Sixth in a series, by Ray Pearson
“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, wherewith to make aqua vitae.”
Scottish Exchequer Rolls, 1494
“It sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it cutteth flegme, it relisheth the harte, it lighteneth the mynd, it quickeneth the spirits, it cureth the hydropsie, it repelleth gravel … and trulie it is a sovereign liquor if it be orderlie taken.”
Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1577
Scotch’s rich history spans more than half a millennia, from a time when the lexicon of the day gives our modern spellcheck feature apoplexy, to today, when we gain instant gratification for whisky knowledge with a keystroke. Following is a brief overview of significant events in this illustrious history.
1494 – First recorded mention of a spirit distilled from barley in Scotland.
1519 – Hieronymus Brunschwig, German physician, chemist and pharmacologist writes Little Book of Distillation, one of the earliest books ever written concerning the subjects of chemistry. The book includes instructions on how to distill aqua vitae, and due to its descriptions and illustrations of distillation equipment, it was considered an authoritative text well into the 16th century.
Hieronymous Braunschweig’s 1519 treatise on the alchemist’s art of turning barley into liquid gold, from “The Illustrated History of Whisky”, James Darwen, © 1993 Harold Starke Publishers, Ltd.
1577 – Hollinshed publishes Chronicles.
1745 – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Highland clans’ uprising crushed; illicit stills proliferate.
1780s – Robert Burns writes about whisky in many of his works:
- “ … Leeze me on thee, John Barleycorn, thou king o’ grain!”
- “Freedom an’ whisky gang tegither, tak aff your dram!”
1784 – “Highland Line” established for tax purposes, differentiating the Highlands from the Lowlands.
1853 – Andrew Usher introduces first blended whiskies.
1870 – The Phylloxera vastarix blight ruins French grape crops, disseminating the supply of wine and cognac, allowing whisky to be introduced to the palettes of thirsty consumers.
1887 – Alfred Barnard publishes the iconic The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom, describing in exhaustive detail his visits to over 120 distilleries.
Late 1800s – Early 1900s – Rise of the “Big 5 Whisky Barons”. The efforts of these men helped to revolutionize the Scotch whisky industry, and the proliferation of blended Scotch whisky around the world:
- James Buchanan (Black and White)
- Thomas and John Dewar (Dewar’s)
- James and Peter Mackie (White Horse)
- John and Alexander Walker (Johnnie Walker); business started in1820, in Kilmarnock, Scotland
- Robert Haig (Haig and Haig); H&H was the whisky onboard the S.S. Politician, when it ran aground on the Isle of Eriskay – the basis for Compton McKenzie’s Whisky Galore.
Other notable names of the era are: the Berry Brothers – Francis and Walter, Arthur Bell, Aeneas Coffey, and James Stevenson.
1920 – 1932 – America’s “Noble Experiment” – Prohibition.
1963 – Creation of the single malt Scotch whisky category.
2009 – Scotch Whisky Association redefines official category names of Scotch whisky as:
Single malt Scotch Whisky
Single Grain Scotch Whisky
Blended Scotch Whisky
Blended Malt Scotch Whisky
Blended Grain Scotch Whisky
2009 – Amazing 6-minute video advertisement for Johnnie Walker. Click here to view “Johnnie Walker – The Man Who Walked Around the World”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6NvDev-5qP4
2012 – Johnnie Walker production ends in Kilmarnock after 192 years.
In its own way, each bottle of Scotch whisky is a time capsule, reflecting the industry’s evolution over centuries. Through the years, one shining constant rises above all else – the passion of the people involved in “the blood of Scotland”. Alfred Barnard, in 1887, writing in The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom: “Again, I wish to stimulate an interest in the art of distilling among those who trade in whisky, and to aid in demonstrating what I am convinced is correct, that good whisky, as a beverage, is the most wholesome spirit in the world.”