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A short history of Scotch whisky: from ancient origins to the present day

Just what you ordered for a miserably cold/ unseasonably warm late-winter day. A brief history of our favourite thing in the whole world Frazzles… sorry… no, Scotch whisky

The origins of Scotch whisky

Like most good things, the origins of Scotch whisky are something of a mystery. Distillation is believed to have been introduced to Scotland, probably by monks but it may have been incredibly advanced aliens, in the 15th century. The earliest recorded mention of spirit production in Scotland dates back to 1496, in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, where it is referred to as ‘aqua vitae,’ Latin for ‘water of life’ or in Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’ which became ‘whisky’. Initially, whisky was produced in small quantities for medicinal purposes, such as treating colic and smallpox, or as a means to keep warm in the cold Scottish climate.

The actual pistols belonging to George Smith founder of Glenlivet

Scotch whisky goes legit

The imposition of taxes on malt and distillation in the 18th century led to widespread resistance and the rise of illegal distillation and smuggling in the Scottish Highlands. By the late 18th century, it was estimated that over half of Scotland’s whisky output, including sought-after malt whiskies like Glenlivet, was produced illegally.

The Excise Act of 1823 marked a turning point, making it easier for distillers to operate legally by reducing the hefty taxes and allowing licensed distilleries to flourish. This act laid the foundation for the modern Scotch whisky industry, encouraging the establishment of many of today’s well-known distilleries such as Glenlivet (this time legally) and Macallan, both founded in 1824. Scotch whisky was probably very different to how it is today. Some whisky would have been drunk unaged or even flavoured like gin.

It’s Aeneas Coffey!

Innovation and global expansion

In the Lowland region another kind of whisky had developed which was made on a more industrial scale using various grains, not just malted barley, by vast distilleries like Kilbagie in Fife. Much of the spirit would have been sent south to London to be turned into gin. It didn’t have the best reputation, Robbie Burns described it as “most rascally liquor.” He much preferred the characterful Highland malt whiskies. 

The 19th century witnessed significant innovations that shaped the future and flavour of Scotch whisky. The invention of a continuous still by Dubliner Aeneas Coffey in 1831 allowed for the more efficient production of grain whisky, which, when blended with the more traditional malt whisky, resulted in the creation of blended Scotch whisky. 

Pioneered by shopkeepers like Arthur Bell in Perth and John Walker in Kilmarnock, blended whisky greatly expanded the market for Scotch, making it more accessible and affordable. Meanwhile blenders were learning how the spirit was improved by ageing in casks that previously held sherry, Port, rum or wine. The latter half of the 19th century saw Scotch whisky gaining popularity worldwide, bolstered by the phylloxera epidemic in France that devastated grape crops and reduced wine and Cognac production leading consumers to turn to whisky.

Pattisons whisky advert – grrrrrr!

Boom and bust

The booming Scotch whisky industry was brought to a shuddering halt in the late 19th century when Pattison’s,  a whisky blending and distilling company, began to unravel. The brothers Robert and Walter Pattison had been engaging in fraudulent practices including overvaluing their assets, creating false invoices, and paying dividends out of capital rather than profits. Their actions  contributed to a speculative bubble in the whisky industry at the time, which saw inflated prices for whisky stocks. 

Pattisons collapsed in 1898 and the whisky bubble burst. The aftermath saw widespread financial ruin among investors, the closure of many distilleries and consolidation in the industry. This was followed by a tightening of regulations and an increased emphasis on integrity and quality in the Scotch whisky industry. In 1909 a Royal Commission ruled that in order to be classified as Scotch whisky, it had to be made in Scotland, matured in barrels, and could be a blend of grain and malt spirits which is more or less how Scotch whisky is defined to this day. 

Dean Martin took a special giant bottle of J&B with him wherever he went

War and Prohibition

The early 20th century was a difficult time for Scotch whisky with World War One when at one point distillation was completely outlawed to save grain for food. It was then followed by Prohibition in 1919 in the US which made exports to Scotch whisky’s biggest market difficult. But it was also an opportunity which some took with both hands: London wine merchants Berry Bros & Rudd and Justerini & Brooks developed their own blends specifically for the lucrative American market, Cutty Sark and J&B respectively. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the US whiskey industry had been destroyed and Ireland was in trouble, Scotch whisky was in the perfect place to capitalise.

Consolidation in the industry continued with John Walker & Son and Buchanan-Dewar merging with The Distillers Company Ltd. (DCL) in 1925. The Second World War put the brakes on Scotch whisky. Grain was once again diverted to feed people rather than making delicious drinks though Churchill lobbied to get the industry going again to raise much needed currency… and probably because he wanted something to drink. 

The post-war era was marked by further expansion and consolidation within the industry, with many independent distilleries being acquired by larger companies as well as the building of new distilleries like Tormore, Tomintoul and Tamnavulin (and that’s just the ‘t’s) to feed the ever-growing appetite for blended Scotch whisky. The latter part of the 20th century also saw the Scotch whisky industry embracing modern marketing techniques and expanding its global reach, with significant growth in markets such as Asia and North America. The big brands like Johnnie Walker and Dewar’s became truly international. 

Gaze upon the actual Glenfiddich distillery.

The rise of single malts

But there was change afoot when William Grant & Sons broke the mould by marketing its Glenfiddich as a single malt in the 1960s, at a time when this category was virtually unknown. Glenfiddich’s success inspired other distilleries such as Macallan, Glenfarclas and Glenlivet to follow suit. By the 1980s, single malt Scotch whisky was an important part of the business.

Despite the growth of single malt whisky, the industry once again expanded too much and demand could not keep up. The 1980s saw the creation of what was known as the ‘whisky loch’ – thousands of gallons of unsold whisky. Once again many distilleries were closed or mothballed including some that would later become legendary for the quality of their single malt whisky like Port Ellen, Rosebank and Brora. Meanwhile other big names such as Ardbeg and Bruichladdich nearly disappeared. Despite the woes of the industry, the 1990s and early 00s were good times to be a Scotch whisky drinker because there was an excess of high quality aged whisky.

Macallan Reach – distilled in 1940

Scotch whisky today

The legal definition of Scotch whisky has evolved over time, with the Scotch Whisky Act of 1988 and the Scotch Whisky Regulations of 2009 providing a comprehensive legal framework that defines Scotch whisky’s production, labelling, and ageing requirements. These regulations ensure that any spirit labelled as ‘Scotch whisky’ adheres to strict standards.

Since the lows of the 1990s, once again Scotch whisky has recovered and prospered. Prices of rare whiskies from the likes of Macallan have gone through the roof, buoyed up by low interest rates while age statement single malts have become increasingly expensive. Distilleries began releasing ever older and more lavishly packaged whiskies to cash in on demand from the investment market. 

Today, Scotch whisky is a major contributor to the Scottish economy, with exports reaching billions of pounds annually. The industry continues to innovate while maintaining the traditions that have made Scotch whisky beloved worldwide. Distilleries are experimenting with new ageing techniques, barrel types, and styles while also focusing on sustainability and environmental responsibility.

Production has increased dramatically in recent years. Scotch whisky producers have to think a minimum of five years ahead and often much longer. In 2018 Glenlivet increased capacity by nearly 10 million litres. That’s a hell of a lot of whisky. At the other end of the scale there has been a growth in smaller distilleries such as Ardnahoe on Islay, Torabaigh on Skye and the Isle of Raasay distillery, no prizes for guessing where that one is.

At the moment, the Scotch whisky industry is confident that demand will keep up with supply but history suggests that at some point there will be another bust. 

Want to learn more? Read our Whisky Guides.

The post A short history of Scotch whisky: from ancient origins to the present day appeared first on Master of Malt Blog.

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