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Scotch Whisky

A Brief History of Scotch Whisky

It is said that St. Patrick brought the secrets of distilling to Scotland from Ireland. However, it may have been centuries before this knowledge was acted upon. The earliest record in Scotland, from the Royal Exchequer Rolls of 1494, notes the sale of "eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae" – Latin for “Water of Life.” Since eight bolls was enough malt to produce 1,500 bottles of whisky, we can assume that distilling was already a thriving industry at the time. Echoing the theme that whisky was originally used for medical purposes only, in 1505, Edinburgh's Guild of Surgeon Barbers received a citywide monopoly license for production of whisky. Among other grave conditions, whisky was prescribed for the relief of palsy, colic, and smallpox.

In Scotland, as in Ireland, growing popularity only marked whisky for increased attention by the taxman. Toward the end of the 17th century, the Scottish parliament levied taxes on whisky and the malt used to make it. From that point, taxes only went up, especially after The Act of Union with England in 1707. In another parallel with Ireland, distillers went underground.

Smuggling became so widespread and accepted that clergymen stored a case or two right in the church pulpit. Illegal stills were ubiquitous across the Scottish countryside, and in the 1820s excise agents were confiscating up to 14,000 stills annually. In 1823, passage of the Excise Act legalized whisky production for those paying a £10 license fee and a per gallon tax on the finished product. Smuggling and the black market were thus eliminated.

During the 1880s, the Scotch whisky industry received an unexpected boost. French vineyards were decimated by an invasion of the phylloxera beetle, causing a worldwide shortage of wine and brandy. By the time the French wine industry was back on its feet, Scotch whisky had been embraced by all as a suitable – if not preferable – substitute for brandy. Scotch began a run of popularity that continues today – a streak that even U.S. Prohibition could not curtail.


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