The history of Scotch whisky

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Ardbog Day - part of the Islay Festival of Music and Malt
Explore the land of whisky

To discover Speyside, Scotland's most prolific whisky-producing region in the stunning Highlands, is to discover the taste of Scotland

A glass of whisky sitting on a table
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  • Glengoyne Distillery Stillhouse, Dumgoyne
    Glengoyne Distillery Stillhouse, Dumgoyne
  • A replica pot still, Glenlivet Distillery
    A replica pot still, Glenlivet Distillery
  • Coopers at work in the warehouse at the Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie
    The warehouse at the Speyside Cooperage, Craigellachie
  • A traditional copper still, Isle of Arran Distillery
    A traditional copper still, Isle of Arran Distillery

Whisky has been distilled here in Scotland since at least the 15th century, with the first record of it dating back to 1494 when Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife was granted the king's commission to make acqua vitae, Latin for 'water of life'. The word 'whisky' derives from its Gaelic translation: uisge beatha (pronounced oosh-ga beh-huh). Read on to discover more about whisky's illustrious past.


Water isn’t only part of the name; it is an integral part of whisky creation. The art of distilling started as a way of using up rain-soaked barley and, as it still does today, uses water from Scotland’s crystal streams and burns. It has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. It is generally agreed that monks brought distillation with them along with Christianity in the fourth and fifth centuries. The first official recording of distilling stretches back to tax records from 1494.

The first official taxes on whisky production were not imposed until 1644, causing a rise in illicit whisky distilling in the country. Around 1780, there were about 8 legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones. In 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the "Excise Act", while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate, thereby ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.

Two events helped the increase of whisky's popularity: first, a new production process was introduced in 1831 called Coffey or Patent Still. The whisky produced with this process was less intense and smoother. Second, the Phylloxera beetle destroyed wine and cognac production in France in 1880, meaning that stocks of both in cellars around the world dwindled to almost nothing.

Since then, whisky production has gone from strength to strength, weathering prohibition in the United States, two world wars, the Great Depression and economic recessions throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Today, it is enjoyed in over 200 countries around the world.

There are two kinds of Scotch whisky: malt whisky, which is made by the pot still process, and grain whisky, which is made by the patent still (or Coffey still) process. Malt whisky is made from malted barley only while grain whisky is made from malted barley together with unmalted barley and other cereals. A third, blended whisky, involves an intricate process of mixing different single malts with grain whisky.

Timeline of key events

8th century BC First Evidence of distilling in the Far East

4th century BC Greeks know of distilling

6th century AD First mention of distilling in Britain

1494 First record of distilling in Scotland

1539-1550 Dissolution of Monasteries, spread of distilling as a trade

1579 Temporary ban on distilling, except by noblemen, because of a bad harvest

1636 Charles I granted charter to the "Worshipful Company of Distillers"

1644 First excise duty imposed -2/8 per Scots pint

1660 Charles II restored to throne - excise duty reduced

1689 William of Orange proclaimed King after the Glorious Revolution; Ferintosh Distillery burned by Jacobites; Battle of Killiecrankie

1725 Malt tax led to riots in Glasgow

1784 Ending of Ferintosh's exemption from Excise Duty

1785 - 1803 Series of huge increases in Excise Duty led to bankruptcies among licensed distillers and a big increase in the amount of smuggled whisky which was often of superior quality because of the short cuts taken by the licensed distillers to try and keep costs down

1788 Poet Roberts Burns became an Exciseman

1793 – 1815 War with France; shortage of brandy made people turn to whisky

1822 George IV visited Edinburgh and is reputed to have asked for Glenlivet whisky which could only have been illicit; widespread acceptance of whisky smuggling; Union Canal opened, linking Edinburgh to the Forth & Clyde Canal

1822 New Whisky Act encouraged the setting up of licensed distilleries at reasonable cost but under close supervision

1831 Coffey still invented by Irishman Aeneas Coffey, used to produce grain whisky

1880 The phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere

1941 The SS Politician, carrying 28,000 cases of whisky, was wrecked along the coast of Eriskay, Outer Hebrides. The wreck and looting of its cargo by the islanders inspired the novel and film Whisky Galore!