Historians have discovered the earliest known reference to a still for distilling whisky, suggesting its origins may lie in Aberdeen.

Researchers from Aberdeen University found a mention of a still for making “aquavite” – which means “water of life” in Latin and is the Middle Scots word for whisky – in a document dating back to 1505 in the city’s Unesco recognised Burgh Records.

A still, or pot still, is a huge copper kettle-like device used in the distillation process to make malt whisky.

Although not the first reference to whisky, it is the first to place it in Aberdeen. 
The earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland occurred in 1494 in the tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls. An entry lists: “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.”

This was enough malted barley to produce almost 1,500 bottles of spirit.
In September 1506, Treasurer’s Accounts for King James IV had two entries for “aqua vite to the King”. 

Historians said the new documents uncovered in Aberdeen are a “significant” discovery which “reframes the story of Scotch whisky”.

The reference appears in the inquest, on June 20 1505, into the inheritance arising from the death of Aberdeen man Sir Andrew Gray. Among his “moveable possessions” was “ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir”.

He died in December 1504 and researchers said he probably made use of his still during his lifetime.

The reference was found by research fellow Dr Claire Hawes who was working her way through the 1.5 million words in Aberdeen’s municipal registers to make them digitally available in the recent publication Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511.

Dr Jackson Armstrong, of Aberdeen University, led the project to transcribe the Burgh Records. 


He said: “This is the earliest record directly mentioning the apparatus for distilling aquavite, and that equipment was at the heart of renaissance Aberdeen where, at this time, our own university had just been founded and the educational communities of humanism, science and medicine
were growing.

“This find places the development of whisky in the heart of this movement, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King 
James IV.

“What is more, some other early references to aquavite refer to the spirit used in the preparation of gunpowder for the king.

“The Aberdeen still being for aquavite and rose water may suggest, by contrast, that it was for making whisky to drink.

“This is a very significant find in the history of our national drink. 

“It reframes the story of Scotch whisky and suggests new layers of complexity in Scotland’s urban history.”

It comes after Aberdeen also emerged as a possible birthplace for the national game – football. A book, Vocabula, dating back to 1633 and written by an Aberdeen teacher, describes in Latin playing a match and passing a ball. This was more than 200 years before England’s Football Association
was formed.

Researchers have been awarded £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, which owns distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour, to fund new research into the still and associated stories from the Aberdeen Registers Online.

Dr Hawes said: “All references to aquavite or whisky from this period are significant because its early development is largely unrecorded.

“Others such as the first ever reference to malt for the king in 1494 are standalone references but what is really exciting here is that it is part of our extensive Burgh Records.

“That means we can trace those involved in the distillation of aquavite throughout the records, looking at their connections, where they lived, their professions and how all of this might be intertwined with the early development of Scotch whisky.

“This could significantly change our understanding of the origins of our national drink.”

It remains a mystery exactly how or when whisky first emerged in Scotland, although there is some evidence to show that the art of distilling could have been brought to the country by Christian missionary monks. 

The first taxes on Scotch were introduced by the Scottish Parliament in 1644, leading to an increase in smuggling and illicit whisky distilling. By the 1820s, as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year. 

A century later, in Prohibition-era US, whisky was exempt from the ban if prescribed by doctors for medicinal purposes. During a visit to New York in 1932, Winston Churchill, was hit by a car and subsequently prescribed a “naturally indefinite” quantity of whisky “especially at mealtimes”.