History of Whisky: A Timeline

let’s begin

Timeless as it may be, Scotch had to start somewhere. So we’ve put together a brief timeline highlighting the key moments in the journey of Scotch so far and the history of Whisky.

12th Century – Whisky Distillation by Monks

The art of distillation began in the ancient world with the Greeks and Persians practicing it for centuries. No one is quite sure how it made it to Britain, but Scotch, everyone’s favourite distilled product, finds its origins in 12th Century Christian monasteries. Long before you discovered your preferred malts, the monks were doing it first. THis is the first significant moment in the history of whisky.

This is where Whisky first started out and was known then as Uisge Beatha, or water of life. This Celtic word was eventually anglicised into the word Whisky that we use today.

1494 - First Written Reference to Whisky in Scotland

Monks not only made whisky for themselves, but also for profit. The earliest written record of distilling Whisky comes from as long ago 1494, in the Exchequer Rolls, the medieval equivalent to tax records.

There we find the phrase “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”. Aqua Vitae of course means water of life, or Uisge Beatha in Gaelic, where our modern day “Whisky” comes from. An interesting development in the history of whisky.

Friar John must have had quite a customer base, since this was about enough to make 1500 bottles. The making and consumption of Whisky must have been well established to have such a high demand for it.

With the dissolution of the monasteries under the reign of King Henry VIII in the early 1500s, many monks had to use the distillation skills as a trade. Whisky was known at this time for its medicinal qualities, which was its main purpose for consumption.

With its rising popularity as medicine, it soon became a common drink to enjoy during long cold winters as well as during social events.

1644 – First Tax

 While demand for Aqua Vitae was high and rising, the process of distillation itself was still pretty basic back then, as can be imagined. Over the next few hundred years this was improved and by the 16th and 17th centuries, Whisky production was booming.

This of course is when the taxman decided to step in and make a bit of money for himself.

In 1644 the first tax on the water of life was introduced, and was around 13p for a third of a gallon. This was changed throughout the next century, but began a long, continuous war between smugglers and the excise enforcers.

For over 150 years bootleggers hid stills wherever they could, including inside hills and the Whisky industry continued to grow, despite the tax placed on it.

In 1777 there were only 8 licensed distilleries, and hundreds more illicit stills. This was especially in more remote parts of Scotland, such as the highlands and islands. These were expertly hidden and eventually their numbers rose to the tens of thousands.

1823 – Excise Act and Licencing Fees

It wasn’t until 1823 that the Excise Act allowed stills to be made legal by paying a licencing fee.

It was the Glenlivet’s George Smith who, in 1824 after prompting from the Duke of Gordon, took out the first licence to run his distillery.

This was much to the disgust of his Whisky distilling neighbours, many of who threatened violence and even to burn down Smith’s buildings.

The reaction was so bad, the Duke of Gordon gave him two pistols to protect himself. These are now on show in the Glenlivet visitor centre. This is an exciting time in the history of whisky.

However, within a decade almost all illegal stills had ceased to exist and the 1820s and 30s saw a great investment in the Whisky industry. This continued with the invention of the Coffey Still, a continuous still designed by Aeneas Coffey to produce grain Whisky.

This in turn lead to the creation of the first ever blends. This was when Andrew Usher first started combining grain and malt Whisky in the 1860s. Blends had a more mellow flavour, allowing Whisky to be enjoyed by many more people.

1880s – Fall of the Vineyards

One of Whisky’s biggest rivals at this time was Wine from France, but this took a turn in the 1880s, when a phylloxera plague attacked the French vineyards.

It didn’t take long for the wine and brandy to become scarce, meaning people had to turn to other beverages. Whisky was the obvious choice, and from this, the industry saw a boom in popularity.

1898 – The Pattison Crash

For decades after the industry continued to grow, with some of the big brands of today being founded. Then in 1898 it all came crashing down. This is one of the most devastating moments in the history of whisky.

This was due to the Pattison brothers. Enterprising businessmen, they saw the value of Scotch and started a blending company in 1887.

The company boomed and increased rapidly. It was well known that the Pattison’s themselves, Robert and Walter, lived lavish lives. That luxury was extended into their business practices.

They spent excessive amounts on advertising and went to the extremes of buying 500 grey parrots to give to vendors.

But it worked, and they soon became one of the biggest Whisky companies about, with shares in Glenfarclas, Oban and Aultmore, amongst others.

The success could not last. Since it was mostly built on borrowed money and fraudulent dealings. This included the Pattison’s selling their stocks and buying them back at higher prices.

In December of 1898 the company declared bankruptcy and chaos ensued. Nine other companies and many smaller businesses were forced into closure.

The Pattisons themselves were later jailed for eight and eighteen months.

Despite the massive setback, the industry pieced itself back together and continued on.

1914-18 – World War I Regulations of Scotch

The industry continued to move forward until the outbreak of war in 1914. This was obviously a threat to many businesses at the time, but alcohol especially came under attack when it was found to be a leading cause of absenteeism.

Then Prime Minister 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 same as it is today.

The 40% ABV regulation was also included in 1917. The Scotch we drink today would not be the same had it not been for these regulations.

When the war ended in 1918 Scotch production continued under these regulations. But the war had left lasting damage on the industry, and the number of working distilleries decreased from around 150 in 1900 to only 15 in 1932-33.

1939-54 – World War II Restrictions

With the end of American Prohibition in 1933, Scotch began to slowly rebuild itself. Unfortunately war struck again in 1939.

Due to advances in warfare and the more frequent use of planes, war itself had changed and the import of food was harshly restricted. This meant that the production of grain whisky was completely forbidden.

This was later extended to all Whiskies in 1944 and when Winston Churchill went out of power in 1945, the new government declared that all barley should be used for food purposes only.

The end of war-time restrictions came in 1954, much to the delight of distilleries all over Scotland. Scotch was at last able to rebuild itself fully.

And that is the Scotch we have and enjoy today. So here’s to a bright future for the world’s favourite tipple!

Tags: DrinkWirehistory timelinejourneyscotchtimelessWhisky
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My name is Greg, and I’m a brand strategy consultant, writer, speaker, host and judge specialising in premium spirits. My mission is to experience, share and inspire with everything great about whisky, whiskey, gin, beer and fine dining through my writing, my brand building and my whisky tastings.

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