History of Scotch Whisky

Scotch Whisky Facts

History Of The Market

Early Beginnings

The earliest record of distillation in Scotland was back in 1494 in a set of Tax records known as the Exchequer rolls. A record of entry lists “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make Aqua Vitae”. This was a gift from King James IV of Scotland and was used by Friar John to produce almost 1500 bottles of a potent spirit, which became the basis for what we now know as whisky. Monks played a massive role in the early years of whisky production, initially using their distillation skills to create medicinal spirits.

Aqua Vitae, meaning ‘Water of Life” was the Latin translation of the Gaelic words Uisge Beatha which was the earliest term used to describe whisky. The word Uisge, after many centuries and various translations, become the modern-day word Whisky.

Taxes And Smugglers

During the 17th century, whisky production attracted the attention of the Scottish parliament when they noticed the popularity of the market growing. Naturally, like any government they wanted to profit from the product's rampant production, so finally in 1644 official taxes were imposed.

This additional taxation didn't go down well with many of the distillers at the time, which led to a massive rise in illicit distillation and smugglers. Moving forward into the 1700’s illicit distillation was rampant across Scotland and it became common practice for smugglers to distribute whisky across the country. At the time over 400 illicit stills were operating in just Edinburgh alone.

The Lowlands region, burdened by taxes sought a tax loophole, whilst the highlands struggled to pay any taxes at all. This has a massive impact on the region's reputation for years to come because it enabled the highlands to dedicate more time to produce exceptional spirits, albeit illegally, whilst the lowlands were known for their quantity over quality production methods.

The Excise Act

By the 1820s illegal whisky production was out of control, with over 14,000 illicit stills being confiscated each year. At this time over half of all whisky consumed in Scotland was untaxed, meaning the government felt something had to be done… and it was. In 1823, the excise act was introduced by Prime Minister Robert Peel. For the license fee of £10, distillation became legal within Scotland, making it a lot easier for producers to operate legally.

The Rise Of Blended & Grain Whisky

Before 1831, Malt whisky reigned over the Scotch market, until Aeneas Coffey invented the Patent still. This enabled ‘continuous distillation’ leading distillers to experiment with other grains to produce their product. Grain whisky was considered to be a lighter and less intense spirit, and was generally blended together with stronger malts to appeal to the wider market.

Global Distribution

The 19th century witnessed a significant movement of Scotch whisky beyond Scotland's borders. Well-known names such as James Buchannan, Johnnie Walker, James Chivas and Tommy Dewar ventured to the various corners of the British Empire, to places such as Hong Kong, Hanoi, Sydney, Sanfansisco and Mumbi, introducing Scottish whisky to new markets.

Scotch In Europe

Shortly after Whisky’s introduction to the world, a crisis struck France in 1863 when an Aphid infestation called Phylloxera devastated French vines. As wine and brandy became less accessible, demand for alternative spirits grew, allowing Whisky to step up in the global marketplace. In the 10 years, it took for the French wine industry to recover, Scotch whisky had already replaced brandy as Europe's spirit of choice, laying the building blocks of the market for years to come.

Market Regulations

In 1933 the UK established the first official definition of Scotch Whisky through government legislation. The dedicated Scotch Whisky Act of 1988 further solidified its identity, whilst the most recent set of regulations was introduced in 2009 when Scotland was officially recognised as a GI, or Geographical Indication.

These regulations meant that by law that any whisky being labelled as Scotch has to be matured and distilled in Scotland for at least three years, in oak casks and have a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% ABV. These regulations allowed distilleries to protect their spirit production and reputation within the global marketplace.