With a known history dating back well over 500 years, whisky is one of the world’s most popular spirits. It is produced almost everywhere but only that made in Scotland can truly be called Scotch.
The name whisky is thought to derive from an old Gaelic term “uisge beatha” which in turn had its roots in the old Latin term “aqua vitae”, meaning “water of life”. It was originally applied to spirits produced from the distillation of wine. Though distilling almost certainly goes back further, the first recorded evidence can be found in the 1494 Exchequer Rolls in Scotland (early tax records), which state, “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” Royal interest in the spirit is clear from Scottish treasury accounts, which show that James IV of Scotland paid a local barber for a supply of “aqua vitae” while on a visit to Dundee in 1504.
In the early days, distilling was almost the exclusive realm of monks. They produced a potent liquor that may even have been harmful to the health. But, with the Dissolution of the Monasteries during the reign of Henry VIII, the secrets of distillation spread. By the 17th Century, production was becoming increasingly widespread and, in 1644, the Scottish Parliament introduced a tax on “aqua vitae” and strong liquor.
Further taxes introduced after the Act of Union with England in 1707, saw many distillers go underground and for more than a hundred years Scottish-made whisky was smuggled around the country, often with the help of local churchmen. However, taxes were gradually reduced and, in 1823, Parliament in London passed the Excise Act, which required distillers to pay a £10 annual fee and tax of 2shillings and 3 pence per gallon produced. This saw the creation of legal distilleries and brought about the end of smuggling.
Early whisky was produced from malt, but around 1830 Aneas Coffey invented the single column Coffey still (also called the Patent still), which made it possible to distil other grains. This led to a new direction in whisky production.
As the appeal of whisky spread, so other countries began to produce their own. In France, for example, whisky became the spirit of choice following the devastating infestation of phylloxera that destroyed the vineyards and brought the production of wine and brandy to a halt.
Nowadays Scotch whisky is classified as follows:
- Single malt – water and malted barley produced at one distillery
- Single grain – water, malted barley and other grains produced at one distillery
- Blended malt – a combination of single malts from two or more distilleries
- Blended grain – a combination of single grains from two or more distilleries
- Blended – a combination of one or more single malts and one or more single grains.
Whisky is a favourite drink among liquor drinkers around the world, but real Scotch is only made in Scotland. There are many varieties and brands to choose from; try a few to find out which one suits your palette best.
This article was written in colloboration with the Boisdale Whisky Bar in Canary Wharf, London.
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