Scotch Whisky: 10 of the most important dates in the history of Scotland's national drink

This is how whisky came to be one of Scotland's most famous exports.

Published 20th Aug 2021
Updated 8 th Aug 2023

Whisky production in Scotland is thought to date back several hundred years to when invading Romans brought the art of winemaking to the country.

The issue of a lack of grapes was dealt with in monasteries and farmhouses by substituting barley to make the first form of the distinctive spirit.

Since then whisky has become one of Scotland’s best-known brands, distinct from the ‘whiskey’ produced elsewhere.

Over 1.14 billion bottles are sent around the world each year, accounting for 75 per cent of all Scottish food and drink exports.

So how did whisky distilling become such a crucial industry? Here are the key dates.

There are currently 134 Scotch Whisky distilleries operating in Scotland, exporting bottles of the spirit all over the world.

1494: The first record of whisky

While production had certainly been going on for a number of years prior, the first official mention of whisky was in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland on June 1, 1494, reading: "To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae, VIII bolls of malt." Aqua vitae is Latin for 'water of life', the term for distilled spirits, and the eight bolls of malt would have been enough to make around 1,500 bottle of whisky.

1505: The first record of a whisky still

The first reference to a still, the means by which the first whiskies were made, appears in the council registers of Aberdeen in a case regarding the inheritance of goods belonging to Sir Andrew Gray, who had left "ane stellatour for aquavite and ros watter", Scots for 'a still to make whisky and rose water'.

1506: Royal approval

King James IV of Scotland purchased large amounts of Scotch whisky from the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in the town of Dundee, one of the best known whisky producers of that time.

1644: The first tax on whisky

The first tax on whisky was introduced in 1644, leading many illicit stills to be set up to dodge the levy. May of the law-breaking operations were in the Higlands and by 1782 more than 1,000 illegal stills were being seized there every year.

1823: The Excise Act

In 1823, Parliament introduced the Excise Act, easing restrictions on distilleries but introducing duty on every bottle of whisky sold. It successfully cracked down on the illicit stills and ushered in the modern era of whisky production, with (official) manufacture rising from 2,232,000 gallons to 4,350,000 gallons in a single year.

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1824: Some famous names

Farmer George Smith was the first person in Scotland to take out a licence for a distillery, founding the Glenlivet Distillery to make single malt whisky in 1924. He was quickly followed by other now-famous names including Bowmore, Strathisla, Balblair, and Glenmorangie.

1831: New technology

The introduction of the column still in 1831, invented by Robert Stein, dramatically increased the amount of whisky that could be produced by distilleries, removing the need to clean the still after each batch was made. It also made for a less intense and smoother flavour, increasing the drink's popularity.

1880: Decimation of the competition

The Scotch Whisky industry enjoyed a massive boost after wine, brandy and cognac production in France reduced dramtically sue to a parasitic insect destroying vast tracts of vinyard. Between 1880 and 1890 around 40 new whisky distilleries opened, as the Scottish spirit's popularity soared even further.

1941: A terrific tale

One of the most enduring tales involving Scotch Whisky started when the SS Politician boat sank with a cargo of whisky off the Isle of Eriskay, inspiring the film Whisky Galore! Bottle of the whisky calvaged from the boat now fetch thousands of pounds.

1991: A new definition

On November 23, 2009, the Scottish Whisky Regulations were introduced, regulating the production, labelling, packaging and advertising of the drink. It defined what could be called Scotch Whisky, including that it must be matured in an oak cast in Scotland for at least three years, has a minimum alcohol strength of 40 per cent, and includes no added ingredients other than water and plain caramel colouring.

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