Fiscal evolution

First taxation of alcohol in Scotland

The first taxation of uisge beatadid not occur before another century. In 1644, the first excise law was voted by the Scottish Parliament. In those days, the production was already that important that during the years with poor harvests, there was not enough barley left for people to eat, because the major part of the harvests was used by the (official or not) distilleries, The first tax was intended to cover the financial needs of the Royalist Army. 

The birth of the industrial distilleries.

During the 17th century, the stills used for the distillation of uisge beatawere rather small and most of the time they were found in private houses. Their capacity did not exceed 20 to 50 gallons. The industrial distilleries appeared at the end of the 17th century.
One of the first ones belonged to Duncan Forbes of Culladen. He used to produce alcohol on this estate Ferintosh, and the name of his uisge beata was considered as a synonym of "good alcohol" for many years. All this happened on a background of war with England and. 

A treaty between Scotland and England signed in 1707 stipulated that the taxes on alcohol has to be the same on both sides of the border. In addition, a tax on malts was introduced in Scotland in 1713. This tax existed in England, but was not part of the treaty. This resulted in very violent demonstrations. The residence of Daniel Campbell of Showfield has been devastated and 11 people living with him were killed during one of this protest actions. As a compensation, the City of Glasgow paid a sum of 9000 pounds. With that money, he purchased the Isle of Islay.

First consequences of the tax on the malt

One of the first effects of this new tax on the malt was an important decrease in the consumption of ale, which was also made from malt, and an increase of consumption of brandy and home made alcohols.
Another consequence was the introduction of non malted grain in the composition of uisge beata in those days, with the natural decrease in quality for the resulting alcohol.

Technological evolution

The first advances made in distillation technology

Although the distillation technology is known since the Ancient Egypt for the production of perfumes, it seems the technique used before the 11th century was not able to produce alcohol, suitable to be drunk as the cooling system at the output of the still did not enable to collect of a sufficient quantity of liquid.

The first production of uisge beataseems to date back to the 15th century in monasteries. Uisge beata was used as a medicine as well as for direct consumption. (see poem of Raphael Holinshed).

The first significant enhancements in distillation technology date back to the 16th century, when the air cooling system was replaced by a tube crossing a tub filled up with water. This tube was first placed straight in the centre of a tub, and later diagonally in this tub, which increased the surface of the tube being in contact with fresh water. The tube should later adopt the shape of a serpentine, allowing an optimal cooling by increasing the surface to be in contact with the water again.

Another enhancement in the same period has been the lengthening of the lyne arm and the changes in its shape, to get the current onion shape. The result of this shape changes was that a greater part of the evaporated liquids fall back in the still, ensuring a better suppression of impurities in the final liquid.

Both enhancements resulted in a serious improvement of the quality of the produced alcohol, and marked the real beginning of the economic expansion of Scotch whisky.

From origins to 1823

More in details than in the global whisky history described in the "History of Whisky" article, here are some moe precise details about the history of Scotch whisky as well as some elements helping to better understand the evolution of whisky and distilleries over the years.

Whisky vs Cognac

Blended whisky

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 whiskywas 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.

The Coffey Still

Cofffey still
Aeneas Coffey invented a new kind of still, making continuous distilling of grain alcohol a reality. This still is called "Coffey still" or "Patent still". In opposition to the traditional "pot still", is was not made for distilling malted barley.

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.

Moonshine whisky

Moonshine whisky

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. 

The origins

The Origins

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."

Origin of the name "Whisky"

The name of the "water of life" produced in Scotland and Ireland comes from the Celtic, which has been official languages for ages. Before bearing the name of "whisky" (or whiskey if it is produced in Ireland or in the United States), the drink was called "Uisge Beata", which means "Water of Life" in Celtic. The name evolved to become Usquebaugh, then Uisge and finally Whisky.

Distilleries in historical context

Most of the distilleries which are currently active were created during the XIXth century. Some of them are older, and some of them were built in the second half of the XXth century.

The first half of the XIXth century will see the birth of a lot of distilleries. The invention of the "Coffey Still" (or Patent Still) will make blends possible, which will have a great influence on the export of whisky.
The second half of XIXth century was marked by the greatest ecological disaster which ever affected the French vineyards: the phylloxera. The effect of this disaster was a lack of Cognac. So a lot of people began drinking whisky instead. The effect was the creation of lots of distilleries in Scotland.

First half of the XXth century was an extremely disrupted period, with two world wars, the advent of communism in Russia, the Wall Street krach, prohibition in the United States, and so on...All this factors were harmful for industry, and particularly for whisky distilleries. No new distillery was founded during that period.



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