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Homepage > History of Scotch Whisky

History of Scotch Whisky

The term 'whisky' derives originally from the Gaelic 'uisge beatha,' or 'usquebaugh,' meaning "water of life." Gaelic is the branch of Celtic spoken in the Scottish Highlands. It's believed that whisky was produced in Scotland long before 1400s. Until the 19th century, there was no clear distinction between brewer and distiller in the understanding we have today.

The first evidence of Scotch whisky making is in 1614. The will of John Denoon, merchant of Tain recorded his possession of a spirit stand and give glasses valued at 4 pounds. Some historians may say whisky production arrived in Scotland from Ireland in the 16th century.

In 1644, Cromwell's administration imposed a Malt Tax in Scotland. It was an unpopular part of legislation and was difficult to collect. The tax remained in force until 1707 when it was lifted from Scotland by the Act of Union for at least the duration of the War of the Spanish Succession. There is a reference in 1681 to the prevalence of avoidance of Malt Duty in Tain.

The popularity of whisky had increased to the level where the local production in Tain could not keep up with the demand. In 1663 the council had gone so far as to ban the purchase by burgesses of malt. Highland's "aquavytie" parishes west of Tain, as this was causing a loss to the burgh customs and to the Exchequer. Many recipes for whisky punches and liqueurs were found from the 18th and 19th century. In the 17th century, many individuals produced whisky for their own consumption, perhaps in an effort to avoid the tax.

From the period after 1725, there is an increasing amount of evidence for action against individuals brewing and malting without notice as the authorities attempted to enforce the Malt Tax. In early 1742, eleven individuals in Tain were cited for illegal distilling, having attempted to conceal their stills in garrets, bed-chambers and closets. Later in the same year a further 31 dwellers in the burgh were convicted on the same charge, stills having been found in cellars, lofts, byres and bed-chambers. Despite this action individuals continued to distill illicitly in order to avoid the tax. It was not simply poor burgesses and county-folk who were involved in the law-breaking.

In November 1817 the Commissioners of Excise felt that it was necessary to publish broadsheets for public distribution warning of the severe penalties imposed on anyone convicted of any involvement, no matter how slight, in illicit distillation. Fines ranging from $20 - $200 transmutable into sentences of imprisonment, if the convicted man were unable to pay.

In 1779, Malt tax rates were increased, and again in 1780. In the spring of 1802, it went even higher as the government of the day sought to raise the revenues available in order to finance the wars against Napoleon and his allies. However major commercial distillers had seen a loophole in the act and were importing higher quality English barley to Scotland, malting it but only paying the reduced Scottish rate of duty. At the same time as agitation was growing over the levying of the Malt Tax.

In the early 1900s, Lloyd George failed in discouraging drunkness among munition workers and doubled tax on whisky instead.

During the prohibition in the United States, there was no double that Scotch whisky distillers made deals with bootleggers.

Over 100 distilleries were back in business by 1920s. However General Strike of the 1926 hit the whisky sales in Britain. After the repeal of Prohibition, distillers still struggled in business due to the high taxation raised by the government for the military funding.

Today there are more than 2,500 Scotch whisky brands sold to more than 200 countries worldwide.

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