Someone asked the other day whether Scotch whisky originated in Scotland or somewhere else. Before answering the question, we first note that much of Scottish history was oral tradition shared through song and poems by itinerant bards. Many of these stories were later collected by those like Sir Walter Scott, Robbie Burns and many others, thus finding their way into the written text. What is myth and what are facts about these stories is an ongoing debate. Although we do our best to rely on evidence to draw fact from fiction, in the end it is the story imbued with passion, purpose and meaning that tends to live on.
In reviewing the history of Scotch, Marshall J. Robb, in his book ‘Scotch Whisky’ (1951) says that the oldest documented reference to whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494, where there is an entry of “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” (Latin for water of life). Friar Cor was the chief distiller at Lindores Abbey in the Kingdom of Fife.
How this ‘water of life’ came to Scotland remains a mystery to unravel, although there are many who claim it came from Ireland, which may be true, but where did the Irish learn the distillation process?
If we look at the history of distillation, there is prior evidence of crudely distilled alcoholic beverages made from things like rice and mare’s milk in Asia as far back as 800 B.C. India created a drink called Arrack, meaning distillate. Arrack, unlike Scottish whisky, was made from coconut flowers, red rice and sugar cane. Not surprisingly, this distilled alcohol began to spread throughout South Asia, Egypt and Turkey. But it wasn’t until the 8th century A.D., as the story goes, that Arabic alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan designed the alembic pot still that allowed for the effective distillation of alcohol. (Presumably, he designed the still to create finer essences of perfume.) But once the monasteries got a hold of it, like coffee which was supposedly first introduced in Ethiopia through experimentation by monks, monasteries began experimenting with grains to produce their own distillate which was referred to as aqua vitae or ‘water of life’. Through the spread of Christianity this water of life eventually made its way to Scotland.
If you have stories that you have gathered about the history of scotch making, we would truly appreciate hearing them….