Thursday, September 18, 2014

Scottish Independence... a big topic these days. Today, in fact, Scotland is voting whether to stay in the United Kingdom or strike out on its own. If it did, it would be the 20th largest economy in the world, thanks especially to its top three imports. In order of their importance, they are oil, gas, and whiskey. Let's talk about the third one.

Lindores Whisky
Unlike wine, the fermented juice of grapes, whiskey is a distillation of fermented grain. Before the Common Era we find evidence of distillation in Babylon and Mesopotamia, originally for developing perfumes and medicines. We are not sure when and where the process was first adapted for drinking, but the Ancient Celts might have been using it to produce their version of the Latin aqua vitæ ["water of life"] for which their term was uisgebeatha or just uisge [pronounced "whiskey"].

Distillation of alcohol was done in 13th century Italy, using wine. Ramon Lull (1232 - 1315) even wrote about the process.

We think Christian monks brought the process to Ireland and Scotland between the 11th and 13th centuries, where the lack of grapes made it the best option for creating a strong alcoholic drink. The first recorded batch of Scotch whisky shows up in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494-95, granting eight measures of malt to Friar John Cor to make aqua vitæ. Friar John was a monk at Lindores Abbey in Fife. Irish whiskey was mentioned earlier: the Annals of Clonmacnoise in 1405 record the death of a chieftain from "a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas.

The Dissolution of Monasteries (1536 - 1541) in Scotland by Henry VIII forced many monks into private production. Sad, because by this time Scotland was the world leader in production of whisky. Keep in mind, however, that whiskey at that time was not aged, and so was a very different drink from what we expect today.

You may also have noticed that I have spelled the word two ways. "whiskey" is the word used in Ireland and the United States; "whisky" is the spelling used in Canada, Scotland, and the rest of the world. Some U.S. brands use the e-less spelling despite this convention. "Scotch whisky" is whiskey made in Scotland. There is discussion these days about whether some Scottish distilleries would even move to England after independence in order to keep the same export policies and fees in place. We should know soon whether this will be an issue.

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