendaruel in rural Argyllshire.
My wife and I drove there one day and confirmed this by finding several gravestones in the tiny local Kirk yard bearing my family name and it’s Gaelic equivalent. Entering the Kirk we found some leaflets on display that had been written by a local farmer.
They contained a short history of Glendaruel and included in this was a tale from around two hundred years ago about the local schoolteacher and his brother, who moonlighted as the local distillers.
When the Gauger was known to be in the vicinity the schoolchildren were dispatched to the top of the local hill to keep lookout and signal when he was coming.
The brothers had the same name as me and since it was a tiny community they just have to be relatives! So, since discovering my family heritage and tradition in the whisky industry, I have considered it my duty to support this industry by sampling the product at every opportunity!
At this time whisky was drunk as soon as it came from the still. No maturation process was involved and without modern quality control methods and variable production methods one can only guess what it tasted like. What is known is that it was often mixed with water, milk, honey, sugar or even butter to make it more palatable.
In the late 1700’s improved farming methods resulted in increases in the barley crop. This meant that commercial whisky distilling became a viable proposition. While farming methods had improved this was more than could be said about the road and transport systems. The main markets tended to be in the larger population areas such as what is now the central belt, Glasgow and Edinburgh. As a result many lowland distilleries appeared. Consumption and hence demand for whisky was increasing but over the years punitive taxes and changes to the laws with respect to production and quotas made it difficult to sustain viable production.
Smuggling continued and in the Highlands illicit production increased due to the difficulty in policing such vast areas of territory with few good roads. The smugglers tended to move production to isolated areas such as the islands where they stood an even greater chance of continuing without interruption.
Various government acts over the next few years were mostly aimed at reducing duty and hence the smuggling. The excise act of 1823 fixed the license fee for malt whisky production at £10 and reduced the duty by more than half to the equivalent of 12p per gallon (4.5 litres). Production became viable once more and over the next few years many legal distilleries sprung up, some of them surviving to this day.
The Scotch whisky industry has experienced good and bad times since then but it has survived and today it is a thriving industry. Scotch is a quality product that is enjoyed at home and abroad. Long may this continue.
The thorny subject of how your “dram” of Scotch whisky should be drunk is one, which draws many different opinions. The real answer is that like the appropriate wine for foods debate this is really a matter of personal taste.
(You can take what I say with a pinch of salt because I like red wine with fish!) But personally I drink my Scotch in different ways depending on my mood.
Sometimes I will take it straight, sometimes with about the same quantity of chilled water and sometimes on the rocks (with ice).
The purists may tell you that ice affects the flavour of the whisky and it may do, but if the result is pleasing to your palate who cares? Personally I don’t think that adding lemonade, Coke, Soda water or, God forbid, Irn Bru to your whisky is a good idea. Scotch whisky has an incredibly complex and pleasing flavour of it’s own. Why try to change this?