Mark Twain, Winston Churchill and Clark Gable all loved their whisky. Whether you kick it old style by drinking it out of a tin cup, nose your whisky in a tulip shaped whisky glass, drink it neat or add water or ice, whisky aficionados love to sip and savour the spirit for its incomparable sensation of flavour that is derived from both smell and taste. The chronicled history of Scotch whisky is often poorly known and even its precise origins have been lost to the fog of time, or perhaps in heavy Scotch whisky consumption.

The History and Process of Distillation

The practice of distilling liquid can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians. Distillation is really a simple process. Liquid is heated in one chamber and the evaporated vapour is collected in another chamber. When whisky is produced, barley is germinated then dried with smoke. Once dried, it’s ground and added to water, and then fermented. Once fermentation is achieved, the liquid is distilled to produce a 20% alcohol, then distilled a second time in a more complex process where the first distillate and the last (feints) are discarded, preserving the centre part of distillation. The centre part of the distillation then sits in a barrel and ages for years where it will develop its characteristic flavour.

The History of Scotch Whisky

The Scots have perfected the art of distilling whisky. Created and manufactured in Scotland, this quality spirit is enjoyed the world over. According to the tax records of the time, the Exchequer Rolls, distilling in Scotland can be traced back as far as 1494. One entry read 'Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.' This was adequate for the production nearly 1,500 bottles of Scotch, indicating that the practice of distillation was well established by this time.

The early days of Scotch production required the use of equipment that was quite primitive by today's standards. Combined with a lack of scientific expertise, early Scotch was likely quite potent and sometimes dangerous to imbibe. However, by the 16th and 17th centuries, methods had improved as a result of considerable advances.

It is believed that as monasteries were dissolved and monks were driven from their sanctuaries, they began to put their skills to use in the distilleries. As a result, a valuable skill set was quickly passed on to others. Originally known as uisge beatha, whisky was highly regarded for its medicinal qualities. Many believed it could preserve health, prolong life, relieve colic, palsy and even smallpox. Many today believe there is a medicinal benefit to whisky. In a pinch, it can be effectively used as an antiseptic and pain reliever.

Whisky became ingrained as a part of the Scottish lifestyle. It was used socially to liven up gatherings, offered comfort against long, cold winters, and was a staple in Scottish households where it was offered to guests as a greeting upon their arrival. The popularity of the spirit did not escape the attention of the Scottish Parliament and they seized upon the opportunity to introduce a whisky tax in the 17th century. Taxes continued to increase on whisky with the implementation of the Act of Union with England in 1707 and as a result, many distillers went underground.

Due to heavy taxation and efforts to avoid the tax, a bloody and protracted battle arose between the tax collectors and the illicit distillers. Smuggling whisky was common in Scotland for more than 150 years. The Ministers of the Kirk even made storage space available under their pulpits. Whisky was sometimes transported in coffins or any other illicit means which might escape the scrutiny of tax collectors. Stills were routinely hidden in the heather-clad hills and smugglers created complex signalling systems to communicate between hilltops whenever tax collectors were in the vicinity. By 1820, excise officers were confiscating as many as 14,000 illicit stills a year. However, more than half of the whisky consumed had escaped the burden of taxes.

The Duke of Gordon, a producer of illicit whisky himself, wanted to address the flagrant flouting of the law and proposed to the House or Lords that Government could profit significantly from legal whisky production. In 1823, the Excise Act was passed. This act allowed whisky to be produced and sold legally to anyone who paid the license fee of £10 and a set fee per gallon of whisky produced. As a result, smuggling nearly died out over the next decade. The Excise Act formed the foundation for the Scotch whisky industry as it stands today.

Grain whisky was invented in 1831 as Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still. For the first time, a continuous process of distillation could take place. Grain whisky was less intense than malt whisky and it blended well with spicier malts which allowed Scotch whisky to have an appeal to a much wider market. When French crops were destroyed by the phylloxera beetle, wine and brandy virtually disappeared, opening up new markets to whisky.

Whisky has survived prohibition in the US, wars, revolutions, economic depressions and recessions to maintain its firm foothold as the international spirit of choice. It is currently enjoyed by more than 200 countries and generates more than $4 billion in exports annually.