A Brief History of Scotch Whisky

Scotch whisky is a special spirit that is relished by drinkers globally for its heritage, distinctness, sophistication and for its all-out Scottishness. Many countries around the world even treasure this beverage even higher than their own national drink; France, for example, drinks more Scotch than Cognac! For many people though, the history behind a bottle of malt may be limited to the date on the bottle for the year it was distilled and, at a push, maybe the date the distillery was founded. However, there is so much more behind the packaged bottles we buy from whisky shops and supermarkets. I want to share with you a little bit of the history of the famous Scottish tipple and where it is today.

Scotch whisky has been produced since the 1700s as a professionally crafted product, though distillation of whisky probably took place earlier than this in farmhouses and crofting barns around the country. In its early years whisky was a spirit made as a way of preserving excess grain harvests, not as a relaxing sipping drink. It wasn’t until the 18th century however that Scotch whisky became a commercially available commodity; though a fairly crude product, Scotch whisky was gaining popularity as an attractive tipple, not just a medicine as it had been in times past. More distilleries started producing spirit which meant the process of distilling underwent some changes to make it more efficient and cost effective. Going into the 19th century there were huge advancements in the way distillers were operating. The introduction of the continuous still, later the Coffey Still in 1831, meant that a more consistent product could be made rather than using the traditional batch process which could be hit or miss depending upon subtle changes in the distilling process.

One of the biggest factors in shaping the whisky industry over the centuries has been the changes in excise duties and taxation. Certainly, right up into the late 1800s smuggling and illegal distilling was very much prevalent in Scotland to avoid the excise officers. With different governments having a slant on moderating whisky distilling there would be long periods where the production of whisky would rollercoaster into highs and lows. In different parts of Scotch whisky history there has been times when distilling was banned due to food shortages; the precious grain would then be spared for conventional food production. In 1823 the Excise Act came into place which set the Scotch whisky industry on a course of consistent success; the introduction of a levy for distillers meant that the distilling process could go about with relative ease after a fee was paid.

It was in the late 1800s and early 1900s that Scotch whisky shifted its class attraction. Where before it had been the drink of poor people, dubbed “the poor man’s strong drink”, it was moving into being a staple of upper class society. Dewar’s, Johnnie Walker and Ballantine’s blends moved Scotch into a more sophisticated product that was appreciated by a wealthier clientele, even as far as being enjoyed by monarchs. The American prohibition saw a spike in Scotch imports to the USA as American distillers were on lockdown.

Scotch whisky production seemed to wain a little towards the end of last century. It was as though Scotch whisky was a dated product that was only enjoyed as a blend by old men. Towards the turn of the century though, distilleries caught on to a new customer base; the millennials. With their hipster taste and crave for authentic nostalgic products, a millennial fanbase for Scotch whisky has quickly grown over the past decade or so. Many distilleries now produce single malt whiskies, which in commercial Scotch whisky history, hadn’t really been done before. It is perhaps this new niche in Scotch whisky that has attracted people that don’t want to drink “your grandad’s Scotch” but want a more bespoke experience.

Undoubtedly, Scotch Whisky has had an interesting life so far, with its humble beginnings and plunge into grandeur, the evolution of whisky has been an interesting story to watch. In recent years the diversion of whisky into a craft product again calls for a renaissance of past distillation methods. Many new distilleries have opened in the last decade and there has been a new way of marketing the Scottish spirit; whisky tourism is becoming increasingly popular.

With the opening of visitor centres, cafes and other attractions at many Scottish distilleries, a world of tourism has been allowed to come through distillery doors. This influx of visitors, often from around the world, has meant great things for the whisky industry in Scotland. It is evident that a new era of whisky production and whisky drinkers has brought about a reenvisaged market for Scotch. The same farm distilleries that attracted quarrels with excise officers in times gone by have now enticed a different crowd of visitors; the tourist.

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