Flaviar's "A Brief History of Scotch Whisky"

Tuesday June 1, 2021’s Smile of the Day: Scotch Whiskey

On this Day:

In 1495, the first written record of Scotch Whisky appeared in Exchequer Rolls of Scotland; Friar John Cor was the distiller.

Scotch whisky, often simply called whisky or Scotch, is malt whisky or grain whisky (or a blend of the two), made in Scotland.

All Scotch whisky was originally made from malted barley. Commercial distilleries began introducing whisky made from wheat and rye in the late 18th century. As of 2018, there were 133 Scotch whisky distilleries operating in Scotland.

All Scotch whisky must be aged in oak barrels for at least three years. Any age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed-age whisky. A whisky without an age statement is known as a no age statement (NAS) whisky, the only guarantee being that all whisky contained in that bottle is at least three years old. The minimum bottling strength according to the regulation is 40% alcohol by volume. Scotch whisky is divided into five distinct categories: single malt Scotch whisky, single grain Scotch whisky, blended malt Scotch whisky (formerly called “vatted malt” or “pure malt”), blended grain Scotch whisky, and blended Scotch whisky.

The first known written mention of Scotch whisky is in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland of 1494.

Many Scotch whisky drinkers refer to a unit for drinking as a dram.

According to the Scotch Whisky Association, the word whisky comes from the Gaelic uisge beatha or usquebaugh, which means “water of life”.

The earliest record of distillation in Scotland is in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494.

To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt.

— Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, 1 June 1494.

The Exchequer Rolls were records of royal income and expenditure and the quote records eight bolls of malt given to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitae over the previous year. aqua vitae is Latin for “water of life” and was the general term for distilled spirits. This would be enough for 1,500 bottles, which suggests that distillation was well-established by the late 15th century. However, it’s probable that whisky was introduced to Scotland from Ireland as evidence of Irish whiskey dating back to 1405, which is nearly 100 years before it shows up in any Scottish context. Considering the abundance of Scottish records during the 15th century and the lack of mention of whisky, it therefore stands to reason that it was recently introduced sometime in the mid to late 15th century from Ireland.

Aqua vitae (in the form of wine or spirits) was used when making gunpowder to moisten the slurry of saltpetre, charcoal and sulphur. As a drink, Scotch whisky was a favourite of King James IV of Scotland.

Whisky production was first taxed in 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. Between the 1760s and the 1830s a substantial unlicensed trade originated from the Highlands, forming a significant part of the region’s export economy. In 1782, more than 1,000 illegal stills were seized in the Highlands: these can only have been a fraction of those in operation. The Lowland distillers, who had no opportunity to avoid taxation, complained that untaxed Highland whisky made up more than half the market. The heavy taxation during the Napoleonic Wars gave the illicit trade a big advantage, but their product was also considered better quality, commanding a higher price in the Lowlands. This was due to the method of taxation: malt was subject to tax (at a rate that climbed substantially between the 1790s and 1822). The licensed distillers therefore used more raw grain in an effort to reduce their tax bill.

The Highland magistrates, themselves members of the landowning classes, had a lenient attitude to unlicensed distillers—all of whom would be tenants in the local area. They understood that the trade supported the rents paid. Imprisoned tenants would not be able to pay any rent.

In 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the “Excise Act”, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate. Magistrates found counsel for the Crown appearing in their courts, so forcing the maximum penalties to be applied, with some cases removed to the Court of Exchequer in Edinburgh for tougher sentences. Highland landowners were now happy to remove tenants who were distillers in clearances on their estates. These changes ushered in the modern era of Scotch production: in 1823 2,232,000 gallons of whisky had duty paid on it; in 1824 this increased to 4,350,000 gallons.

A farmer, George Smith, working under landlord the Duke of Gordon, was the first person in Scotland to take out a licence for a distillery under the new Act, founding the Glenlivet Distillery in 1824, to make single malt Scotch. Some of the distilleries which started legal operations in the next few years included Bowmore, Strathisla, Balblair, and Glenmorangie; all remain in business today.

Two events helped to increase whisky’s popularity:

First, the introduction in 1831 of the column still. Aeneas Coffey patented a refined version of a design originally created by Robert Stein, based on early innovations by Sir Anthony Perrier, for the new type of still[14] which produced whisky much more efficiently than the traditional pot stills. The column still allowed for continuous distillation, without the need for cleaning after each batch was made. This process made manufacturing more affordable by performing the equivalent of multiple distillation steps. The new still dramatically increased production; the whisky was less intense and smoother making it more popular.

Second, there was a shortage of wine, brandy and cognac in France, significant by 1880, due to the phylloxera bug, a parasitic insect, destroying many of the wine vines; that shortage increased the demand for whisky. By the 1890s, almost forty new distilleries had opened in Scotland. The boom years continued until the industry was significantly affected by World War I and later, by the Great Depression; many of the companies closed and never re-opened.

There are two basic types of Scotch whisky, from which all blends are made:

Single malt Scotch must have been distilled at a single distillery using a pot still distillation process and made from a mash of malted barley.

Single grain Scotch whisky is a Scotch whisky distilled at a single distillery but, in addition to water and malted barley, may involve whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals. “Single grain” does not mean that only a single type of grain was used to produce the whisky—rather, the adjective “single” refers only to the use of a single distillery (and making a “single grain” requires using a mixture of grains, as barley is a type of grain and some malted barley must be used in all Scotch whisky). Whereas malt whisky is distilled as a batch process in pot stills, grain whisky can be distilled continuously in Continuous Stills or Column stills.

Excluded from the definition of “single grain Scotch whisky” is any spirit that qualifies as a single malt Scotch whisky or as a blended Scotch whisky. The latter exclusion is to ensure that a blended Scotch whisky produced from single malt(s) and single grain(s) distilled at the same distillery does not also qualify as single grain Scotch whisky.

Nearly 90% of the bottles of Scotch sold per year are blended whiskies. Three types of blends are defined for Scotch whisky:

  • Blended malt Scotch whisky means a blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended grain Scotch whisky means a blend of two or more single grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.
  • Blended Scotch whisky means a blend of one or more single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies.

The five Scotch whisky definitions are structured in such a way that the categories are mutually exclusive. The 2009 regulations changed the formal definition of blended Scotch whisky to achieve this result, but in a way that reflected traditional and current practice: before the 2009 SWR, any combination of Scotch whiskies qualified as a blended Scotch whisky, including for example a blend of single malt Scotch whiskies.

As was the case under the Scotch Whisky Act 1988, regulation 5 of the SWR 2009 stipulates that the only whisky that may be manufactured in Scotland is Scotch whisky. The definition of manufacture is “keeping for the purpose of maturation; and keeping, or using, for the purpose of blending, except for domestic blending for domestic consumption”. This provision prevents the existence of two “grades” of whisky originating from Scotland, one “Scotch whisky” and the other, a “whisky – product of Scotland” that complies with the generic EU standard for whisky. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, allowing non-Scotch whisky production in Scotland would make it difficult to protect Scotch whisky as a distinctive product.

The SWR regulation also states that no additives may be used except for plain (E150A) caramel colouring (per Wikipedia).

First, a Story:

A Scottish Highlander’s wife decided to become an illegal whiskey-maker.  He loved her still.

Second, a Song:

Flaviar is a band of spirits enthusiasts, inspired by culture, rich history and the art of distillation. We forage the World of Spirits for the finest, rarest and most unique expressions out there and pack it all into a 21st century Members Club. You are what you drink, diversity and quality matter and all that should most certainly be enjoyed with style and in good company (per YouTube).

Here is Flaviar’s “A Brief History of Scotch Whisky”.  I hope you enjoy this!


Thought for the Day:

“I should never have switched from Scotch to Martinis.” – Humphrey Bogart


Have a great day!

Dave & Colleen

© 2021 David J. Bilinsky and Colleen E. Bilinsky

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