Before Scotch whisky: Distillation as a misterious craft.
Before Scotch Whisky
photo: Jim Nix
What was being consumed in Scotland before Scotch whisky appeared? How did whisky come about? Scotch whisky is one of the world's favourite spirits. Millions of bottles are sold every day everywhere in the world. As you read this, many people are enjoying a dram or a cocktail with whisky as its main ingredient. This drink however, has not always been the golden nectar that we all love. It wouldn't exist if distillation wasn't perfected and mastered by some in the past. The following lines will talk about the early days of distillation in Europe and Scotland. Dsitillation is an ancient form of technology. Aristotle in the fourth century BC mentioned that sea water could be made potable by distillation and that wine and other liquids could be submitted to the same process. For all we know, peoples in ancient cultures and civilisations (at least in Europe) distilled liquids in order to produce medicines and perfumes. During the Dark Ages, distilling was lost and even forgotten. It was a Moorish scholar by the name Arnaldus de Villa Nova who re-discovered it around the 13th century. Given that the church had a quasi-monopoly on all scientific knowledge at that time, distillation was confined to religious circles and monasteries. Few people, even among the higher ranks of the ecclesiastic ranks, knew how to distil or even knew of its existence. One can only imagine these days how a friar might have ended up in Scotland and started distilling grains and cereals. In Scotland, the first ever mention of a distilled spirit appears in an Exchequer Roll of 1494. That record mentions a friar who made a purchase of about half a ton of '... malt to make Uisge beatha'.
Distilled spirits were, up until this time, rarely seen outside of monasteries. It wasn't until 1505 that the Guild of Surgeon-Barbers of Edinburgh was created (they're now called the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh) and they were given by the Seal of Cause of the Town Council the monopoly over the production and distribution of '… aqua vitae
within the burgh'. This was a step forwards as it allowed the production of distilled spirits for medicinal purposes outside of monasteries. The stills used for the production of uisge beatha
were, at this point in time, rudimentary and not very efficient. It wasn't until the 16th
century that condensers submerged in water started to be used. Condensers and the elongation of the pot stills into pear shapes, were major breakthroughs in the distillation of spirits. These major innovations were carried out in monasteries and at places were the surgeon barbers operated. With the Enactment of the Papal jurisdiction Act 1560, monasteries were dissolved in Scotland. Many monks, familiar with the 'secrets of distillation', left the monasteries and went to live among the laity. Farmers were eager to learn the secrets of distillation and quickly commenced the distillation of aqua vitae.
By 1579 the Act anent
[concerning] the making of aqua vitae
banned distillation among the peoples and only the aristocracy (those who enacted the 1579 Act) were allowed to distil for their own personal use. Distillation was practiced everywhere in Scotland by the 17th
century. Many people distilled whisky disregarding the 1579 Act. The whisky being distilled at the time, was completely different to the one distilled and consumed nowadays. It was made from any cereal or grain readily available. For the most part, the spirit was 'compounded' (mixed with herbs, spices and other flavouring agents). Several versions of usquebaugh
were being distilled. Most notably trestarig
(three times distilled oats whisky) and usquebaugh-baul
(four times distilled). In our next article we will cover how whisky ceased to be an activity on the fringes of legality and became an industrial enterprise among certain peoples in Scotland.