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History of Scotch Whisky. Slainte Mharth!

When one thinks of Scotch, Scotland is always the next thought. Scotland has produced Scotch whisky for centuries, which is enjoyed worldwide. The first written reference to Scotch whisky is in June of 1495, in the Royal revenue documents called the Exchequer Rolls. The payment, not in cash but in malt, was to Friar John Cor, a Tironensian Monk, who was the distiller at Lindores Abbey in the Kingdom of Fife. According to the documents, "To Brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt." The Scottish King in question was James IV, who was one of the Stewart Kings and son-in-law of Tudor Royal, Henry VII. eight bolls of malt would have allowed Cor to make over a thousand bottles of the golden elixir, which is a good indication that Scotch had been made for sometime before that date. One could say with some certainty that Lindores Abbey was the birthplace of Scotch whisky. The Tironensian monks, an order that split from the Benedictines, are believed to have brought the distilling technique to the highlands, as they were skilled in alchemy and horticulture. Cor was said to have been an apothecary and considered an herbal doctor, which explains his ability to make the spirit successfully. The results pleased King James and his royal friends so much that Cor was granted the significant clerk position in the royal household. Over the years, the King gifted Cor handsomely, including a Christmas surprise of 14 shillings and a later gift of exquisite black cloth from Lille of Flanders to make his clothes. Cor and his fellow monks often traveled the countryside to aid people in need; therefore, it is no surprise that their method for making Scotch quickly spread throughout Scotland. Historical records show that as early as 1506, Scotch whisky making was all over Scotland, with each distiller with unique recipes and refined techniques.

Scotch whisky, known as Scotch, is malt or grain whisky made in Scotland. The term ‘whisky’ derives originally from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’, or ‘usquebaugh,’ meaning ‘water of life.’ The "water of life" reference had significance because the drink was actually considered medicinal. Early in the creation of Scotch, it was prescribed for several ailments, including colic, palsy, and smallpox; however, there was also a belief it could contribute to good health and ultimately prolong your life. The first known Scotch whisky was from malted barley, and the oldest reference to a commercial distillery was in 1690, owned by Duncan Forbes of Culloden. Commercial distilleries began introducing whisky made from wheat and rye in the late 18th century.

There are many Scottish laws around whisky. The most important law requires the label to declare the use of malt or grain whiskies used, therefore being placed into one of five distinct categories:

Single Malt Scotch whisky. Scotch is distilled at a single distillery from water and malted barley without adding other cereals and by batch distillation in pot stills.

Blended grain Scotch whisky. Blends of two or more single-grain Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.

Blended Scotch whisky. A blend of single malt Scotch whiskies with one or more single grain Scotch whiskies. This type of whisky constitutes about 90% of all the whisky produced in Scotland. Notable blended Scotch whisky brands include Johnnie Walker, Cutty Sark, and Chivas Regal.

Single grain Scotch whisky. Single grain is a Scotch whisky distilled at a single distillery, but in addition to water and malted barley, it may involve whole grains of other malted or unmalted cereals. It does not mean that only a single type of grain was used to produce the whisky—instead, "single" refers only to using a single distillery.

Blended malt Scotch whisky. A blend of two or more single malt Scotch whiskies from different distilleries.

You may also hear a reference to "single cask." This signifies that bottling comes entirely from one cask.

In addition to the categories, Scottish law requires the whisky to be aged in oak barrels for at least three years, and the label may include a numerical reference to the “guaranteed age.” The age reflects the youngest whisky used to produce the product. Unlike wine or other bottled spirits, whisky does not mature once bottled, so if no age statement is provided, one may calculate the age of the whisky as at least three years old and/or the date of both the distillation date and bottling date. When we refer to the law, we mean the rules and regulations set forth by the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 (SWR). These are some strict rules and regulations! The SWR defines "Scotch whisky" as the whisky that is:

  • Produced at a distillery in Scotland from water and malted barley

  • Processed at that distillery into a mash

  • Converted at that distillery to a fermentable substrate only by endogenous enzyme systems

  • Fermented at that distillery only by adding yeast

  • Distilled at an alcoholic strength by volume of less than 94.8% (that's 190 US proof)

  • It is wholly matured in an excise warehouse in Scotland in oak casks of a capacity not exceeding 185 US gallons for at least three years.

  • It retains the color, aroma, and taste of the raw materials used in its production and maturation method.

  • Containing no added substances other than water and plain caramel coloring

  • Comprising a minimum alcoholic strength by volume of 40% (80 US proof)

The label must include the brand name (usually the same as the distillery name), that it is distilled, bottled, and labeled in Scotland, and may indicate the region of the distillery. There are four traditional distilling-making regions:

The Lowlands: The southernmost part of Scotland where there are five active distilleries. Auchentoshan, Bladnoch, Glenkinchie, Annandale, and Ailsa Bay from the Girvan Distillery

Speyside: The River Spey cuts through this region and provides water to many distilleries. This area contains the most significant amount of distilleries, including Balvenie, Cardhu, Dalwhinnie, Glenfiddich, The Macallan, and Glenlivet.

The Highlands: Though Speyside has the most distilleries, The Highlands is by far the largest in whisky production. Distilleries include Aberfeldy, Ben Nevis, Glenmorangie, Oban, and Tomatin.

Campbeltown has only three distilleries: Glen Scotia, Glengyle, and Springbank.

As with anything good, Scotch whisky became the subject of heavy taxation in 1707. And what happens when a bunch of whisky-loving Scottish clansmen wearing kilts do when they have to pay more for their elixir…. they revolt, even to the point of driving the distillers underground. The underground distilleries smuggled whisky for over 150 years using creative and elaborate techniques, including utilizing the space under the church pulpits and occasionally transporting the whisky by coffin. In time, smuggling died off, and many of the current distilleries stand on sites used by the smugglers.

In the early days of America, the Irish and Scots brought their distilling techniques to the new world. Instead of malt and grain, they used corn and rye, which were readily available and inexpensive. This was the birth of American Whiskey.

According to the Scotch Whiskey Association (, this cherished spirit's production, sales, and figures are off the charts. As of 2015, 99 million cases were exported worldwide. In the 115 licensed distilleries permitted to produce Scotch whisky, 20 million casks are maturing in perfect conditions and awaiting bottling. Today, four companies are behind the bulk of the market share in worldwide production. Leading the pack is Diageo, a company formed from the merger of Guinness Beer and Smirnoff Vodka, with 36% of the worldwide output due to its ownership of Johnny Walker and some superb Scottish distillers like Mortlach, Lagavulin, and Talisker.

David Daiches, A Scottish literary historian, once said, “ 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 a 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.”

I would be remiss not to mention that one of the recipes in my cookbook, A Thyme and Place, includes a dessert inspired by an ancient Scottish whisky drink called Atholl Brose.

Slainte Mharth!

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