A Brief History of Scotch Whisky
It is estimated that Scotland has been making whisky since the 5th century, and is often regarded as the home of whisky, although it is believed to have been introduced to Scotland by the Irish. Throughout the world whisky or whiskey is made in many forms such as bourbon in the US. But, only whisky distilled in Scotland can be referred to as Scotch.
There are three basic ingredients in Scotch Whisky and that is water, malted barley, and yeast. For scotch whisky no additives are allowed except for additional water and caramel colouring. As long as it follows those rules and is aged at least three years it can be a Scotch Whisky.
Whisky can trace its roots all the way back to the Moors’ migration into Western Europe. According to the book Whiskey: The Definitive World Guide, a family of physicians translated medical texts from the Arab world which resulted in the first whisky creations. Although, it would not have tasted much like the whisky we know today.
Besides the pleasurable experience associated with the consumption of alcohol, whisky had a more basic premises for its origin. This had to do with the need for clean drinking water in a time when that was hard to find. Water in many areas was often not clean and would cause illness. And through the process of distillation the liquid was made drinkable.
Initially distillation happened on a small scale usually within individual farms primarily for personal consumption. Often not allowed for sale by law at various points in history, people still managed to sell small batches of whisky to the public. The home distillers would sometimes produce a little extra to sell in the local village market to help make a little extra money.
When it came to legal distillers of Scottish whisky, the earliest reference comes from the Acts of the Scottish Parliament in 1690, which mention the Ferintosh Distillery. The distillery was granted exemption from paying duty on the whisky it produced. Then in 1707 The Act of Union which joined the parliaments of England and Scotland attempted to effectively tax alcohol and increase the rate on Scottish whisky. By the 1750s the annual production of whisky was over half a million gallons and much of it was sold to England, according to ‘A Wee Guide to Whisky‘.
In 1826 Robert Stein patented a new kind of still that could distill continuously and in 1831 Aeneas Coffey began producing his Coffey still. With these two stills available, this led to the widespread production of Grain Whisky and eventually the blending of this lighter spirit with more characterful Single Malts to produce Blended Whisky.
Even with Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey´s stills on the market, the 1800´s were a tumultuous time for whisky. One contributor was the Temperance Movement working through Europe which promoted the perils of alcohol consumption. Even though overall consumption was on a decline, the market for legal whisky was on the rise. Up until around the 1820´s nearly half of the whisky consumed in Scotland came from illicit stills.
During the first World War in order to reduce alcohol consumption by soldiers the Immature Spirits Act of 1915 was introduced. This restricted the selling of whisky straight from the still, which had been a cheap option for consumers since it did not have to be aged. The act stated that whisky must be matured for at least three years before it could be sold. The act also forced distillers to reduce the strength of the alcohol to 40%.
The Rise of Scottish Whisky
Never fully dying off, it wasn’t until the 1900s that we started to see some of the consistent rules around scotch whisky. First was the Immature Spirits Act that required it to be aged at least three years and the second was that all whisky be matured in oak casks. Both are still required today, which along with no additives being allowed gives us the whisky we know today.
After prohibition ended in the United States in 1933, the export to the US was once again legal, allowing distillers to export to a large market. The ending of prohibition created another significant impact on the taste of Scottish whisky. Since American Bourbon requires it to be matured in new oak casks and not reused, the Scotch whisky distillers were able to utilize the barrels. This gave the whisky a more mellow influence. Most Scotch whisky nowadays is aged this way, with exception when it is aged in sherry or port casks.
Scottish Whisky Regions
Scottish whisky can be broken down into five different regions each with its own distinguished flavors: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.
- The Highlands are in northern Scotland and tend to have richer flavor that the lowland whiskies. The highlands have numerous distillers within its large region, offering a variety of styles from costal region to the hills.
- The Lowlands cover approximately the lower third of Scotland. These are often described as a lighter smoother malt whisky. The lowlands don’t have as many distilleries as the highlands, yet still product an excellent, easy to drink whiskey.
- Islay which encompasses some of the islands west of Scotland. The whiskies of Islay have a very distinct smoky flavor to them due to the peat used in the distillation process.
- Speyside is a small area within the highlands on the northern coast. Speyside has the densest grouping of distilleries of the regions. This region offers a nice variety of distillers to select from with a vast range of flavors.
- Campbeltown are from the Campbeltown peninsula on the west coast. This is a small whisky region. The whiskies in this region combine the ocean air that is absorbed as the alcohol is aged in warehouses in the region.
Today in Scottish Whisky
Single malt, blended, aged in different casks – it doesn’t matter; as long as it follows the three basic rules, and is of course made in Scotland, it can be called a scotch whisky. Scotland is home to approximately 120 (depending on the source) distillers with their own unique process for making ‘Uisge Beatha’ (‘whisky’ or ‘water of life’). Visitors can tour the whisky trail wish rolls through the country allowing visitors to sample the distinct flavors each distiller offers. If travel isn’t your thing, no worries as Scotch Whisky is sold worldwide as worth pouring a dram to enjoy locally.
Don’t let anyone tell you how to drink your whisky. If you like it straight, drink it straight. With ice, no problem. Like a dash of water, go for it. Whisky is to be enjoyed, so consume in whatever method you prefer.