The Scotch Whisky History timeline begins a few centuries ago, with a distilled liquor described as aqua vitae (or the ‘water of life’) already being produced in Scotland as early as the 15th century, with references to malt being supplied for the making of aqua vitae in the Exchequer Rolls for 1494. King James IV visited Inverness in September 1506 and aqua vitae was procured for the King according to the Treasurer’s Accounts. The term ‘whisky’ was apparently first used in the Account Book of Bailie John Stewart of Inverness in 1755, although ‘uiskie’ is mentioned as being provided for the funeral of a Highland Laird in 1618. Gaelic literature rarely makes a reference to whisky – or uisge beatha – before 1700.
Distilling whisky in Scotland appears to have been established by the mid-18th century, where it was described as a ‘modern liquor’ towards 1772, depending mainly on changes to Excise legislation and availability of grain supplies. Whisky then was produced in pot stills of 10 to 40 gallons capacity (for reference: a British gallon = 4.54 litres). Wood was preferred for heating the pot stills, but peat was also used if wood was scarce. Distilling was a seasonal activity during the non-agrarian months of late autumn, winter and early spring.
Illicit Distillation and the Legislative Framework from 1707 to 1823
The Board of Excise was instituted in 1707 and it levied a duty of 3d per gallon on whisky with fiscal policy also causing the malt tax being extended to Scotland in 1725. Ale had previously been the preferred beverage of ordinary Scots folk but due to the impact of the malt tax, there was a rapid decline in ale production which encouraged drinking of claret and brandy from France, port from Portugal and Highland whisky from Scotland, with whisky drinking on a large scale being a post 1750 phenomenon. These increased levels of whisky consumption were supported by developments in the Lowland region of Scotland, where larger distilleries were producing whisky more extensively using coal for fuel instead of wood, importing grain from other Scottish districts where it was surplus, and focusing on quantity over quality with the use of raw grain as well as malted barley.
The volume increase was significant from 50,000 gallons in 1707 to over 400,000 gallons by the late 1760’s and 600,000 gallons by 1783. It was worth noting that the small scale pot still distillers were still producing whisky of superior quality and maintaining a foothold in the market.
Alterations in duty, in the license system for distillers and in regulations governing processes and output impacted on the Scottish distilling industry in the 18th century. Illicit distilling, in particular in the Highlands and around Glenlivet, flourished as these taxes were raised, with smuggling becoming widespread.
Scotland has come a long way since the days of illicit whisky distilling, and it is still hard to believe that back in 1780 there were only about eight legally licensed distilleries in operation, some of which are still in place today, such as Bowmore and Glenturret, whilst others have been lost to history, such as Littlemill, Canonmills, Yoker, Dundashill, Glenochil and Lochrin.
By 1798 there were 89 distilleries but the number was reduced back down to 36 distilleries by 1816 due to the many difficulties experienced by the whisky industry in those days. However, over the period from 1816 to 1840’s, there was a transference of capital from brewing into distilling in Scotland which supported its growth, due to the improved legislation and demand for whisky.
Note that I have produced The Scotch Whisky History Timeline graph above using active and ‘lost’ (closed) distilleries and it reflects the number of licensed distilleries per year from 1772 to 2021. I have included ‘silent seasons’, when a distillery was inactive, where the information was available and hope to continue to improve the timeline accuracy where possible.
The 1823 Excise Act and Technological Innovation
There were a number of different factors that allowed the Scotch whisky industry to flourish at its beginnings as a licensed enterprise: from the 1823 Excise Act, to the invention of the Patent Still by Aeneas Coffey in 1831, the 1860 Spirits Act and the devastation of cognac and wine production in the 1880s due to the introduction of Phylloxera beetle.
Whisky production had continued to steadily increase from 1.696 million gallons in 1791 to 1.8 million gallons in 1820, but after the 1823 Excise Act, production shot up to 3.9 million gallons in 1826 and 8 million gallons by 1833. The 1823 Excise Act is of utmost importance in the creation of the Scotch whisky industry as it encouraged legal distilling through a reduction on the duty and allowed for distilling in stills of 40 gallons or more, inducing smugglers to comply with the law by purchasing a license fee of £10 per annum to distil. This meant that by 1833 there were already 260 licensed distillers in Scotland!
The introduction of the Patent (Coffey) Still in the 1830’s, allowing for continuous distillation and increased output of whisky made from other cereals mixed with some malted barley, created the practice of blending it with pot still whisky to produce a cheaper product. These mass production techniques came into conflict with the traditional craft traditions of pot still distillers, and it changed distilling from a craft to a science.
The Start of Blended Whisky Brands and The 1st Golden Era of Scotch Whisky
Until the 1850s, whiskies consumed in the UK were usually the product of one distillery, with volumes distilled normally restricted by local supplies of grain and water and by the capacity of the pot still with a variation on the quality produced year on year. After 1853, the Excise authorities allowed whiskies from the same distillery to be placed in the same vat once duty paid, even if the whiskies varied in age. These rules were further relaxed by 1860 when the blending of whiskies from various distilleries were permitted.
The start of Blended Whisky brands (initially as a Vatted or Blended Malt but later as Blended scotch) by Andrew Usher in 1853, with his Ushers Old Vatted Glenlivet (OVG) whisky, also allowed for whisky brands to be marketed with a more consistent product on offer. This was an opportunity that the Whisky Barons of the late 19th century fully exploited and their brands are still known to us today, such as James Buchanan (Black & White), Tommy Dewar (Dewar’s), James Stevenson (Johnnie Walker) and Peter Mackie (White Horse).
At the time, the type of scotch whisky generally offered in London was tapped straight into the glass from a barrel at the bar (i.e. a single malt) and this had been produced by drying the barley over peat fires, so it was in effect a peated single malt. Although this type of scotch whisky may be appreciated by many of us today, in those days the population were looking for a more approachable drink and this is where the Blended scotch whisky success began, in effect substituting the shortage of brandy/ cognac and wine (due to Phylloxera epidemic in France) whilst combating other products on offer, such as gin, rum and Irish whiskey.
This would become the 1st Golden Era of Scotch whisky, with distilleries being rebuilt and augmented whilst new ones were also built between 1870 and 1900, so that by 1897, there were 173 distilleries across Scotland, up from 110 distilleries in 1869. The increase in distilling capacity to support a growing demand for Scotch whisky, was supported by growing urbanisation, a rise in real wages and improved transport links both in the Highlands and Lowlands, to help distribute their output.
The Pattison Crash of 1898
Excessive speculation and unsound promotions induced a glut, uncertainty and a collapse in 1898 when the failure of Pattisons Ltd. of Leith precipitated a crisis that the whisky industry only started to recover from shortly before the First World War. This also coincided with the time when the Scotch whisky industry started to focus more on exports due to the heavy duty on spirits consumption in the UK, starting with the 1909 Budget of the Liberal government by Lloyd George, Chancellor of the Exchequer.
This was the first boom and bust cycle that took place within the Scotch whisky industry. This was followed by World War I and the World War II, Prohibition in the US, the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression, devastating the industry and the Lowlands and Campbeltown regions in particular. Neither of these regions have come close to the number of distilleries that they used to have in the late 1800s.
For reference: The Pattison Crash (Inside the Cask blog post)
The 2nd Golden Era of Scotch Whisky and the Rise of Single Malt Brands
The 2nd Golden Era took place from around the late 1950’s to the late 1970’s and it was also the beginning of single malt being marketed as a brand, started by Glenfiddich in 1963 (also the 1st to open a distillery visitor centre in 1969). Others soon followed, such as The Glenlivet, The Macallan and Glenmorangie.
“The reasons for the rapid growth of distilling in the 1960s lie in the relaxation of restrictions on production. The United States market, which had taken the bulk of exports since the end of the war, showed a phenomenal rate of expansion, reflected, for example, in the great success of Dewars, Cutty Sark and J&B Rare blends.” Moss & Hume (The Making of Scotch Whisky)
Between 1959 and 1967 DCL (Distillers Company Limited) increased the number of stills in its distilleries by more than 50 per cent, with major reconstruction projects being undertaken in some cases. Overall, the 1960s was a decade of growth for Scotch whisky not seen since the heady days of the late-Victorian era (the 1st Golden Era of Scotch whisky), with the malt sector doubling its output.
As Moss & Hume (The Making of Scotch Whisky) explain, “The reasons for the rapid growth of distilling in the 1960s lie in the relaxation of restrictions on production. The United States market, which had taken the bulk of exports since the end of the war, showed a phenomenal rate of expansion, reflected, for example, in the great success of Dewars, Cutty Sark and J&B Rare blends. In 1960, American imports were 12,000,000 proof gallons [54,000,000 litres]); by 1968 they were 33,000,000 [150,000,000 litres].”
DCL, the Economic Recession and The Whisky Loch
However, enthusiastic expansion of production followed by another period of economic recession created the scenario of over-supply against demand, resulting in what the press called ‘The Whisky Loch’. This led the largest whisky company at the time (Distillers Company Limited or simply DCL) to close nine malt and one grain distillery in 1983, followed two years later by a further ten malt distilleries.
The Economic Recession began to develop as a result of the Arab-Israeli war in October 1973, which caused a major rise in oil prices the following year. The global economy faltered as a result, with US demand for Scotch fluctuating wildly during the next few years. The economic policies of the UK’s Conservative Government headed by Margaret Thatcher from 1979 led to a fall in inflation and greater business confidence, and globally the situation started to improve.
Malt whisky output had peaked at 207.660 million litres in 1978, falling to 93.383 million litres in 1983 – its lowest level since 1964. This “crash” in production helps to explain the very tight supply for aged malts from the 1980s now affecting the 35 and 40 years old sector.
The Present: The 3rd Golden Era of Scotch Whisky
Since then, Scotch whisky exports and production have gone from strength to strength, with the additional of multiple Malt Whisky Distilleries opened in the last 10 years alone. Today, we have over 140 Malt and Grain Distilleries in Scotland (SWA link for Distillery Map) and Scotch whisky brands are enjoyed in over 200 countries around the world.
Note: the Scotch Whisky History Timeline graph at the start of this blog post is based on information obtained via research and does not fully capture the silent seasons of all distilleries, however I have included where known. Any feedback is welcome as always.
Image below now available for those interested (just click on it and right-click ‘save image as’):
- Book: Malt Whisky Yearbooks by Ingvar Ronde (from 2015 to 2024)
- Book: Scotch Whisky (1950) by J. Marshall Robb
- Book: Scotch whisky, questions and Answers (1965) by The Scotch Whisky Association
- Book: The Letter-book of Bailie John Stewart of Inverness 1715-1752 (1915) by W. Mackay
- Book: The Economic History of Scotland in the 18th Century (1963) by H. Hamilton
- Book: The Scotch Whisky Industry Record (1994) by H Charles Craig
- Book: The Steins: Capitalist Distillers
- Book: Scotch Missed by Brian Townsend
- Book: The Spirit of Whisky by Richard Grindal
- Book: Campbeltown Whisky – an Encyclopedia by Angus Martin
- Book: The Whisky Barons by Allen Andrews
- Book: The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom (1887) by Alfred Barnard
- Book: The Rise and Fall of Pattisons Whisky of Leith by Jim Brown & Louis Reps
- Scotch Whisky & Scotland’s Economy A 100 Year Old Blend (2012) by SWA
- Political Economy of Scotch Whisky (1985) by Lynne F Baxter
- The Scotch Whisky Industry between 1930 and the mid-1970’s by Patrick Brossard/ whiskynews.com
- How the First World War took its toll on a generation of whisky makers who flocked to fight by The Scotsman