Scotland: Whisky & Distilleries
Distilleries by creation date, in the historical context: birth and death of celebrities, historical events, etc.
The history of Whisky in Scotland
Legal distillation of whisky is rather recent. Official start date of production of legal whisky in Scotland is the promulgation of the "Excise Act" by the Duke of Gordon in 1823. But of course, Scotland did not wait till then to produce their national drink.
History of distillation begins in the ancient Egypt. This technique was used mainly for the production of perfumes.
First traces of distilled barley go back to the XIIth century. In those times, whisky was not considered as a pleasure like nowadays, but people thought it was a marvelous medicine, helping to heal all kinds of diseases. It was used as an ointment and as well as a drink.
The famous historian and chronicler Raphaël Holinshed wrote the following about the results of distillation of malted barley in his "Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland" in the XVIth century:
"Being moderately taken,
it slows the age,
it cuts phlegm,
it lightens the mind,
it quickens the spirit,
it cures the dropsy,
it heals the strangulation,
it pounces the stone,
its repels gravel,
it pulls away ventositie,
it keeps and preserves the head from whirling,
the eyes from dazzling,
the tongue from lisping,
the mouth from snuffling,
the teeth from chattering,
the throat from rattling,
the weasan from stiffing,
the stomach from womblying,
the heart from swelling,
the belly from wincing,
the guts from rumbling,
the hands from shivering,
the sinews from shrinking,
the veins from crumpling,
the bones from aching,
the marrow from soaking,
and truly it is a sovereign liquor
if it be orderly taken."
Whisky has been produced traditionally by local farmers for ages till the damned day in the XVth century, where Charles I decided to earn a lot of money with this activity. So he decided to tax the production of alcohol on the whole territory. The Scottish parliament closed on his heels very quickly. This had dramatic consequences for the local farmers, and in fact the production of alcoholic beverages was limited to some privileged classes.
This was also the beginning of a great adventure where the law and the local farmers deployed a vivid imagination. Humour was not always absent of this tribulations. For instance, Hellen Cumming, the wife of a moonshine distiller invited systematically the excise agents to have a nice meal when they came around for a control. This let his husband the time to disappear in the surrounding mountains. At a corner of the barn, she used to hang a red flag, which her husband could see from his hiding place. As long as the flag was flying over the barn, he knew the excise men still were present at the farm.
The Cummings decided later to buy a licence and they founded the Cardhu distillery some years later.
The most exciting period for the smugglers was certainly when the excise administration thought to have found a perfect system to dismantle all the illegal distilleries by encouraging denouncement. They decided to give 5 pounds (a real fortune in those days) to anybody who would help them to find illegal stills. Lots of smugglers helped them to find their old rusted stills, and with this money bought new ones. At a certain time, there were about 400 illegal distilleries around Edinburgh, and just 8 legal ones.. The "Excise Act" in 1824 meant progressively the end of moonshine distilling. It took about ten more years, and it was over.
Scotch whisky is very characteristic, and the taste of it is rather different from one distillery to the other one. For those reasons, the selling of whisky has been confined to Scotland for many years. People outside Scotland were not really interested by this beverages. To be successful on international markets, to major problems had to be solved:
the taste of whisky is very different from one distillery to the other
French Cognac represented a big concurrence
Blended whisky was a solution for the first problem. The principle is a clever proportioning of malts from several distilleries and grain whisky. Grain whisky was made possible by the invention of the Coffey Still.
The solution to the second problem was found in the major ecologic catastrophe which affected the French vineyards during the second half of the 19th century and destroyed nearly all the vines on the French territory, including the ones used in production of Cognac.
Phylloxera is a microscopic insect living form the sap of vine. This insect arrived from America, and wiped the French vineyards off the map in a few years time. Only the grafting technique could save France from this major catastrophe. The redding technique consisted of grafting French vines on american stocks. The american stocks were insensible for phylloxera. The european vineyards resumed slowly thanks to this technique. But the production of Cognac was reduced to the meanest share.
So water-of-life lovers had to turn towards whisky. But, unlike Cognac (which is in most cases sold as a blend) single malt was still very different according to the producing distillery or region. Standardisation of the taste was then the major challenge for whisky producers, who wanted to take this unique opportunity to sell their product worldwide.
An Irish invention solved that problem.
Aeneas Coffey was an Irish man born in Dublin in 1780. This could rekindle the controversy about the origin of whisky. Both nations fight over the paternity of whisky since ages.
His invention, patented in Ireland in 1830, and still considered as a major contribution of Ireland in the world of innovation, consists of a kind of "warmth exchanger made of two columns called respectively the "analyzer" and the "rectifier".
The functioning of this kind of stills is rather complex.
Unlike malt whisky, grain whisky is distilled in a continuous operation. The invention of the "Patent Still" made distillation of grain and corn possible. Corn is the basic ingredient of american whisky, also known under the name of "bourbon". The way to standardisation of scotch whisky was open.
This made it possible for the scotch industry to put on the market a product able to compete with the French cognac which was in a very bad situation due to the catastrophe of the phylloxera. Blended whisky quickly ousted single malt till recently.
Lots of distilleries exclusively produced whisky for blenders.
Some of them were build especially for that purpose.
Whisky is an alcoholic drink. Let's prefer quality to quantity as the abuse of alcohol beverages can damage the health. Consuming alcoholic drinks during pregnancy, even in small quantities, can seriously affect the health of the child. Consumption of alcohol impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.
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