A Whisky's Tale

March 24, 2017

The oldest record of whisky happened in 1494, at the Scottish Exchequer Rolls. There was an entry of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor to make aquavitae’

Aquavitae: Archaic name for a concentrated aqueous solution of ethanol

Another reference to whisky took place during a funeral of a Highland laird in around 1618. In an unpublished letter dated February 1622, it stated that the King ordered for the best entertainment to be given during the event. In exact words, ‘For they wantit not wine nor aquavite’. Aquavite was no doubt locally distilled whisky. 

In the Era of King Henry VIII, as the popularity of whisky grew all through the 16th century, until 1541. English King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries in Scotland and forced newly unemployed monks to start their own private production of whisky. The knowledge of this spread all through Scotland. Many believed this was what started the rise as well as popularity of Scottish whisky all throughout the world. In the 18th century when England merged with the Kingdom of Scotland, harsh taxes were imposed on unlicensed alcohol brewery. This resulted in a decline in whisky production. However, many were not deterred by this and continue to produce it in secret at night where low prominence hid the smoke from their fires. It was then that the nickname ‘Moonshine’ was used for whisky.

The trafficking of whisky became an art form of sorts, Scottish and English officials are constantly on the lookout for smugglers on a daily basis for the next 150 years till the ban was removed. The shortage of whisky made a great impact on the rest of the world, especially in America, during the revolution (1765 – 1783).

Back in the day, after the Revolutionary War (1783) money were extremely scarce and so for economic transactions to continue to take place, the farmers began to distill their excess grain into whisky and used the whisky as supplemental income to keep them in business. The whisky was also easier to transport through the mountains as compared to grain. Henceforth, Westerners began to use the whisky as a medium of exchange. Everyone from bartenders to doctors needed alcohol, and its use as an intermediary became custom. Since its value was based on efficiency and not on government order, the practice continued on for many years.

A few years after WW1, the US government repeated the same blunder as in Scotland. In 1791, after the American revolutionary war, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton forced farmers who used whisky as a means of (unofficial) exchange to start paying an additional tax. The whisky tax was introduced as a way to collect war debts from states that had yet to paid their portion. Not surprisingly, as with the 150-year long alcohol ban in Scotland, an underground movement for production and transportation of whisky also started in U.S.

Even so, this continued to bring a lot of unhappiness and displeasure and social protest soon erupted. This revolt became known as the whisky rebellion (1794). Protest and unrest followed and 500 armed men attacked the guarded home of a tax inspector. President George Washington sent peace commissioners to negotiate with the rebels, while simultaneously leading an army of 13,000 soldiers to end the rebellion by force if necessary.

Thankfully, the tax on whisky in the US was abolished in 1933 and the unrest died down soon after. Unfortunately, this setback caused alcohol consumption to remain at pre-prohibition levels for the next three decades. Advancements in the alcohol industry were severely stifled. This was also due to the closure of most of the pre-prohibition breweries which led to the closure of many taverns, mass loss of jobs and overall economic reversal for the alcohol industry in U.S.