6 things you might not know about Scotch whisky - from links to witches and Walgreens

From witches to 'medicinal' qualities and why you'll always be able to find a whisky distillery - here's some things you might not know about Scotch

Published 11th Oct 2023
Updated 12 th Oct 2023

It has been around for hundreds of years, and has reached £6B in exports, but there are somethings about Scotch whisky that aren't widely know.

Here we take a look at things you might not know about Scotch whisky, from its links to witchcraft to why you'll always be able to find distilleries.

Distillery buildings painted white

You've probably seen some pictures of the most famous Scotch whisky distilleries, where, more often than not, the buildings are painted white with the distillery name spelled out in in huge black letters on the side.

For island distilleries, this was done when deliveries were made via boat, to ensure the correct items were being dropped off at the right place.

Links to witches

It's getting to that time of the year again, when many of us (big and small) will dress up for Halloween.

The tropes we associate with witches - pointy hats, broomsticks and cauldrons - all have links with brewing, which was done by women, known as 'alewives' in Medieval times.

As the water quality was so bad, these alewives brewed beer so that people would have something safe to drink.

According to Witches of Scotland, these alewives had a sign with a broomstick above the door to show you could buy beer on the premises, the brew was made in large cauldrons and they wore pointed hats to make themselves easily identifiable.

This work was seen as 'women's work' but things changed with the craft of brewing became profitable, and women were ousted.

Witches of Scotland writes: "It may have been the very process of removing women from that role by making people suspicious of their “brews” that caused the link to be made with witchcraft and the brewery symbols to become those of witches."

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Distilling, as an extension of brewing, made women vulnerable during these witch hunts and many female brewers and distillers were accused of sorcery and witchcraft, marking the end to this successful cottage industry.

Fèis Ìle
A lot of distillery buildings are painted white Picture: Shutterstock

Women are credited with inventing distilling

In his book, Whiskey Women: The Untold Story of How Women Saved Bourbon, Scotch, and Irish Whiskey, author Fred Minnick explains that in 1400 BC, it was women who created the devices for distilling plant extract, and Maria Hebraea – Maria the Jewess – invented an alembic still prototype around 2AD – though she didn’t use it for making alcohol.

These early roots of distilling are credited to women, and since then women have played key roles in the history of distilling and whisky.

Whisky as medicine

During prohibition in the 20s in America, when it was illegal to sell or consume alcohol, you could still get your hands on whisky (or American whiskey) via prescription form a Doctor.

It has often been said that peated Islay whiskies were some of the ones seen as medicinal, and therefore were able to be legally obtained in the States at this time.

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One business that made the best of this situation was Walgreens, an American pharmacy which you'll still find today.

Already successful in the early 1900s, the business saw rapid growth, from around 50 shops in 1919 to over 500 by 1929. Coincidence? Did Islay whiskies, in part, help Walgreens to become a huge success or was it the milkshakes Mr Walgreen claimed was behind the boom? See for yourself here.

Whisky distilling leaves its mark

A lot of illicit distilling of whisky took place in Scotland, with many distilleries using the landscape (as well as cunning plans) to avoid being caught.

One thing that you'll find around all distilleries is the presence of black mould, or Baudoinia compniacensis to give it its proper name, usually seen on dunnage warehouses.

You may also spot it on trees near distilleries, making it hard to completely hide distilling activities in years gone by.

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Distillery cats and the Guinness Book of Records

When you think of a whisky distillery you may picture the mash tun, still room or enjoying a dram but did you know that distilleries have been employing cats as mousers for hundreds of years?

One cat, Towser, was both an expert mouser and a beloved celebrity at the Glenturret Distillery in Perthshire for almost 24 years - and made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the Mousing Champion of the World.

While many distilleries now no longer have cats, the feline friends at Lindores Abbey in Fife recently made it on to the small screen as they appeared in the Netflix documentary, Inside the Mind of a Cat.

Known for cake making, experimental jam recipes, Champagne, whisky and gin drinking (and the inability to cook Gnocchi), Rosalind is the Food and Drink Editor and whisky writer for The Scotsman, as well as hosting Scran, The Scotsman's food and drink podcast.
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