The beginnings of Scotch whisky are hidden in a dense fog of mystery and legends. All we know for certain is the famous first mention in the 1494 Exchequer Roll of “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor, by order of the King, wherewith to make aqua vitae”. The word whisky as a corruption of uisge beatha only came into use in the 18th century.
But also in the two centuries after 1494 there is precious little exact knowledge about the history of whisky in Scotland, apart from occasional mentions of aqua vitae in historic documents, usually as a tribute to the king or a means of payment. Since it is assumed that early whisky was consumed unaged, the early history of cask ageing is largely unknown as well. The lack of hard facts is not surprising given the fact that epsecially after 1707 most of the whisky was made by illicit distillers, driven into illegality by the abnormally inflated excise duty in effect after the Act of Union with England. And in the time before, whisky was usually made by individual farmers on a very small scale. It was only after the 1823 Excise Act that lawful whisky production was made commercially attractive.
It is common knowledge that grain whisky as we know it today was introduced with the invention of the Coffey still in 1830/31. The new method of continuos distillation allowed a largely increased production capacity, and along with the benefit of cheaper raw materials for grain whisky this laid the foundation for the industrial production of blended Scotch whisky and its global distribution in the late 19th century. The commercial success of Scotch whisky was also greatly helped by the phylloxera disaster that largley devastated French vineyard thus virtually destroying the production of cognac and armagnac.
Due to the 1494 mention of malt for whisky making it is generally assumed that before 1831 whisky was exclusively made from malted barley. But is this really true? A look at whisky’s cousins makes me wonder.
Essentially there are three distinct traditions of distilling sprits from grain. The Celtic whisky, the Slavic vodka and the Germanic Korn. The early histories of vodka and Korn are just as nebulous as that of whisky, but from looking at the first written records it appears that distilling of all three variants properly took off in the 15th and 16th centuries even if there were predecessors, particularly with vodka.
It is believed that early vodka was distilled predominantly from rye, while Korn in Germany was distilled from malted barley and other grains. Looking at German Korn is particularly interesting. Nordhausen is one of the towns with the oldest traditions of distillation on Germany. In 1545 this town banned the distillation of “grain and malt” in order to reserve the cereals for food and brewing. This was also the period when the German Beer Purity Law came into effect (1516 in Bavaria) with the purpose of reserving all grains other than barley for bread making and to ban adulteration and “enhancement” with psychoactive substances from plants.
The distillation ban in Nordhausen was lifted in 1574, and in 1789 there was an official decree that Korn had to be distilled from not less than two thirds rye and not more than one third malted barley. If this Korn spirit was distilled in Scotland and aged in oak casks for three years or more, it would classify as grain whisky under the current Scotch Whisky Regulations.
Returning to Scotland, can we really take it for granted that all those small farmers and illicit distillers in all the centuries before 1831 only ever used 100 percent malted barley in their whisky? Did Scottish distillers really only first think in 1831 about making spirit with other grains? I find this hard to believe, given the history of vodka and Korn.
Without a doubt malt whisky rose to be THE Scottish whisky before the advent of industrialization, very likely because it is richer in taste than grain whisky, even unaged. Aynone who has tried vodka or korn and malt whisky newmake will confirm this. But does this really prove that each and every farmer and smuggler made malt whisky? Grain whisky was cheaper to make in 1831, and it would have been cheaper to make in the years before.
When reading about the history of Scotch whisky there is often the notion that blended whisky became so successful because the addition of grain whisky made the “rough” or “strongly flavoured” malt whisky more palatable. But if historic malt whisky was such a vile spirit, just why did it become so popular in Scotland that 14000 (!) illicit stills were being confiscated annually in the 1820s?
No, the reason for the success of blended whisky was not higher quality, it was the combination of higher volume, cheaper price and consistency of the product which made its global conquest possible. Even today’s malt whisky still is a fairly inconsistent product because every cask is different. Naturally the inconsistency was much bigger in earlier centuries when production methods were not as refined as they are today, and only very little of what is happening in whisky making was scientifically understood. You could never be certain what exactly to expect with historic malt whisky. But does that mean much of it was rotgut? Certainly not.
Blending low volume malt and high volume grain whisky made it possible to level out those differences and supply very large markets with whisky of consistent quality, so that customers finally could become accustomed to a brand that strived to taste always the same. This concept has become so successful that nowadays even the Scots themselves drink more blended than malt whisky.
So the secret success story of Scotch grain whisky did essentially begin with the introduction of blends in the second half of the 19th century. And all discussions about marketing stunts and pricing aside, the recent trend of industy giants putting grain whisky on the agenda is a well-deserved recognition for a largely overlooked whisky type. But actually it may be older than we think.