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The History Of Scotch Whisky

The History Of Scotch Whisky


A bit of whisky history - Glenfarclas staff pictured in 1891, George Grant is the young lad sitting on the extreme right aged 17.

Whisky has been distilled in Scotland for hundreds of years. There is some evidence to show that the art of distilling could have been brought to the country by Christian missionary monks, but it has never been proved that Highland farmers did not themselves discover how to distil spirits from their surplus barley.

The earliest record of distilling in Scotland was in 1494, when an entry in the Exchequer Rolls stated "Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae" (Latin for 'water of life'). This was enough malt to produce 1500 bottles of whisky, and clearly indicates that distilling had already become a well established practice in Scotland.

The basic equipment used in these times and the lack of expertise meant the whisky that was produced in those early days was most likely potent, and sometimes extremely harmful. Distillation methods improved immensely over the years, and considerable advances were made.

The term "whisky" evolved originally from the Gaelic "uisge beatha", meaning 'water of life'. Gaelic is the branch of the Celtic language spoken in the Highlands of Scotland and still is today in many areas of the Highlands of Scotland. Over time the word "uisge beatha" became abbreviated and corrupted to become known as whisky.

Whisky soon became an intrinsic part of Scottish life and was frequently used for medicinal purposes or as a reviver and stimulant during the long cold harsh Scottish winters, and it began to feature more in everyday social life in Scotland.

The increasing popularity of whisky was noticed by the government and in 1644 the Scottish Parliament imposed the first tax on spirits. Following the Union between England and Scotland in 1707 the London based government who recognised the potential income from whisky imposed the malt tax in Scotland at half the English rate. As you can imagine this tax was very unpopular and generated a huge black market for whisky and helps to explain why so many of today's distilleries are located in such remote areas of Scotland, these areas often too remote for the tax man to seek out.

Illicit Whisky Still in the Highlands

The Glenlivet is perhaps one of the best known of all Scotch single malts. Its founder, George Smith, with the encouragement of the Duke of Gordon, was the first to apply for a legal distilling license in 1824. George Smith was going against popular sentiment at the time in doing so. The illegal distillers where not to happy with Smith's move and some of them even threatened him with death, the Duke of Gordon even gave Smith two pistols for protection, which can still be seen today in the visitor centre at the distillery.

Until the advent of the patent still in 1831, all the whisky produced in Scotland was of the malt variety. Now, there are two kinds produced, malt and grain. Malt whisky is used primarily to create the popular blended whisky of today, this is done by combining malt whisky with grain whisky. Only a small percentage of malt whisky which is produced today is bottled and sold as Single Malt.

The craft of distilling and maturing Scotch has evolved over hundreds of years, and has been passed from generation to generation in a continual process of improvement and refinement.

Blended whiskies and malt whiskies are both produced differently. Although both are produced in the distilleries of Scotland, near to the natural ingredients which gives them their unique flavour. For more information on how both these whiskies are produced continue to the next page of this guide.

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