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Historical Notes

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 underground.

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 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 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 wider market.

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 choice.

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.

© SWA 1995