Whisky in Scotland

How did whisky get it’s start in Scotland? Apparently it was introduced by Christian monks who migrated across Europe and settled into what is now the British Isles. These monks would likely have picked up fermenting and distillation techniques along the way. These early techniques, made from distilling wine and used primarily as medicine, were likely adapted by the monks into the distillation of early beers and meads found throughout the area.

It’s not clear who made the first whisky. Records from the 1400’s show mention of whisky both in Ireland and Scotland. It eventually moved out of the monasteries into the countryside where it eventually lost it’s status as a medicine and moved into ‘feel good’ status. After all, life in rural Scotland was rough and it took more than a kilt and a set of bagpipes to survive. Like all good things, however, the government eventually got involved and introduced rules and taxes. Lot’s of rules. For starters, you need to get the names straight. All scotch is whisky, but only whisky produced in Scotland is scotch. And there are a few other rules that define scotch whisky. For example, it must be aged for at least 3 years in oak barrels. You can’t add anything to it except a bit of color (not sure why this is allowed but people seem to like darker scotch). It must be declared as Single Malt, Blended Malt, Single Grain, Blended Grain, or Blended.

Until the late 1700’s, whisky was made mostly from barley. This is now called Malt Whisky. Later production included the use of corn, rye and wheat. This is called Grain Whisky. If you mix the two, you (obviously) get Blended Whisky. And there are lots of rules guiding the production of each, which we will discuss another time. In my father’s and grandfather’s time, everyone drank Blended Whisky. I’m sure everyone remembers the bottle of Johnny Walker, or Famous Grouse, or Dewer’s whisky in the family liquor cabinet. Since the 1990’s or so, however, the preference has shifted to Single malts, and the introduction of brands like Glenfiddich, MaCallan and Old Pulteney.

Next we’ll look at the whisky producing regions of Scotland and how some of the famous brand names came to be.

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