Monday, June 29, 2015

The History of Scotch Whisky

In Latin, ‘aqua vitae’ means ‘water of life.’ In Gaelic this translates as ‘uisge beatha’ – later shortened to ‘uisge’ or ‘whisky’ in English. The first signs of distilling date back to 800 BC. The ancient art of distilling is believed to have its origins in the Far East. Nevertheless, the art of distillation reached British shores in the 6th century AD. The first written reference to the production of Scotch whisky dates back to 1494. Between 1536 and 1541 the knowledge of how to distil alcohol spreads into the community. This happened at around the same time as the monasteries were dissolved. Throughout Europe, wine was being distilled to make brandy; from the cereal crop of England came gin; whilst from the barley and spring of Scotland came whisky.

In 1644 the first tax is levied on whisky. The tax was 2/8d (equivalent to about £11 today). Nevertheless, the duties levied on whisky in 1644 were not effectively enforced until the Union of Parliaments in 1707, when the governments of Scotland and England joined to create Great Britain. Excise Officers were employed to ensure that whisky distillers paid their taxes, these officers were sometimes known as ‘Gaugers.’ Between 1785 and 1803 the taxes imposed on whisky continue to rise. Many distilleries were forced to cease trading and as a result illicit distilleries flourished. In 1823 an act to eliminate illicit distilling is introduced, known as The Excise Act. Many illicit stills became legal and the ‘smuggling’ of whisky declined to almost nothing. The main focus of this act was to reduce taxation on the product in return for the purchase of a licence to distil.

Usher’s Green Stripe becomes the first commercial blended whisky (1850/51). Unfortunately, a tiny louse – Phylloxera vastatrix arrives in Europe devastating vineyards across the continent (1860). Between 1880 and 1900 there is an increase of whisky entrepreneurs. In 1889 the first pagoda roof is built at a distillery in Speyside. In 1909, following debate over grain whisky’s status as Scotch whisky, a Royal Commission is appointed to create a legal definition of Scotch whisky. 

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