Patricia Bernstein

The Origins of Scotch Whisky, The National Beverage of Scotland

Monks making, sampling spirits
Monks making, sampling spirits – Wellcome Collection

Throughout my novel A Noble Cunning, the Glentaggart family drinks Scotch whisky to welcome guests, celebrate joyous events, or just to refresh themselves after a hard day. Even when my protagonist Bethan and her companion Lucy are offered fine champagne in London, they each recognize that they would secretly prefer a dram of Scotch. So, what is Scotch and how did it get to be so beloved and so identified with Scotland?

Water of Life
The earliest distillers of Scotch whisky were probably monks back in the 12th century, but the first recorded mention of Scotch occurred in 1494 when an item in the Exchequer read, “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” A boll was a Scottish unit of measure: eight bolls would have produced about 1500 bottles! “Aqua vitae” or “water of life” was a term used for distilled spirits. In Gaelic, the phrase is “Uisge Beatha” from which the word whisky was derived.

The first tax on whisky was introduced in 1644, about 13 pence for a third of a gallon, to raise money for a war against England. And thus began the long, long battle between distillers and excisemen or “gaugers.” As the great Scottish novelist Walter Scott observed, “Smuggling was almost universal in Scotland for people unaccustomed to imposts, and regarding them as an unjust aggression upon their ancient liberties, made no scruples to elude them where it was possible to do so.” The business of what was called “smuggling” also included the production of illicit whisky.

Gallows Erected
Landlords looked the other way because they didn’t want their distillers who were tenants to be imprisoned, thus being unable to pay their rent. According to legend, on the island of Islay where much whisky was produced, a gallows was erected to hang the first “gauger” who showed up on the island. When such a person finally did arrive, a kindly gentleman loaned him a horse to ride to the nearest port and escape whence he came as quickly as possible.

Whisky was sometimes hidden in very unusual containers. A “belly container” made the wearer look pregnant. Another container was made to look like a passenger sitting on a horse behind the primary rider. This container even had a leather “head” which might have looked convincing…from a distance.

In A Noble Cunning, Gavin Glentaggart is forced to give up his heritable stewardship over Kirkcudbrightshire in the long-running conflict between Catholics and Protestants. His wife Bethan wonders why he even worries about that loss, since to her mind, Kirkcudbrightshire was only known for smuggling, principally of tea, tobacco, rum, brandy and Geneva gin, and for the hanging of smugglers who were caught. The Glentaggart estate and Kirkcudbrightshire were both located in Galloway not far from Solway Firth, prime smuggling sites because they were very close to the English border.

Resistance Intensifies
After the Act of Union which joined England and Scotland in 1707, the tax was raised even higher to support England’s foreign wars. Resistance also became more intense. After the execution of smuggler Andrew Wilson in 1736, there was a riot in Edinburgh. The clans, the church and the Jacobites (supporters of the exiled Stuarts) all supported the smugglers.

The poet Robert Burns actually served as an exciseman himself in the late 18th century, but also expressed his love of Scotch whisky in his poem “Scotch Drink,” which begins:

Two Pistols for George
Finally, the authorities got smart. In 1823, the Excise Act allowed the distilling of whisky in return of a license fee of ten pounds plus a set payment per gallon. But when George Smith of Glenlivet took out the first license, his whisky-distilling neighbors threatened to burn down his buildings. The Duke of Gordon gave George two pistols for self-defense, which are still on display at the Glenlivet Visitor Center.

Glenlivet Pistols

Fills Gap in Worldwide Happiness
In the end, however, when distillers saw they could make good money legally, they took licenses and smuggling all but disappeared. Over time, the intensely flavored malt whisky (made of malted barley) was blended with more lightly flavored grain whisky which made Scotch appealing to a wider audience. James Buchanan, Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker and James Chivas began to export Scotch around the world in the 1800s, which coincided with the phylloxera beetle plague that destroyed French vineyards, wiping out wine and brandy for a time. Scotch whisky was now available to fill this gap in worldwide happiness.

“Straight Malt” of “Pure Malt,” now called “Single Malt” Scotch whisky never really disappeared though and was popularized by Glenfiddich for export in the 1960s. Today there are many, many distilleries offering single malt Scotch. In 2018, a bottle of 60-year-old Macallan single-malt whisky sold at auction for $1.5 million!

By law, Scotch whisky must be distilled and matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years. In 2022, exports of Scotch surpassed six billion pounds for the first time with 53 bottles shipped out of Scotland each second! The whisky that Scottish monks first prepared back in the 1100s and the Scots came to love as their national beverage has become a worldwide phenomenon.

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