West Isles |
This section reproduced from publications by the Scotch Whisky Association,
Few would venture to assert the precise moment at which Scotch
Whisky was first distilled. In fact, the origins of distilling itself are
generally obscure, although it is commonly accepted as having first
been attempted in Asia as long ago as 800BC, and to have found its
way to Europe via Egypt.
It remains a mystery however when the art of distilling first reached
Britain. What is certain is that the Ancient Celts practised the art and
had an expressive name for the fiery liquid they produced - uisge
beatha - the water of life. To the Celts its power to revive tired bodies
and failing spirits, to drive out chills and rekindle hope was a
veritable gift from God.
No matter whence it came, the Scots have perfected the art of
distilling and, using elements so generously provided for them by
nature, have distilled the whisky which today is inextricably woven
into Scotland's history, culture and customs.
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"
(water of life). This was sufficient to produce almost 1500 bottles.
Thus, it is 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. 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 which evolved from uisge beatha, was
lauded for its medicinal qualities, being prescribed for the
preservation of health, the prolongation of life, and for the relief of
colic, palsy, smallpox and a host of other ailments. The Scots
became used to whisky from the cradle right up to their life's end.
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 virtually driven
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
Smuggling became standard practice for some 150 years and there
was no moral stigma attached to it. Ministers of the Kirk made
storage space availablc 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.
By 1777, eight licensed distilleries were
alone contributing in a small way to the
revenue of the United Kingdom in the
City of Edinburgh, while nearly 400
unregistered stills were said to be
contributing only to the personal gains
of the freebooters who ran them. This
was in any case miniscule when
compared to the operations of illicit
distillers in the remote Highlands and
Islands of Scotland.
Clandestine stills were cleverly organised and hidden in nooks and
crannies of the heather-clad hills. One undetectable
location channelled the smoke from the peat fire underground for
70 yards to a cottage so that it could be released up the chimney
without arousing suspicion.
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
benefit of 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 &163; 10 and a set payment per gallon
of proof spirit. This notable piece of legislation laid the foundations
for the Scotch Whisky industry as we know it today.
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.
Two further developments put Scotch Whisky firmly on the world
map. In 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still
which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place, which
led to the production of grain whisky, a different, less intense spirit
than the malt whisky produced in the distinctive copper pot stills. This
invention was first exploited by Andrew Usher & Co who, in 1860,
blended malt and grain whisky together for the first time to produce a
lighter flavoured whisky - extending the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a
The second major helping hand came unwittingly from France. By
the 1880s the vineyards of France had been devastated by the
phylloxera plague, 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 taken the place of brandy as the preferred spirit of
Since then Scotch Whisky, in particular blended whisky, has gone
from strength to strength, surviving USA prohibition, economic
depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the
premier international spirit of choice, extending its reach to 200
countries throughout the world.
Chronological Historical Outline and List of Distillers
See also List of Distilleries in Date order of Foundation
and Number of operating distilleries by year since 1900
Edited from and ©:
"The Original Scotch". Michael Brander [Hutchinson, 1974: ISBN 0 09 120720 7]
plus additional entries (*)
- 800 B.C.
- Arrack known to have been distilled in India
- 384 B.C.
- Aristotle born; later wrote of distilling in his "Meteorology"
- 432 A.D.
- St. Patrick, a native of Scotland, sent to Wicklow to spread Christianity and
also reputed to have introduced distilling
- 560 A.D.
- (circa) Taliessin the Welsh bard composed his "Song to Ale"
- Entry in Exchequer Rolls regarding Friar Cor making aqua vitae by
order of the King
- Lord High Treasurer's Account 'To the barbour that brocht aqua vitae to
the King in Dundee'
- Barber surgeons in Edinburgh granted right of making aqua vitae
- Treasurer's Accounts in Inverness mention 'aqua vite to the King'
- The vertuose boke of Dstyllacyon by Hieronymous Braunschweig published
in English, translated by L. Andrew. First book on the subject, treated
aqua vitae as a medicine
- The Scottish Parliament passed an Act forbidding export of victuals
in time of famine, except: 'It sal be leifful to the inhabitants of
the burrowis of Air, Irvin, Glasgow, Dumbertane and uthers our
Soverane Ladys leigis dwelland at the west setis to have bakin breid,
browin aill and aqua vite to the Ilis to bertour with uther
- Treasure of Evonymous published by Peter Morwyng, detailing methods of
- Raphael Holinshed's Chroncles of England, Scotland and Ireland mention
types of aqua vitae found in Scotland
- First Act in Scotland specifically relating to aqua vitae
- Fynes Moryson's Itneraries on Scotland comments on strong ale and lack
- First licence to distill whisky given to the Bushmills distillery, Co.,
Antrim, Ireland. (*)
- 'Act agens the drinking of Wynes in the Yllis'
- John Taylor in his Pennyless Pilgrimage visits Earl of Mar and drinks
Earliest reference to 'uisge' being drunk at Highland chief's funeral
- The Worshipful Company of Distillers granted a Charter in England, the
regulations framed by Sir Theodore de Mayerne and Dr. Thomas Cademan
- Tonnage and Poundage Act in England
- Imposed first Excise duty.
Following Parliament's example Charles passed an Act of Excyse on
'everie pynt of aquavytie or strong watteris sold within the country'
- Commercial Treaty signed with Portugal
- Excise duty in Scotland reduced.
Kirk Session records of St. Ninian's: R. Hage accused of distilling
on the Sabbath
- Petition to prohibit import of brandy presented to English Parliament
- Boyle rediscovered the principle of the hydrometer
- The Revolution
An Act referred for first time to single and double proof spirits.
The first attempt to charge duty according to strength
- Forbes of Culloden who had 'suered the loss of his brewery of aqua vitae by
fire in his absence' (in 1689) granted freedom from excise on annual payment
of 400 Scots merks. Ferintosh first distillery mentioned by name.
In England an act passed aIlowing anyone to distil home-grown corn
- Attempt to introduce Malt Tax in Scotland, but withdrawn
- Walpole proposed tax on malt in Scotland. Malt Tax riots in Glasgow.
- Porteous Riots in Edinburgh result of capture of smugglers Wilson and
Robertson. Escape of Robertson arranged by Wilson, who was hanged. Mob
fired on by Porteous in command of troops. Porteous lynched by mob
subsequently when about to be reprieved.
Smuggling very common and Excise officers mainly English and disliked
Magistrates of Middlesex petitioned Parliament regarding gin
Gin Act aimed at preventing consumption caused open flouting of law;
Scotland specifically exempted from its provisions
- John Gow slipped over hills to Tomintoul and changed name to Smith
Lt. Colonel Watson, C.O. Fort Augustus, advised officers to get the
Highlanders 'drunk with whisky'
- Final Gin Act reduced the enormous consumption of gin in the south.
During the Gin Era consumption had risen from 800,000 gallons in 1694 to
over 6 million gallons in 1734. By 1750 over 8 million gallons. By 1758
had dropped to 2 million gallons
- Act amending laws on spirits specifically ended Scotland's exemption, so that
it was no longer advantageous to import from Scotland
- Johnson on Tour of Highlands with Boswell
visited Western Isles. Sampled usquebaugh
- Wash Act defined Highland Line by Act of Parliament.
Forbes's exemption at Ferintosh was finally ended.
Riots at Mr. Haig's distillery at Leith. One rioter shot and killed.
Colonel Thomas Thornton, Yorkshire sporting squire, toured Scotland
- Distillery Act. Licensing system introduced. Duty raised in Scotland to
English level. No distinction between Highlands and Lowlands.
Unfair system gave great impetus to illicit distillation
- Clarke's hydrometer replaced Boyle's, but still inaccurate test
- Duty increased. Stein brothers bankrupted.
Robert Burns joined the Excise.
Scots distillers still continued to produce more than estimated
- Tax on whisky trebled to £9. Still the distillers continued to produce more
whisky than had been estimated by tax officials.
William Hill set up in Rose Street, Edinburgh, as a whisky merchant
- Tax on whisky doubled to £18. Some stills operating continuously to beat
tax at expense of wearing out still. Shape changing for sake of speed
- Tax trebled to £54
- Committee on Distilleries set up to investigate
- Malcolm Gillespie joined the Excise
- Dr. John Leyden's Tour to the Highands.
Tax doubled yet again to £108
- War broke out again and tax raised yet again to £162 Meanwhile whisky was
becoming the most important industry. Illicit distilling was accepted by
everyone as the only means of paying rent for a farm. The taxation problem
had clearly defeated the government in the south
- The firm of Seager Evans was formed in London as makers of gin
- Colonel Peter Hawker visited Scotland, saw signs of smuggling
- The prohibition of stills under 500 gallon capacity in the Highlands
according to General Stewart of Garth this amounted to a complete interdict.
Matthew Gloag set up as a whisky merchant in Perth
- The output of the distillery at Drumin in Glenlivet run by George Smith,
grandson of John Smith Gow, was already a hogshead a week. Due to the
pure water and fine peat available the whisky in Glenlivet was famed as
being the finest illicit whisky in tho Highlands. It was drunk by many
northern lalrds, including Grant of Rothiemurchos, M.P. and lawyer.
Laphroaig distillery on Islay was built by the Johnstone family
- Teaninich distillery built by Captain H. Munro in Ross-shire.
Sikes's hydrometer superseded the old inaccurate Clarke's hydrometer
- Bladnoch disti]lery was founded, near Wigtown, by the Maclelland family
- Clyneleish distillery near Brora was built by the Marquis of Staford, son of
the Duke of Sutherland
- John Walker set up as a licensed grocer in Kilmarnock in Ayrshire.
Debates in Parliament on the subject of illicit distilling in Scotland were
inconclusive, but the Duke of Gordon addressed the House of Lords urging
a more moderate policy
Sikes's hydrometer and saccharometer used in conjunction under new Act
- Linkwood distillery near Elgin was built
- George IV visited Scotland and was provided with illicit Glenlivet whisky
by Grant of Rothiemurchos. He was reported to drink no other
- A new Act was introduced which provided for a £10 annual licence fee and
a duty of 2s 3d per gallon
Springbank distillery near Campbeltown founded by farmers named Mitchell
- Under the aegis of his landlord the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, farmer
and illicit distiller George Smith was the first to take out a licence under the
new Act. The first legal distillery in Glenlivet, his neighbours threatened to
burn it down
Gillespie made a notable haul of illicit Glenlivet whisky in a desperate battle
with smugglers. Gillespie then applied for a less arduous post
- Consolidation Act introduced uniform measures.
T. R. Sandeman founded a whisky merchants business in Perth
- Robert Stein took out a patent for a single-distillation still.
- Gillespie forged a bill, was arrested, tried and hanged, despite pleas for
mercy on account of his long service.
Christopher North's Noctes Ambrosianae featured James Hogg in Blackwood's
- Tax per proof gallon raised significantly. Consequent increase in smuggling.
Stein built his first still at Kirkliston, a Haig distillery.
William Teacher founded his merchant's firm, aged 19.
Talisker distillery wa founded on the Isle of Skye
- Aeneas Coffey invented his single still, known as the patent Coffey still,
providing continuous distillation forgrain whisky.
Justerini and Brooks founded their partnership in London
- The Coffey still was patented and approved.
The Glen Scotia distillery founded in Campbeltown by Stewart Galbrath.
Total abstinence was advocated at the Preston Temperance meeting
- The Parnell Commission of Enquiry into the Liquor Trade started
- The Parnell Commission issued its findings. Mostly ineffectual.
The Glenfarclas Glenlivet distillery was founded by Robert Hay
- Hill Thomson granted Royal Warrant
- The Glen Grant distillery was founded at Rothes by James and John Grant.
The Glenkinchie distillery in East Lothian founded by farmer J. Gray.
- James Chivas founded his firm of merchants and grocers in Aberdeen
- Glenmorangie distillery at Tain was founded by William Mathieson
- John Dewar started as a wine and spirit merchant in Perth.
The Repeal of the Corn Laws was to aect grain distilling favourably
- Queen Victoria and family visited John Begg's distillery at Lochnagar
- Captain William Grant announced his distillery in conjunction with George
Smith's at Drumin the only ones in Glenlivet
- Andrew Usher was credited with producing the first blended whisky.
- First Trade Arrangement amongst grain distillers.
- W. & A. Gilbey founded as wine and spirit merchants.
William Thomson joined William Hill and formed Hill Thomson at 45,
Frederick Street, Edinburgh
- New Trade Arrangement formed. Menzies, Barnard & Craig, John Bald &
Co., John Haig & Co., MacNab Bros, Robert Mowbray and Macfarlane &
Co., who replaced John Crabbie and Co., who had previously been a member.
Glenfarclas distillery was bought by John Grant of Blairfindy
- Phylloxera vastatrix beginning to spread in France
- The North of Scotland Malt Distillers Association was formed
- The Distiller's Company Limited was formed by Macfarlane & Co., John
Bald & Co. John Haig & Co, MacNab Bros & Co, Robert Mowbray and
Stewart & Co.
John Haig founded his company at Markinch in Fife
- John Walker opened a London office.
Colonel John Gordon Smith, son of George Smith, went to law on the
subject of the use of the name Glenlivet. The court held he was the only
one entitled to use the label 'The Glenlivet', all others had to use a prefix
- Bruichladdich Islay Malt distillery was founded
- William Sanderson produced his blend 'Vat 69'.
James Whyte and Charles Mackay founded Whyte and Mackay, Ltd.
- James Buchanan set up in London and produced the blend 'Black & White'.
William Shaw joined Hill Thomson and produced the blend 'Queen Anne'
- Gladstone defeated on proposed tax
- The D.C.L. shares were finally quoted on the London Stock Exchange
- The Glenfiddich distillery was built by William Grant.
The Dufflown-Glenlivet distillery was founded.
Highland Distilleries founded to acquire the Islay distillery of William
Grant and the Glenrothes Glenlivet Distillery built in 1878
- The North British Distillery Co. with productive capacity of three million
gallons p.a. founded in opposition to the growing power of the D.C.L..
Mackie & Co. took over Lagavulin distillery on Islay for White Horse
- The Playfair Parliamentary Commission formed under Sir Lyon Playfair
- Balvenie distillery founded by William Grant of Glenfiddich
- Cardow was bought by John Walker.
The firm of Macdonald and Muir was founded
- Longmorn-Glenlivet built by Longmorn Co.
- Aultmore founded by Alexander Edward of Sanquhar, Forres.
Arthur Bell & Sons formed from Sandeman's of Perth
- John Dewar built a distillery at Aberfeldy
- The whisky boom came to an abrupt halt with the failure of the Pattison
- The United Yeast Co. was founded by the D.C.L. as a subsidiary
- Islington Borough Council brought the 'What is Whisky?' case. Basically a
question of malt versus grain. Verdict in magistrate's court in favour of
malt, but the D.C.L ressed for Royal Commission
- A Royal Commission on Whisky decided grain and malt blended to make
- Intoxicating Liquor Act.
Scottish Malt Distillers formed as a subsidiary of the D.C.L.
- Central Liquor Control Board formed.
Immature Spirits Act required two years' compulsory bonding.
Buchanan's and Dewars merged into Buchanan-Dewars
- Compulsory bonding extended to three years
- Dilution of proof to 30 under proof. Whisky Association formed
- Haig and Haig were taken over by the D.C.L.
- Prohibition was introduced in the U.S.A.
- John Haig merged with the D.C.L.
- Buchanan-Dewars and John Walker merged with the D.C.L., with John
Ross of the D.C.L. as chairman
- The Pot-Still Malt Distillers Association was formed in place of
the North of Scotland Malt Distillers Association to include all malt distillers
- Seager Evans set up Strathclyde distillery for grain whisky.
White Horse Distillers was acquired by the D.C.L.
- The Distillers Co. of Canada took over Seagram and Sons
- Hiram Walker of Ontario acquired Glenburgie-Glenliet
- Prohibition was repealed by President F. D. Roosevelt
- Arthur Bell & Sons acquired Blair Athol and Dufftown-Glenlivet distilleries
- Hiram Walker acquired George Ballantine & Go. of Dumbarton, also
Milton Duff distillery.
Arthur Bell & Sons acquired the Inchgower distillery near Fochabers.
Seager Evans acquired John Long
- Seager Evans took over Glenugie distillery at Peterhead, Aberdeenshire
- Hiram Walker opened a £3,000,000 grain distillery at Inerleven,
- Start of Second World War.
Total whisky stocks lost by enemy action amounted to 4.5 million gallons.
Grain distilling halted, limited malt pot-still distilling allowed
- 194a The Whisky Association dissolved and The Scotch Whisky Association
founded in its place
- End of Second World War
- Distilling still greatly restricted.
- Seagram's took over Strathisla distillery
- George & J. G. Smith, Ltd. and J. & J. Grant Glen Grant, Ltd. formed a
public company, The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distillers, Ltd.
- Hiram Walker took over Glencadam distillery in Brechin and the Scapa
distillery in Orkney
- Hiram Walker took over Pulteney distillery in Wick
- Seager Evans were bought by Schenley Industries of New York, in turn
owned by Glen Alden Corporation
- Seager Evans built Kinclaith distillery near Glasgow
- Seager Evans built a new distillery at Tormore on the Spey, north of
- Inver House, an American-owned Company, built a new grain
distillery by Airdrie and an associated Lowland malt distillery named Glenflagler
- The Scotch Whisky Association was incorporated to provide legal
status in foreign courts. Glenfarclas distillery redoubled in size
Ledaig distillery in Tobermory started.
Jura distillery started by Scottish & Newcastle Breweries, Ltd.
Glenallachie distillery started
- Laphroaig was acquired by Seager Evans.
W. & A. Gilbey, Gilbey Twiss, Justerini & Brooks and United Vintners
formed International Distillers and Vintners Ltd.
- Caperdonich and Benriach distilleries were re-built after having been
silent for over sixty years. Invergordon Distillers, Ltd., was formed
- Glen Alden Corporation who owned Schenley Industries who owned
Seager Evans was taken over by Rapid American Incorporated. The name
Seager Evans was changed to Long John International, Ltd.
- The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distilleries, Ltd., merged with Hill Thomson
& Co., Ltd., and Longmorn-Glenlivet Distilleries, Ltd.
Amalgamated Distiled Products, Ltd., was formed with the Campbeltown
Glen Scotia distillery and other interests.
The Highland Distillers Co., Ltd., acquired Matthew Gloag Ltd.
- Chivas Bros., the Scots subsidiary of Seagrams, began plans for a
distillery in Glenlivet
- The Glenlivet & Glen Grant Distileries, Ltd., rationalised their name to
The Glenlivet Distillers Limited.
The Pot-Still Malt Distillers Association of Scotland rationalised their name
to The Malt Distillers Association of Scotland
- Britain entered the European Economic Community.
With the introduction of V.A.T. the duty on whisky was reduced for the
first time since 1896.
Dalmore, Whyte & Mackay and Tomintoul distillery taken over by The
House of Fraser
Braes of Glenlivet distillery operational.
The notable feature of the late fifties and sixties has been the influx of
foreign, particularly U.S., investment in the industry, taking full advantage
of government subsidies but not necessarily with the interests of the
industry or of the United Kingdom at heart
- The Glenlivet Distillers Ltd. celebrate their hundred and fiftieth
anniversary since George Smith took out the first licence in 1824
Malt Distillers of Scotland celebrate their centenary