Although today the spirit is made all over the globe Scotland is still the undisputed king of whisky, producing many of the world’s finest and rarest single malts which can fetch hundreds of thousands of pounds at auction. The very earliest record of distilling in Scotland dates back to 1494 when Friar John Cor of Lindores Abbey in Fife paid duty on 8 bottles for King James IV. The practice probably started much earlier, though, with monasteries using their stills to make medicines and liqueurs as early as the 12th century.
Distilling really took off in the 17th century thanks to the dissolution of the monasteries forcing former monks to turn to alternative vocations and war with France which prevented imports of brandy and wine. Making whisky and other spirits also became an illicit activity; in 1780 there were just 8 legally-registered distilleries and more than 400 illegal ones.
Distillers would go to great lengths to hide their activities by setting up in remote Highlands locations and some would even work by the light of the moon, giving rise to the nickname “moonshine”. This also helps to explain why whisky production thrives even to this day in some of Scotland’s most inaccessible corners where secrecy and exceptionally pure water were abundant. It is thought that by the 1850s over half of all whisky consumed had escaped duty payments.
Whisky as we know it today exists thanks to the invention of the Coffey still by Aeneas Coffey in 1831. Prior to this quality varied wildly and most whisky would have been rough and fiery. This made it possible to blend smoother grain whisky with richer flavoured malts. The popularity of whisky increased almost overnight.
The fledgling Scotch market also benefited from the poor fortune of the wine industry. The phylloxera louse caused widespread devastation of vineyards across Europe, bringing the production of wine and spirits like cognac to a halt in the late 1800s. The upper classes replaced the brandy in their glasses with Scotch and sales soared. This also helps to explain why France is the biggest market for Scotch by volume; in 2019 they imported 173 million bottles.
Scotch’s success in the USA, which is currently the biggest market by value, came from another unfortunate historical event. During Prohibition in the 1920s and 1930s local production of spirits crashed, but Scotch brands like Cutty Sark were smuggled in and sold on the black market. Whisky could be consumed legally if prescribed by a doctor, something Winston Churchill used to his advantage on a visit in 1932. His New York doctor specified that Churchill required at least “250 cubic centimetres” to be served at meal times. The U.S.A. became a crucial market for Scotch in those pre-war years and today the country’s imports are worth over £1 billion each year.
Scotch’s colourful history has helped create a style of whisky which ranks as the world’s top internationally-trade spirit and is coveted and collected in more than 180 countries. Annual exports of Scotch are worth £5 billion and 42 bottles of Scotch were shipped every second during 2019. Demand is growing fast, especially in newer markets like India, Brazil and parts of Africa, and the future looks very bright indeed for the world’s most popular spirit.