by Harry Stevens
“Drink because you are happy, but never because you are miserable. Never drink when you are wretched without it, or you will be like the grey-faced gin-drinker in the slum; but drink when you would be happy without it, and you will be like the laughing peasant of Italy. Never drink because you need it, for this is rational drinking, and the way to death and hell. But drink because you do not need it, for this is irrational drinking, and the ancient health of the world.” G.K. Chesterton (Heretics, 1905)
The path of Scotch whisky history is said to have evolved from a Scottish drink called ‘uisge beatha‘ (a Gaelic word pronounced ISH-ka BYA-ha), or from aqua vitae, Latin for “water of life.” Over time, the word became “usky,” and eventually “whisky.” (1)
The origin of the art of distilling is murky. There is a legend that St Patrick brought distilling to Ireland in the 5th century. Some say Spanish monks brought the art to Ireland; others claim it began in Ireland and still others say it all started in Scotland.
The Secret of Lindores Abbey
The first documented record, however, of distilling in Scotland comes to us from Lindores Abbey, in the Kingdom of Fife. It appears that the monks were on the forefront of distilling malt from barley in the 1500s.
Lindores Abbey was the home of Friar John Cor, a Tironensian monk in 1495. A written record exists in the 1 June 1495 Exchequer Rolls of Scotland: To Friar John Cor, by order of the King (James VI), to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt. The Exchequer Rolls were records of royal income and expenditure; that is, a tax roll. The eight bolts of malt were made by a distilling process that produced about 1,500 bottles of product.
Distilling Monks Fled Underground
When in 1560, during the Scottish Reformation, the Scottish monasteries were dissolved, the monks were thrown out of monasteries all over Scotland.
The fleeing monks brought their whisky-making skills with them, went underground, and spread their distilling knowledge to the Highland clans. The distilling equipment was primitive and the product was probably potent. Soon, homemade stills were producing aqua vitae throughout Scotland.
Around 1579, Parliament restricted distilling to earls, lords, barons, and gentlemen for their personal use. During the 1600s and 1700s new distilling techniques improved whisky. In the Scottish Highlands by the end of the 16th century distilling, although illegal, had become quite widespread amongst the farming communities. There was a good reason for this: the main food crops in much of Scotland at the time were barley and oats.
Aqua vitae was being used medicinally for colic, to relieve the chills of the winter, to support a weak heart, to preserve health, and for other medicinal purposes. Eventually, it became a part of Scottish life and culture. Aqua vitea revived the spirits from long winters and was used to welcome guests into the home. Over time, its role evolved to more than medicinal use, and it became a drink for the table more commonly known as “usky.”
Usky Goes Underground
Usky production was first taxed in 1644 by Charles I, causing a rise in illicit distilling in the countryside. Home distilling went unchecked until 1707, when the Scottish and English Parliaments joined to form the Treaty of Union and banned illicit distilling, a move to control the clans. The treaty effectively drove the clan distillers underground. While all this was going on, in 1738 the word “whisky” started to be used more and more.
Rioting To Make Whisky Legal
In 1780, there were about eight legal and 400 illegal distilleries. After rioting and bloody confrontations in the early 1800s, legal distilling was finally made attractive when an excise act was passed by Parliament in 1823. This act meant that if distillers took out a distilling license, the government would help them and would lower tax duties. Many took advantage of this and became legal.
In 1831, Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent still, which produced a smoother, less expensive, product. This led to the production of grain whisky, less intense than malt whiskey.
Luxurious Scotch Whisky Today
Today, there are over 100 distilleries in Scotland. To be considered Scotch whisky, the product must meet four standards: (1) It must be made in only Scotland; (2) It must be distilled from malted barley, whole grains with no additional additives other than water or natural coloring; (3) It must be no more than 94.7 percent alcohol by volume (or 189.4 proof), and no less the 40 percent alcohol by volume (or 80 proof); and (4) It must be aged in oak casks no larger than 185 gallons for no fewer than three years in Scotland (the aging you see on the bottle represents the youngest whisky in the bottle).
How to Taste a Whisky for the First Time
How should you taste a whisky for the first time? Whisky connoisseurs recommend sipping it “neat,” that is, undiluted, first inhaling its aroma deeply. Be bold about trying new flavors and classes of whisky.
In the words of Jeremy Anderberg, webmaster of the site, “The Art of Manliness,” sample the whisky “in the tradition of gentlemen, with a clear conscience and a full heart. “
Is A Taste For Scotch Written On The Hearts Of Scots?
Here is what renowned Scottish scholar, author, and literary critic David Daiches (1912 to 2005) had to say: “The proper drinking of Scotch whisky is more than indulgence: it is a toast to civilization, a tribute to the continuity of culture, a manifesto of man’s determination to use the resources of nature to refresh mind and body and enjoy to the full the senses with which he has been endowed.”
(Editor's Note: Here's some ancient Catholic wisdom: as with all alcohol, one should enjoy Scotch with food, or after a meal. A drink like Scotch whisky is meant to be sipped, slowly. And if you are going to drink, do not drive.)
(1) For the curious, “Whisky” is the spelling used in Scotland, in Canada, and in the rest of the world, whereas “whiskey” is the Irish and American spelling.
Photos by Michael Durnan