Since the beginning of time, man has sought solace in alcohol and pursued and perfected the fine art of distillation. Join me in collecting some nuggets of gold (or golden amber) and help me fulfil my childhood ambition akin to being Indiana Jones raiding through lost tombs of Ancient Egypt.
Noah kicked it off when he disembarked the Ark - no, he did not pray for deliverance, instead he planted grape vines and, with skill and much patience, made wine and got absolutely smashed. Roll on a few years and the Romans, who happened upon the skill, and lifesaving benefits of distilling liquids called their distillate aqua vitae “the water of life”. There was definitely more chance of ‘life’ if you drank distilled water, rather than straight from the sewer and waste laden rivers! Whisky itself derives from the old Gallic words uisge beatha, pronounced “ooshkie bayahah” (try remembering that when you’ve drunk a few!), but the modern day word of ‘whisky’ didn’t appear until 1736.
During prohibition a chap called Captain Bill MaCoy became infamous. Employed by Berry Bros & Rudd, he smuggled good quality whisky in to the USA. Eager consumers were keen to have product if it was “the real MaCoy”, known to be of far superior quality to the crude offerings of others.
Other famous characters of whisky history include a lady by the name of Helen Cumming who was constantly on the lookout for the taxman. The story goes that gaugers (taxmen) would arrive at Cardow Farm and Helen would invite them in for a wee cup of tea and a scone. As they were being entertained, a red flag would be hoisted on the flagpole to warn all the Livet moonshiners that the law was on its way and to give them time to hide their distilling equipment.
In 1494 King James IV is mentioned in the Exchequer Rolls “to Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolts of malt” – the first recorded mention of whisky, and to a king generally regarded as the most successful of the Stewart monarchs of Scotland (albeit with a disastrous defeat soon after at the Battle of Flodden resulting in his death).
It was the Church that was the main influence of Alcohol spreading across Europe. Don’t get ahead of yourself, the Monks were not like Friar Tuck and binge drinking on the job, they distilled for medicinal purposes only - allegedly ;O)
The early forms of whisky are not what they are today (before government interference) they were often made from any cereals that came to hand – oats and wheat etc. and there are many reports of it being compounded (mixed with herbs, sugar and spices – think flavoured gin and vodka), and storing and maturing in barrels was only really discovered to have significance in much more recent years.
Whisky was mainly made by small cottage distilleries producing between 20 – 50 gallons of whisky at a time – similar to the recent up rise of craft breweries and distilleries working their way to fame today!
There was always a view in government that they could raid the alcohol industry with tax (along with everyone else). The first recorded taxation in 1644 is from the Scottish Parliament. By 1715 the Scots were so fed up with the meddling English that they rose to fight. (the First Jacobite Rising) The rebellion was started by many unpopular decrees however whisky was clearly very high on their agenda. In 1725 there were riots in Glasgow because taxes were increased again (this time it was the malt tax).
Whisky continued to be a thorn in the governments side and by 1760 there had been three years of distillery bans (many legal distilleries went out of business). The smuggling era was born and thus the creation of regional differences - the Lowlands creating cheap and fiery liquid whereas the highlands were allowed to use small distilleries and produce better and more flavoursome whiskies.
Happily, today, the Lowland distilleries have sorted out their distilling issues and the Highlands continue to produce some of the best whiskies in the whole world. You can take a look at some on our site
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