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Fib of the Week #5: ‘The Scots Invented Whisky’

What a quick week... It's #FibFriday already! And for our: Fib of the Week #5 – ‘the Scots invented whisky’. Generally speaking, you’ll hear this one or a version of it trotted out by people, often older Scots, and even occasionally some brand ambassadors who should know better, whenever they hear international whiskies mentioned. The mentality here is that Scotch is best, Scotch must have been first, and you should only drink Scotch. This, frankly, is a load of old tosh. The history of distillation is complex and not always entirely clear, but uisge beatha, of which whisky is simply an Anglicised form, is simply the Gaelic for “water of life”. Latin ‘Aqua Vita’ in the old alchemical texts. As you may know, there are many drinks across Europe known as the “water of life”, with perhaps the most obvious linguistic example being the aquavit particularly of the Nordic nations and French ‘eau de vie’. So of course we borrowed the word and practice from our European friends.

There is textual evidence for distillation as early as 1200 BCE in the Akkadian tablets from Babylon and Mesopotamia, but with reference to perfume making rather than medicinal or drinking alcohol, which of course came first - you know, before we were willing to admit that we also drink distilled spirits for fun. The first major alchemist in the Western tradition is referenced as Maria Hebraea (Maria the Jewess), active in Alexandria sometime between the 1st and 3rd centuries CE, as far as we can gather from the references in Zosimus of Panopolis and Georgios Synkellos, writing in the 3rd and 8th centuries respectively. We are talking about alchemists, of course, because distillation was always regarded as a kind of alchemy; and let’s face it, whisky has always been a bit of a combination of science and magic. It is unclear in the sources just how much she invented or discovered herself, but certainly Maria is widely accepted as being the first recognised writer of alchemical texts. It is in Zosimus’ references to her that we see the first description of an alembic still, with the arms recommended to be made out of particularly copper or bronze and be at least frying pan thick. This was a 3 armed alembic mainly used for distillation to separate out chemicals - the tribikos, which is still in use in some chemistry labs today. Now, obviously this isn’t the modern copper pot still of the 1700s and 1800s onwards, but the principal sounds pretty close to us. Again, it is uncertain that any of Maria’s distillates were intended for drinking purposes, and certainly not just for casual consumption, but historically this is where the story truly begins. (Incidentally, the cooking approach or apparatus known as the bain-marie - most simply bunging a glass bowl within a pot of boiling water so that the water is just below its base and provides a gentle heat, e.g. to gently melt chocolate - is thought to be one of her inventions; certainly a 14th century alchemist named it after her).

Distillation technology wasn’t exactly lost with the fall of Rome, and no one will be surprised to hear that the “medicinal” benefits of spirits were also discovered quite quickly. Distillation of wine is first attested in around the 9th century CE in the Middle East, where ancient texts were preserved more than they were burned, for which delicate pastime some early Christians had developed a very nasty habit. Distillation returned to Europe around the 12th century, most likely in part as a result of the Crusades - probably the only good thing to come out of state sanctioned religious slaughter, ever. The School of Salerno was using fractional distillation to obtain up to 90% ABV spirit by 1220 CE, but of course to perform and understand distillation required the ability to read alchemical texts, mainly in Latin or Greek, so this was the preserve primarily of the educated and scholastic classes.

So where does this get us to in a short potted history of the start of whisky? Well, the history of missionary-ism and the spread of Christianity is pretty clear. Christian monks first go into Ireland in around 400-600 CE before crossing the narrow sea into the Western Isles, Dàl Riàtà also (Dalriada), and thus into the Scottish heartlands, with Àedàn mac Gabràin the first consecrated Scottish king after his coronation by Columba in c. 574 or 575 CE. Although the first surviving written reference to distillation of malted barley to uisge beatha is from the Exchequer Rolls of 1494, when James IV requested, really demanded, 8 bols of malt from Brother John Cor of Lindores Abbey, to be turned into uisge beatha for his use, there is a great deal of anecdotal evidence from across the West Coast and islands that attests distillation much earlier. This oral history should not be set aside, not least because of the long and healthy history of folk memory and storytelling in the Isles. More importantly for us, if we want to get to the truth of things, the Lairds of the Isles were like kings in their own right, right up until 1493, when a treaty from 30 years previous was discovered between the MacDonald Lairds and Edward IV of England to conquer Scotland. Their lands and titles were seized, Gaelic culture suppressed, and Finlaggan Castle destroyed while all Gaelic records were burned. A crackdown not entirely different, incidentally, to the way in which the Highlands were treated by the English crown after Culloden and the Jacobite rising of 1745. It can also be noted that throughout history, the drinking of strong spirits has always culturally been associated more with the Isles and Highlands than with Lowland or Eastern Scots.

So, despite back in 2018 the very exciting discovery over at Lindores Abbey, proudly in Fife, of likely the oldest kiln still used for whisky found to date, it is almost certain that whisky distillation came into Scotland with the missionaries, coming up through Ireland via the Isles, particularly Islay, before spreading to the rest of the country. Who knows, maybe James IV developed a taste for uisge beatha while he was ensuring the destruction of the Gaelic kingdom, and hence ordered bols of malt one year later for his court in the East? But anyway, what do we know about that route whisky took? It came from Alexandria in Egypt, to the Middle East, through to Italy and France, then up through Ireland and finally into the Isles before it hit mainland Scotland. We cannae say we were the first, nor can we begrudge the vast world of international whisky out there, much of which is bloody good. We can say that we maybe perfected this great spirit after it was given to us by the Irish, and then full cycle, we’ve given that knowledge back to the world to make great spirits. So even if you think you prefer Scotch, try what’s out there - you’re not breaking tradition, and you might be in for a pleasant surprise. On which note, time to pour a dram. Slàinte!

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