Scotch Whisky; Water of Life

 Researched by Donald D. Erwin


Whisky and freedom gang ta gither, and Scottish history is much to do with freedom.” wrote Robert Burns. Perhaps that’s a stretch, but Scotch Whisky, even more so than the tartan and kilt, cannot be separated from the heart and soul of Scotland. There are few products which are so closely related to the land of their birth than the single-malt whiskey produced in Scotland.

The exact origin of distilling is obscure, but the principles of distillation were known in ancient China. It is not precisely clear when the technique first reached Scotland, but tradition has it that the secrets of distilling came to Scotland from Ireland, and were brought there by St. Patrick and his monks in the 400s when they arrived to convert the Picts to Christianity. St. Patrick had traveled on the Continent, and may have learned about distilling during his travels there. Distilling was first done in monasteries, to produce medicine.

Although it is not at all certain when the general formula for whiskey, spelled whisky in Scotland, England, and Canada, was first formulated, it is known that the Celts practiced the art, and produced a fiery liquid they called “uisge beatha, Scots Gaelic for Water of Life. Nor is it known when Scotch Whisky was first distilled, even though whiskey has been produced in Scotland for hundreds of years. It stands to reason though, that single-malt Scotch Whisky, as we know it today, came about as a gradual evolutionary process. The earliest explicit reference to whiskey dates from 1494, when an order was recorded in Scotland for “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae (Latin for ‘water of   life’).”

Scotland has a unique geography and climate, ideally suited to whiskey making, and over time the Scots perfected the art of distilling, using elements generously provided by nature. The primitive equipment used, and the lack of scientific expertise, undoubtedly resulted initially in a spirit that was extremely potent, and probably even occasionally harmful. Distillation methods soon improved, however, and in the 1500s and 1600s  the art of making Scotch whiskey gradually became more precise. The dissolution of the monasteries also had an impact on the process, since many of the monks, driven from their sanctuaries, had no choice but to put their skills to use. The knowledge of distilling then quickly spread.

Whiskey was lauded for its medicinal qualities, and was often prescribed for the preservation of health, to prolong life, and for the relief of colic, palsy, and even smallpox. Babies were ushered into the world with a dram, and teething, colds, and the flu were treated with it as well. In the days when distances were traveled only with difficulty, a jug of whiskey was left out for any tradesmen who might call. Business deals were sealed with a “bit of the nectar,” and it was loudly proclaimed to be a reviver and stimulant to be used during the long, cold winters. It soon became a feature of social life as well, a drink of welcome and of farewell, and much in between. Whiskey thus became an integral part of Scottish life.  

The English, notable producers of beer, but not of wine or distilled liquor, were the first non-Gaelic connoisseurs of whiskey, and Scotch became a much-preferred beverage in early 17th-century England.

American colonists brought their taste for whiskey to the New World, but did not begin to distill it themselves until the early 1700s. Rye and barley were the favored grains used to make whiskey along the eastern seaboard, but corn was used more and more as the frontier moved westward. Traditionally, continental Europeans have favored wines, beers, brandies, or vodkas, and have showed little interest in whiskey; but today the drinking of whiskey, particularly Scotch, has become a status symbol in many parts of Europe.

The principal whiskey types are Scotch, distilled primarily from barley; Irish, from a mixture of five different grains, including malted barley; American, primarily from rye or corn; Canadian, from a blend of cereal grains; and Japanese, from various blended grains, sometimes including small amounts of rice, but seldom wheat or rye. American whiskeys are further characterized, broadly, as rye or corn whiskey and, more narrowly, as bourbon (for Bourbon County in Kentucky) or Tennessee whiskey. In addition, some American products are produced by a fermentation process roughly similar to the leavening of sourdough bread and are thus called sour-mash whiskeys. Others, characterized by their less intense flavor, are called light whiskeys.

All whiskeys are made from grain (sprouted grain) or malt, or both, and water. Certain other substances, such as sherry wine and caramel (burned sugar), may be added to blended whiskey in small amounts. Most whiskeys are light to dark amber in hue; their color being derived either from the introduction of caramel or from exposure to the effects of charred wood in the interior of oak barrels, or from a combination of both. The quality of the water used is also considered crucial to the quality of the whiskey. Therefore, most distilleries have access to spring water that passes up through granite or limestone.

For Scotch the whiskey-making process begins when whole grain is steeped in water to promote germination. For American whiskies, the process commences with milling and cooking the grain. In both cases the object is to release the starches stored in the endosperm of each seed of grain. These starches then are converted to fermentable sugar by malt. For Scotch, self-generated malt is produced by arresting germination of the barley; for most other whiskies, malt is added to the basic grain mixture (In the production of Scotch, the malted grain is dried at this juncture—traditionally, over peat fires from which the characteristic smoky flavor of finished whiskey is derived—and is then lightly milled). Hot water is then added to the malted grains, and the resultant mash is stirred, or otherwise agitated, until the sugars present are dissolved. Wort, a sweet liquid thus produced, is strained into fermenting vessels (cylindrical tanks with lids); fermentation is then activated by the introduction of yeast catalyst, which converts the sugars to alcohol and the mixture to a crude whiskey, called wash, with has a low alcohol content by volume.

The wash is then distilled. It passes successively through a heated vaporization still, and the resultant vapor is liquefied in water-cooled coils. Both processes are then repeated. After distillation the still-colorless product must be left to mature, mellow, develop color, and purge itself of impurities. This accomplished in special barrels called casksusually oak barrels that previously contained sherry, bourbon, port, cognac, or Bordeaux wine. Bourbon production provides a nearly inexhaustible supply of used barrels, due to a regulation that required the use of new American white oak barrels for each year’s production.

The Scotch whiskey is then left to mature, a process that takes a minimum of three years to be legally called Scotch Whisky. Most whiskies are commonly aged eight years or less, but the premium varieties may be kept twenty years or more in the casks before they are bottled for sale.

The alcoholic strength of whiskey is measured by a figure known as the proof, representing twice the volume percentage of alcohol. The proof increases as the water content partly evaporates but is reduced before bottling by diluting the whiskey with distilled water. Most whiskey is sold at eighty to eighty-six percent proof.

There are discernable differences between whiskies made in one region and those made in another. While distilleries are scattered throughout Scotland, as well as in the Orkney Islands, Scotland’s “Golden Triangle” of concentrated production is the Speyside area, located northwest of Aberdeen. Several of the better-known brands are produced there—Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, and Macallan are three of its legendary single-malts. Today over half of Scotland's malt whiskey distilleries are in the Speyside area.

It is nearly impossible for the distillers to be totally consistent where the flavor characteristics are concerned—especially when the wood the whisky has been matured in makes such a huge contribution. Nevertheless, Scotch Whisky aficionados can identify certain salient features which can be related to the various whiskey regions of Scotland.

Under the new Scotch Whisky Association rules of 2005, it is much easier to sort out the meanings on the labels of Scotch Whisky. There are two major categories: single and blended. Single means that all the product is from a single distillery, while blended means that the product is composed of whiskies from two or more distilleries. A Single Malt is thus a malt whisky from one distillery, and a Single Grain a grain whisky from one distillery. A Blended Malt is malt whisky from more than one distillery, a Blended Grain is grain whisky from more than one distillery, and a Blended Scotch Whisky is a mixture of malt and grain whisky.

Single-malt Scotch Whisky is malt whiskey that is distilled entirely at a single distillery, and is not blended with grain whisky. Glenfiddich is the best selling single malt Scotch Whisky in the world, accounting for twenty percent of single malt whisky sales, while Glenmorangie is the best selling single malt in Scotland. Others include Balvenie, Glenlivit, Highland Park, Lagavulin, Laphroaig, Scapa and Talisker. If the whiskey comes from one cask only, it is frequently referred to as Single Cask. Whiskey in the cask, depending on the age and the initial filling strength, can exceed sixty percent alcohol by volume. Most whiskies are bottled at between forty percent (the minimum legal limit in Scotland) and forty-six percent alcohol by volume. If the whiskey is not watered down, or is slightly watered down but still at a relatively high strength, it is frequently labeled Cask Strength. Note that Cask Strength Scotch does not have to be from a single cask, i.e. a Single Cask Scotch, nor vice versa, although this is often the case.

Blended Scotch Whisky constitutes over 90% of the whiskey produced in Scotland. Blended Scotch whiskies generally contain between ten and fifty percent malt whiskey, with the higher quality brands having the highest percent malt, and were initially created for the English market, where pure malt whiskies were considered too harshly flavored. Master blenders combine the various malts and grain whiskies to produce a consistent brand style. Blended whiskies frequently use the same name for a range of whiskies at wildly varying prices and quality. Notable blended Scotch whiskies include Johnny Walker, Cutty Sark, Famous Grouse, and Chivas Regal.


For the past several centuries, Scotch Whisky has become inextricably woven into the fabric of Scotland’s history, culture and customs. This has not been without its hardships. Around the time of the Act of Union with England in 1707, whiskey production was effectively driven underground to evade excessive levels of taxation, a tax problem well-known in early America. For well over a hundred years, the distillers fought a series of bloody skirmishes with tax collectors. In 1823, the Excise Act was passed, allowing distilling in exchange for a fee. Since then, Scotch Whisky has established itself as the world’s leading national drink. It has developed—from uncertain origins and through turbulent times—to become the colorful creation it is today, with a richly-flavored history to match.

A long, and often bloody, battle arose between the tax collectors and the illicit distillers. Smuggling became standard practice for some one hundred and fifty years, and as with the moonshiners in our own South during Prohibition, there was no moral stigma attached to it. Ministers of the Kirk (Church) made storage space available under the pulpit, and the illicit spirit was, on occasion, transported by coffin. Any effective means was used to escape the watchful eyes of the “revenuers.” Clandestine stills were cleverly organized and hidden in nooks and crannies of the heather-clad hills, and smugglers established signaling systems from one hilltop to another whenever the tax men were suspected of being in the vicinity.

By the 1820s, despite the fact that as many as fourteen thousand illegal stills were being found and destroyed every year, more than half of the whiskey consumed in Scotland was being swallowed untaxed. This flouting of the law eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose extensive acres some of the finest illicit whiskey in Scotland was being produced, to propose in the House of Lords that the Government should make it profitable to produce whisky legally. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which sanctioned the distilling of whiskey in return for a license fee. Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and, in fact, a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites used by the early smugglers.

The Excise Act laid the foundations for the Scotch Whisky industry as it is known today. However, two further developments put Scotch Whisky firmly on the world map. Until now, we have been talking about what we now know as Single Malt Whisky. But, in 1831 Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey or Patent Still which enabled a continuous process of distillation to take place. This led to the production of grain whiskey, a different, less intense spirit than the malt whiskey produced in the distinctive copper pot stills. The lighter flavored grain whiskey, when blended with the more fiery malts, extended the appeal of Scotch Whisky to a considerably wider group.

The second major helping hand came unwittingly from France. By the 1880s, the phylloxera beetle had devastated the vineyards of France, and within a few years, wine and brandy had virtually disappeared from cellars everywhere. The Scots were quick to take advantage of the calamity, and by the time the French industry recovered, Scotch Whisky had replaced brandy as the preferred spirit of choice.

Since then the popularity of Scotch Whisky, in particular blended whiskey, has become popular around the world. It has survived the U.S. prohibition, wars and revolutions, economic depressions and recessions, to maintain its position today as the premier international spirit of choice.                »»»