History of Scotch whisky
"Uisge beatha", "aqua vitae", or the "Water of Life" – Scotch whisky is made in Scotland but drunk and enjoyed around the world, in over 100 countries.
The earliest records of Scotch’s existence are from 1494 in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls. The product back then was no doubt very different to what we have today; the distillation was rudimentary and the result was no doubt very potent and sometimes lethal.
A step forward in quality came inadvertently from The Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century as monks soon had to find other ways to make their living, and they proved to be skilful in distillation. Their involvement in alcohol no doubt added to the growing acceptance of it as health restoring and medicinal, often prescribed to fight disease.
The earliest actual reference to a distillery in the Acts of the Scottish Parliament appears in 1690, when mention is made of the famous Ferintosh distillery owned by Duncan Forbes of Culloden.
With the rising numbers of distilleries the interest from the excise men grew and the tax raising increased. And then, as now, when the tax burden grows, avoidance schemes were sought. For some of Scotland’s distillers this meant keeping out of the way and taking their production underground.
By this stage, Scotch whisky was recognized as a way of surviving long cold winters, and it was almost considered obligatory to welcome visitors with a dram. It had become part of Scottish life. And as such, many vehemently rejected the imposition of taxes.
Tax on Scotch was first raised at end of 17th century and then the burden increased following the Act of Union with England in 1707. Smuggling became rife for over the next hundred years. The battle between distillers and excise men was fierce.
Distillers set up in secluded areas, where water was readily available. And some only distilled at night under the light of the moon; hence the nickname "moonshine". Campbeltown, Islay and other islands and highlands proved fertile grounds for secretive distilling. By the mid 1800s, despite the success of excisemen, or "gaugers" as they were called, it’s estimated that more than half of all whisky consumed had avoided any duty payment.
In 1823 the Excise Act was passed. This act sanctioned the making of whisky for a license fee of £10 and a rate per gallon of pure alcohol was established. Smuggling died out but the distilleries remained. Many distilleries today are still on the old ‘illegal’ sites. The Excise Act was perhaps one of the key initiatives that helped set Scotch whisky on its path to success.
Early Scotch distillation was all batch process, malt whisky, with very variable quality and consistency. But distilling was dramatically modernised by the invention of the continuous still in the 1820s. And then Aeneas Coffey created his own "Coffey" still in 1831. This led to the production of grain whisky, a lighter and less fiery spirit than malt. It became much easier to produce a consistent quality spirit, using a continuous distillation process rather than a batch process.
The next big impact on Scotch was fifty years later when the French wine industry suffered a major set back: the phylloxera beetle wreaked havoc in the vineyards. This not only destroyed wine production but also that of all brandy, including Cognac. Canny Scots were quick to recognise an opportunity and the French love affair with Scotch began. It’s perhaps no coincidence therefore that France, today, is the largest market for Scotch whisky, at over 11 million cases, and still growing. Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Holland stand out amongst other European countries where Scotch has a well-rooted consumer base.
The start of the 20th Century saw Scotch reaching further afield into global markets. Its reputation grew rapidly, and the adventurous brand ambassadors did great work for brands such as Johnnie Walker, J&B, White Horse, Dewar’s and Ballantine’s. The two major markets to be opened up were the USA and Japan. Both countries had a spirit drinking culture and they soon took to Scotch, enjoying its versatility as either a neat spirit, a cocktail ingredient or in Japan’s case replacing their own whisky in their classic ‘highball’.
Prohibition in the USA, which lasted from 1920 to 1933, gave Scotch its biggest boost. Some whisky brands, most famously Cutty Sark, were smuggled into the market at a time when local spirit production was banned. Scotch thrived in the underground bar world and the bootleggers got rich on importing brands from Scotland. So much so, that by 1936, three years after the ban on alcohol ended, the USA had become Scotch whisky's biggest market.
More recently, it has been the emerging markets that have given the Scotch industry its continued momentum. In Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, Vietnam and Thailand, amongst others, there is a close correlation between the growth in GDP and the growth of Scotch whisky consumption. Owing to high quality reputation of Scotch it has established itself as the most aspirational spirit for the emerging middle classes, worldwide. And this, combined with the breadth and depth of Scotch’s penetration in more mature markets, is what gives Scotch its healthy outlook.