The History of Scotch Whisky: From Monks to Billions of Dollars

Who invented Scotch Whisky?

Interestingly, the story of Scotch begins back in the 15th century with a monk. Friar John Cor was a monk at the Lindores Abbey in Fife who served as a clerk at the Royal court during the reign of James IV.

His name appears in the earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland. This was the 1494 Scottish Exchequer Rolls—medieval equivalent to today's tax records. 

The records read: "To Brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt."

Aqua Vitae means water of life, or Uisge Beatha, the Gaelic term for whiskey in Irish. A boll was an old Scottish measure of not more than six bushels. (One bushel is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms).

Friar John's whisky must have been quite popular because this was about enough to make 1500 bottles!

The Tax Man

Like with any profitable venture, it didn't take the tax man long to sniff out the potential of whisky.

Soon the fledgling Scotch industry attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament, which introduced punitive taxes on Scotch in 1644. Naturally, this gave rise to the Scotch black market as not everyone was ready to part with their hard-earned money so easily.

The next 150 years set the ground for a battle of wits between the dutiful tax collectors or gaugers, as they were commonly referred to, and the canny Scots who kept inventing increasingly ingenious ways of evading the taxman.

From transporting the whisky in coffins to members of the clergy hiding the Scotch under the pulpit, nothing was out of the limit.

By the 1820s, as many as 14,000 illicit stills were confiscated every year. Despite this, more than half the whiskey consumed in Scotland evaded taxation! 

Photo Credit: Whisky Me

A Step Into The Future

The continued flouting of tax laws eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon to propose a new law in the House of Lords. His was argument was, “Instead of fighting the distillers, the Government should find a way to make it profitable for Scotch distillers to produce whisky legally.”

In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, sanctioning the distilling of whiskey in return for an annual license fee of £10 and a duty payment of 12 pennies per gallon. This was a move away from the previous state of confusion where no two distilleries were taxed at the same rate.

Things were finally looking up for the Scorch industry, thanks to one man, Aeneas Coffey. He was one of Ireland's highest-ranking tax officials and had survived countless nasty skirmishes with illicit distillers and smugglers.

As a matter of fact, a lot of the work that had gone into making the 1823 Excise Act is credited to Aeneas. However, his impact did not end there. 

Over the years, Aeneas Coffey had become conversant with the design and inner workings of whiskey stills. So he decided to make his own modifications to existing column still designs, paving the way for a cheaper and more efficient way of distilling alcohol.

Coffey's column stills came with some big advantages for the distillers. 1) they cut down on their fuel costs. 2) the column stills demanded less maintenance and cleaning than pot stills 3) because the stills were steam-heated, there was no risk of the spirit scorching. This considerably cut down labor costs and prevented unnecessary downtime in the distillation process.

Put simply, Aeneas Coffey’s column stills were a game-changer for the Scotch industry.

This development also acted as a catalyst for the production of Grain Whisky. When blended with the more potent and fiery malts, the lighter flavored Grain Whisky extended the appeal of Scotch Whisky to the broader population.

Scotch Goes Global

In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards. Within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars across all of Europe. Guess who jumped in to fill in the gap?

Popular local distillers like Chivas Regal, Tommy Dewar, and Johnnie Walker started exporting their Scotch to international markets. They promoted their Scotch whiskies all through the British empire and far beyond, creating an enduring love of Scotch all over the world. By the time the French wine industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.

War-Time Restrictions

The Scotch industry continued to make strides forward until the outbreak of war in 1914. When the government realized that alcohol was affecting its ability to get able-bodied men for its war efforts, the whole industry was put under heavy restrictions.

Then-prime minister of UK David Lloyd George proposed a prohibition of alcohol but eventually settled for the creation of the Immature Spirits Act 1915

This was the first time the age of Scotch was regulated. Initially, it was to be matured for two years, but this was later increased to three. The 40% ABV regulation was also included in 1917. 

When the war ended in 1918, Scotch production continued under these new regulations. The industry had taken a real beating —the number of working distilleries decreased from around 150 in 1900 to only 15 in 1932!

 However, with the end of American Prohibition in 1933, Scotch exports began to pick up slowly. 

Related: A Brief History of Bourbon and How It Became So Popular

Unfortunately, war struck again in 1939. Warfare had now extended to the airspace, which meant international trade took a hit. Consequently, the production of Grain Whisky was forbidden entirely. When Winston Churchill went out of power in 1945, the new government declared that all barley should be reserved for food purposes only.

You can bet that the end of war-time restrictions in 1954 was a massive delight for distillers all over Scotland! With no new global war since then, the Scotch industry has had decades to rebuild itself fully.

The Scotch Whisky Association

As the global expansion picked up and then plummeted due to the war, steep taxes, slowing home market and a myriad of other issues, there was a need for the Scotch industry players to speak in a united voice. 

It started with the Wine & Spirit Brands Association in 1912. Then evolved into the Whisky Association(WA) in 1917. The WA represented both Scottish and Irish brands until it was re-constituted in 1942 as the Scotch Whisky Association, which meant the Irish distillers were omitted from membership. The sole focus of the association was now the Scotch industry.

You can learn more about the Scotch Whisky Association here.

Over the years, the Scotch Whisky Association has advocated for protective laws & favorable policies for Scotch whisky. In 1988, a dedicated Scotch Whisky Act was passed, with further amendments being made through the Scotch Whisky Regulation (2009). This was vital to safeguard a spirit globally renowned for its quality.

  • Today, Scotch Whisky must, by law, be distilled and aged in Scotland in oak barrels for at least three years and bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% abv.
  • Any age statement on a bottle of Scotch whisky, expressed in numerical form, must reflect the age of the youngest whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed-age whisky.
  • Traditional Scotch-producing regions such as 'Highland,' 'Lowland,' 'Speyside,' 'Campbeltown,' and 'Islay' are now legally protected. These names can only appear on whiskies wholly distilled in those regions.

More Than 500 Years Later; Where Is The Scotch Industry Today?

Today Scotch Whisky is enjoyed in almost every country around the world. With the expansion of the industry fuelled by the volume of distillers who produce it,and their faithful consumers, Scotch has been expanded into five distinct categories:

  • Single malt Scotch whisky - distilled at a single distillery by batch distillation in pot stills. Only water and malted barley are used without the addition of any other cereals. Brands include The Glenlivet, Macallan, Glenfiddich and Highland Park.
  • Blended malt Scotch whisky (formerly called "vatted malt" or "pure malt") - a mix of Single Malt Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery. Brands include Monkey Shoulder and Rock Island
  • Single grain Scotch whisky - unlike single malt, single grain doesn't need to be made from barley, nor does the grain need to be malted. Instead, single-grain whiskies are often made from wheat or corn.
  • Blended grain Scotch whisky - a mix of single grain Scotch Whiskies, which have been distilled at more than one distillery.
  • Blended Scotch whisky - a mix of both malt whiskies and grain whiskies, sourced from several different distilleries. Brands include Johnnie Walker, Dewar's, J & B, and Chivas Regal.

Scotland is currently home to 138 Scotch Whisky distilleries which provide thousands of jobs in the rural areas of Scotland. To round up this post, here are some more incredible facts and figures to show how far the Scotch industry has come. (Source: Scotch Whisky Association).

  • Each second, 44 bottles (70cl @40% ABV) of Scotch Whisky are shipped from Scotland to around 180 markets around the world each second, totaling over 1.3bn every year!
  • In 2021, Scotch Whisky exports brought in $5.88bn.
  • Some 22 million casks lie in warehouses across Scotland, quietly maturing weighting to be revealed one day.

Over to you.

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