If you’re a whisky fan, you really can’t beat a nice dram at this time of year – in fact, at any time of year! But have you ever thought where that water of life came actually from? Ron Mckay delves into history (and a good measure of myth) to find out.

A field of barley, rippling and rustling as the wind stirs through it. It has been a staple of civilisations throughout the world for more than 10,000 years.

I may be slow on the uptake but, if I stood in front of that field, it would never occur to me that, with a little jiggery-pokery, I could turn it into whisky.

But someone did. And long before the first record of it in Scotland in the 15th century, which was simply a cue to tax it. How did it come about?

There are as many theories as there are brands of malts, from monks bringing the knowledge over from Ireland (who started it there?) to the Vikings, who had invaded the Middle East, sacked Constantinople and Mesopotamia, and turned up on Iona in 794 to attack the monastery, get drunk and somehow, in their cups, spill the secret of how to make the water of life that they had picked up on their foraging jaunts.

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I have my own theory, which is valid as the previous, and it involves a very lazy man called Donald An Deoch, who lived in a black house somewhere on the west coast, possibly Islay, in the fifth century, which  is handy because no-one could read or write at the time and therefore there are no historical records.

Donald couldn’t quite get the hang of growing barley and, besides, it involved backbreaking effort, so he relied on the charity of his neighbours, promising them he’d repay them handsomely one day when his inheritance from a far-off relative arrived.

No-one believed him, of course, but still they doled out the barley they could spare so he could make his porridge and survive.

The method of making it was to toast the barley and boil it up to make the dish. But Donald had caught several rabbits and hares in his snares so he put the barley in some water, forgot about it, and for almost a week dined on the outdoor catch, which was a lot tastier than his porridge. Now hungry, he remembered the discarded pot, the insides of which were now bubbling away without the aid of direct heat.

What to do? He tasted the scum, which was disgusting, but he had to eat and he had no water because the burn had frozen.

He had heard tales of how ancient seamen produced fresh water from seawater by boiling, catching the steam in fleeces, and squeezing them out to retrieve the fresh stuff. He had the fleeces he had intended to make into bedding hanging above the fire. So he gave it a go.

The result didn’t look too good. He had separated the boiled barley from the water, which he had put into another pot, so he decided to repeat the process. And, when the water had cooled he took a deep swig, lights went off in his brain, his throat
and stomach burned and he staggered back. For Donald it wasn’t just a revelation, it was the water of life or, as he would have called it, uisge beatha.

Wherever it came from, there was a lot of it about, hundreds of whisky pot stills had sprung up all over the country before the first reference to it occurred in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, which records “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae”. That’s about 1200 kilos today or innumerable sore heads. There is also some evidence that home-distilled whisky formed part of the rent paid by tenants to landowners on Highland farms.

Inevitably, the state and big business began to move in. In 1505 the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh (whisky was still being held to be medicinal as it is, of course, today) were granted a monopoly in the town.

And in 1644 the Scottish Parliament passed the Excise Act, taxing whisky at 13p per Scots pint, about a third of a gallon, or just over 1.5 litres (and it’s an interesting factoid that whisky can actually be used to power your car, which will be useful when we run out of oil).

After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707 English revenue staff crossed the border and attempted to impose higher taxes on the hundreds of small distilleries across Scotland. For most of a century it proved a thankless task.

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One of the excisemen taken on, after he shamelessly petitioned several nobles, was Rabbie Burns who started work in 1788, four years later being promoted to Excise Officer for Dumfries, at £50 a year, or about £4500 today.

Apparently, though, it was a sizeable sum then. Mythology surrounds Burns and one story has him single-handedly, cutlass in hand, or perhaps between his teeth as he braved the waves, capturing the grounded smuggling ship Rosamond. But, whatever his part in it, he was certainly there.

The introduction of customs and excise duty following the union of the two countries was regarded as an iniquitous imposition by most Scots, particularly by the hundreds of Highland distillers, and the thousands whose drouths were slaked.

Then, as now, the land was barely productive and even if you were landless you could set yourself up as a distiller and, with a bit of help and ingenuity, not just smuggle whisky to the developing towns but to the large and lucrative English market.

The Statistical Account of Scotland of 1843 put it this way: “While this infamous and demoralising practice prevailed, population increased through the facilities by which families were maintained in the hills and valleys by its profits.”

The system of military roads, developed by Wade and Caulfeild, although breaking down, saw nightly processions of pack animals laden with barrels tramping their way to profit.

The increasing presence of pesky excisemen led to distillers brewing after the sun went down, so that the steam and smoke from the fires went unnoticed in producing the “moonshine”. Corgarff, in what is now Aberdeenshire, was a major centre of distilling as were the glens to the north, such as Glenlivet, now the source of a famous malt from its now legal distillery. Fierce fights between smugglers and excisemen were a nightly occurrence, with the better-armed brigands usually triumphing.

The most famous example is the Porteous riots in Edinburgh, which were triggered by the public hanging of a smuggler, Andrew Wilson, in the Grassmarket in 1736.

Hundreds gathered and became boisterous, no doubt bolstered by the product Wilson was condemned for, directing their ire at the attendant soldiers, led by the officer in charge, Captain John Porteous, two was pelted with mud. As anger grew Porteous gave the order to fire into the crowd and six people were killed, several more injured. He was tried for murder and, unsurprisingly, unanimously convicted by a jury, although the execution was deferred.

Public anger at a possible reprieve mounted and a crowd estimated at 4000 converged on the Tolbooth prison, broke in by overpowering the guards, snatched Porteous from his cell, dragged him to the Grassmarket where they lynched him. There’s a memorial plate still, in the ground where it happened. And, despite a massive reward of £200 for information on those responsible, no-one was ever convicted.

By the 1820s as many as 14,000 illicit stills a year were being confiscated by the excisemen, the gaugers, Burns’ successors. And, despite that, more than half the whisky drunk in Scotland had successfully avoided the tax man.

It couldn’t go on. The Duke of Gordon, who turned a blind eye to some of the finest whisky being produced on his extensive lands, proposed that the government should properly cash in on production.

In 1823 the Excise Act was passed, which outlawed production of less than 40 gallons (to kill off the home producers), legal distilling was sanctioned for an annual licence of £10 and a tax, at today’s equivalent of 12p a gallon. A year later George Smith was the first outlaw distiller to go legal, taking out a licence for Glenlivet, although his neighbours threatened to burn the place down down.

The advent of grain, blended whisky and a crop of Scottish entrepreneurs like James Buchanan, Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker and James Chivas took Scotch beyond Britain, beyond the British Empire to America, Australia and the most remote spots on the planet.

Scotch boomed in the US. Prohibition in 1920, however, put a dampener on trade and several Scottish distilleries were mothballed. It was, though, still possible to beat the ban as long as whisky was prescribed for medicinal purposes.

One person to squeeze through the loophole was Winston Churchill. In December 1931 he was on a 40-stop lecture tour when he looked the wrong way crossing Fifth Avenue in New York and was knocked down by a car and hospitalised.

His US physician provided the sick note, writing that his condition “necessitates the use of alcoholic spirits especially at meal times. The quantity is naturally indefinite ...” Naturally!

And so it goes. Today the Scotch Whisky Association claims that £3 out of every £4 spent on whisky goes to the Treasury, contributing some £5 billion to the economy, with £4bn earned in exports, and more than 40,000 jobs dependent on us repetitively sinking the wee goldies.

To distil alcohol today you need a licence from HMRC. You also need to provide a business plan and prove that you’re a fit
and proper person, aka rich, as well as a fulfilling a dizzying number of regulations and requirements, which rules it out for all but large companies with oodles of cash and savvy lawyers.

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And if you want to make it for your own use? Well you can’t, because the taxman won’t give you a licence. It makes you
wonder just why it’s so easy to buy the wherewithal on Amazon and other places, some for less than £100, like the 21-litre, stainless steel Moonshine Still? It couldn’t be that the maximum fine is £500 and the chances of being prosecuted are of the lightning strike possibility?

But, despite the conflicts over its chequered history, or probably because of it, we have developed the greatest, most distinctive, varied and unequalled range of the finest spirit ever produced. And we owe it all to Donald An Deoch.