The History Of Scotch Whisky
Learn about the history of one of the oldest known spirit drinks, Scotch whisky, and the struggle between the Scottish distilleries and the illegal producers.
Scotch whisky can trace its roots back to the ancient Celts of more than 500 years ago. The name they gave to it was ‘uisge beathe’ – the water of life. Certainly the whisky that they produced was stronger and much harsher than what is now produced today, as they only had knowledge of crude distillation processes. The production of Scotch whisky came about because there was no effective way of storing beer over a long period of time, and distilling a liquid into a spirit drink was a way around this.
The earliest evidence of major Scotch whisky production was in 1494 when Friar John Corr received enough malt to produce over 1000 bottles of ‘aqua vitae’ (Latin for ‘water of life’). The large-scale production of it had begun to take place primarily because it was considered a good medicine, providing relief from a wide variety of ailments, and also warming the body on a bitterly cold Scottish winter night!
By the late 1600’s the government had realised the immense profit making potential of Scotch whisky, and began to tax it. This led to an almighty struggle over at least the next 150 years between the excise men, in favour of legal Scottish distilleries paying tax, and the people who ran illegal Scottish distilleries, often in the Highlands of Scotland. Often raids on illegal stills would involve the military and the excise men were instructed to smash up any equipment that they found. They were fighting a losing battle though. To give an idea of the scale of the problem, in 1777 there were 8 licensed distilleries, but at least 400 unregistered. Smuggling was rife, and the Highlanders used all their creative means to ensure that as much illegal whisky was distributed as possible. Smugglers sometimes faced the death sentence, so it was a real battle of nerve and wit.
This is not to say that the licensed Scottish distilleries were not selling a lot of whisky though. Indeed in the late 1700’s they were selling so much south of the border that they were affecting the gin sales of England, no mean feat in those times. The distillers of England’s then favourite spirit drink, gin, used their powers of persuasion to get the duty on Scotch whisky being sent to England increased. This led to one of the biggest Scottish distilleries, Stein and Haig, to declare themselves bankrupt. In turn there was another increase in the distribution and consumption of that harsher spirit drink, illegal Scotch whisky.
A compromise was reached in 1823 when legislation made producing Scotch whisky a profitable venture, and all though this didn’t completely wipe out illegal production it was a giant step in forming it into the great industry that it became.