Before Scotch whisky: Distillation as a mysterious craft.

photo: Jim Nix

Before Scotch Whisky

(This is the first part of a series of articles on the history of Scotch whisky)

Before Scotch whisky appeared, Scotland was home to a variety of alcoholic beverages. Beer, ale, and mead were common, while wine and other drinks were imported from other countries. However, it was the introduction of whisky that would eventually become Scotland's most famous contribution to the world of spirits.

Distillation is an ancient process that has been used for centuries to produce perfumes, medicines, and even potable water. The Greeks and Romans were familiar with the process, but it wasn't until the 13th century that the Moorish scholar Arnaldus de Villa Nova rediscovered it. Despite this, distillation remained confined to religious circles and monasteries, as the church had a near-monopoly on scientific knowledge at the time.

Some historians believe that distillation was reintroduced to Scotland from Ireland in the 15th century. The first-ever mention of a distilled spirit in Scotland appeared in an Exchequer Roll from 1494, which records a friar purchasing malt to make uisge beatha. However, it wasn't until 1505 that the Guild of Surgeon-Barbers of Edinburgh was established and given a monopoly over the production and distribution of aqua vitae, which allowed for the production of distilled spirits outside of monasteries for medicinal purposes.

The stills used in the early days of whisky production were rudimentary and inefficient. It wasn't until the 16th century that major innovations in distillation occurred, such as the use of submerged condensers and elongated pot stills in pear shapes. These innovations were carried out in monasteries and by surgeon barbers, but with the dissolution of monasteries in Scotland with the Enactment of the Papal Jurisdiction Act in 1560, many monks left and shared their knowledge of distillation with the general population.

By 1579, the Act anent the making of aqua vitae banned distillation among the general population, and only the aristocracy were allowed to distill for personal use. However, by the 17th century, distillation was practiced everywhere in Scotland, and many people disregarded the 1579 Act, resulting in the production of whisky on the fringes of legality.

The whisky produced at this time was vastly different from the Scotch whisky we know today. It was made from any available cereal or grain and often compounded with herbs, spices, and other flavoring agents. Several versions of usquebaugh were being distilled, including trestarig, a three times distilled oats whisky, and usquebaugh-baul, a four times distilled spirit.

In conclusion, Scotch whisky's origins can be traced back to the introduction of distillation in Scotland, which was initially confined to monasteries and religious circles. As the knowledge of distillation spread, the general population began to produce whisky illegally, resulting in a vast range of spirit types. The development of more efficient distillation methods in the 16th century paved the way for the creation of the Scotch whisky we know and love today.

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