Illicit Stills to a Global Icon
It’s no coincidence that the Scots Gaelic term for whisky is uisge beatha (pronounced ooshka beh-ha), the ‘water of life’. Scotch whisky is a national icon – a product of a unique culture and an abiding Scottish passion for craftsmanship. The art of distilling in Scotland has been perfected through the generations. The uisge beatha of our forebears has evolved into Scotch whisky – a drink unique to Scotland, but enjoyed the world over.
A Long Heritage
The earliest official record of distilling in Scotland dates back to 1494, according to the tax records of the day. An entry lists ‘Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’. This was sufficient to produce almost 1,500 bottles, suggesting that distilling was already well-established in Scottish culture.
The equipment used was primitive and the methods were entirely undeveloped. This means that early spirit was probably very potent – even harmful. The liquor was often consumed for medicinal purposes – giving rise to the ‘uisge beatha’ moniker.
However, distillation methods soon improved, and in the 16th and 17th centuries considerable advances were made. The dissolution of monastic life in Scotland in this period contributed to these improvements. Many of the Christian monks, driven from their sanctuaries, had no choice but to put their skills to good use.
The secret art of distillation didn’t stay secret for long, and the methods used by the monks quickly spread.
A Taxing Situation
As whisky became ingrained in Scottish life, it attracted the attention of law makers in Edinburgh. The Scottish Parliament in the late 17th century would introduce heavy taxes, first on the malt, and then on the distilled spirit.
Following the union of Scotland and England , taxes only increased in an attempt to bring whisky production under control. Inevitably, distillation was driven underground – with dramatic consequences.
After the Jacobite uprising of 1745, the Government targeted the rebellious Highlanders by imposing a ban on ‘Sma’ Stills, which were the life blood of the many farmers and crofters who made whisky in these small pot stills to supplement to their meagre earnings in the remote Glens. Duty on whisky continued to increase for all legal distilleries located above the Highland line.
Before long, a bitter and often bloody rivalry emerged between the taxman and these illicit stillmen who were primarily based in what would come to be known as the Speyside region of Scotland. These Highland distillers – for whom the new taxes were an alien idea – eventually turned to smuggling.
This would become standard practice for many over the next 150 years. Smugglers would hide their whisky in church pulpits, coffins, and dressers. Sma stills would be hidden in the heather, away from the prying eyes of the excise officers and government agents.
By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being enjoyed without payment of duty.
For the British authorities, enough was enough.
From Underground to Global Icon
In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.
The Act laid the foundation for the industry as we know it today. Travelling along the Malt Whisky Trail, many of the distilleries you see today stand on the site of old illicit stills.
Having established a firm market at home, the pioneers of Scotch whisky would set out to conquer the world.
In the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle devastated French vineyards, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. The canny Scots were quick to take advantage, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.
Since then Scotch whisky has gone from strength to strength. It has weathered strict USA prohibition, world wars, economic disasters, and political upheaval to build and retain its position as the world’s international premium spirit.
Today, the fruits of the distilleries of the Malt Whisky Trail are enjoyed in more than 200 countries – in every conceivable culture, language, and landscape – generating more than £4 billion in exports each year.
This is knowledge and history passed from generation to generation. Get the full story by meeting the masters on the Malt Whisky Trail.