Scotch Whisky History Facts

Whisky is one of the most popular spirits in the world and is continuing to grow in popularity. Even in the most remote regions of the world, whisky has since become a familiar product but where did it actually originate from? 

The Origins of Whisky

It’s origin dates back to the Egyptian 10th century, when an Alchemist discovered the process of distilling alcohol with the aim of creating cosmetics and other perfumes.

The word “alcohol” would even be directly derived from the term “al kuhul” which designates the word “kohl”, a make-up for the eyes, originally used by the Egyptians. However, the Egyptians did not consume this alcohol,  only becoming a popular drink in Europe, with new products starting to be distilled.

From the 12th century, people began to distil spirits from grapes, cereals, fruits or vegetables. At that time, most spirits producers were largely monks or scholars. The paternity of whisky is still the subject of heated debates between the Irish and Scottish today! 

What we do know is that whisky has been distilled in Scotland for centuries. It’s thought that Highland farmers did not discover how to distil spirit from their surplus barley by themselves. There’s some evidence that Christian missionary monks brought distillation with them along with Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries.

The first written reference to whisky dates from 1494 and indicates that the practice of distillation was already widely established in the 15th century: “eight balls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae”, a recipe found in the rolls of the Exchequer. This reports the quantity of malt necessary to produce almost 1,500 bottles. The whisky was consumed for its medicinal virtues. The Gaelic term for “water of life” happens to be “uisge beatha”, which will gradually become “ooshki” then “whisky”.

It is said that whisky was consumed by the Scottish “from cradle to grave” as a medical treatment. It was also used as a water substitute for when the water was not consumable.

The Globalisation of Scotch Whisky

Whisky was an integral part of Scottish life at that time. The men used to gather around a table, and each in turn, pour the contents of the keg into each of the glasses placed on the table. It is likely that the term “round” used today in Scottish pubs has its origin in this ancient custom.

By the 16th century, whisky distillation had become as popular as beer production, and the vast majority of local farmers began to derive part of their harvest of barley and oats. In addition, the difficult climate of the Scottish territory hardly allowed the storage of crops. The waste generated by the distillation process was used as feed for livestock, which is still the case today.

Since its origins, whisky has been subject to numerous taxes, from 1644 until 1823, the date of its official recognition. During all these years, the tax officials fought against illegal distillation. Around 1780, there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones. Even today, not a drop of the precious spirit escapes the very strict controls carried out by the HMRC!

Towards the end of the 18th century, the production of whisky began to change, moving from production intended for private use to production intended for commercial use. Fast forward to where we are today, whisky has come a long way over the years! 

Scotland is not the only home of whisky-making though. Ireland, the US and Japan all have long traditions of distilling the spirit. There are also some countries you might not expect producing whisky these days such as Denmark and Australia’s Tasmania! 

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