Rome's physical presence in Britain might have long been extricated from the island but as the lingua franca of early European scholars an ancient Latin translation has remained - with universal understanding - aqua vitae, the Water of Life, from the Gaelic uisge beatha more commonly known as whisky.
Thank the Irish monks who arrived in Kintyre around AD500 for this remarkable gift of hospitality and economic benefit to Scotland. The social significance of whisky marks the mundane and the celebratory. A dram will welcome travellers and the birth of a child alike, seal business deals, ease the burden of illness, revive a body after slogging through a peat bog, send guests off with 'deoch an doruis' (better recognised as 'one for the road') and, always, the dearly departed are remembered and wished Godspeed with copious amounts of whisky. For lack of wine and bread, whisky, along with oatcakes, was even used to serve Communion before the Battle of Culloden. In contemporary society uisage beatha contributes over £2.2 billion in exports and some £1.8 billion to the domestic food and beverage industry - without Scotch, the United Kingdom trade deficit in this sector would increase by 40%.
When the first documentary evidence appears in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls in 1494 for, 'eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae' whisky had already been made in Scotland for centuries. In 1505, the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh was granted a monopoly over the manufacture of aqua vitae - a fact that reflects that spirits were valued for their medicinal properties. Scotland's great Renaissance king, James IV (1488-1513) was fond of 'ardent spirits' and treasury accounts for 1506 record a payment to a Dundee barber for 'a supply of aqua vitae for the king's pleasure'. In 1527 Hieronymous Braunschweig's book, The vertuose boke of Dstyllacyon, the first on the subject as whisky as a medicine, was translated and published in English. With the ink barely dry on the Act of Union with England in 1707 the London based Parliament made both malt and whisky taxable; in 1777 there were eight licensed distilleries in Edinburgh and an estimated 400 unlicensed stills and by the 1820s as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year. The illicit stills had access to the best raw materials, few overheads and their home-made whisky became the basis for the high industry standards we enjoy today. Whereas, to pay the duty on their production licensed distillers cut corners and the quality of their product fell. For some 150 years smuggling became standard practice with no moral stigma attached as ministers of the Kirk often made storage space available under the pulpit - any effective means to avoid the Excise men. Ironically, the roadways built throughout the Highlands to enable the Crown's soldiers to reach 'troublesome areas' subsequently enabled the smugglers to get their whisky to larger urban markets in the south where demand outstripped supply. In 1823 the Excise Act was passed and over the course of the next decade smuggling died out almost completely. Many of Scotland's great present day distilleries stand on out of the way sites used by those illicit stills of old.
Similar to the French wine concept of 'terroir' each of the groups of single malt Scotch has its own clearly defined characteristics and according to the nuances of the distiller, the water, amount of time spent drying over peat smoke as well as what was aged in the oak casks previously. Michael Jackson, in his seminal volume Complete Guide to Single Malt Whisky, says, "The best Scotch whiskies taste of the mountain heather, the peat, the seaweed. They taste of Scotland, more obviously than even Cognac tastes of its region or the best Tequila of its mountain soil." The term Scotch is internationally protected; for a whisky to be labelled Scotch it cannot be produced anywhere except within Scotland's borders. Excellent whiskies are made by similar methods in England, Wales, Ireland and America and, notably, in Japan, but they cannot legally be called Scotch. The seemingly simple ingredients of whisky are barley, an abundance of clear pure water and the rich earthy peat cut from the moors; all of these are used in their purest, unadulterated form. The addition of yeasts and a multiple step distillation process which culminates in the aging of Scotch results in the amber coloured liquid enjoyed in over 200 countries. It wasn't always so, Scotch whisky was for long drunk as the water-white liquid, moonshine that is still made in the Appalachia region of the United States today often by the descendents of 18th century Scots immigrants. It's thought that a forgotten puncheon is responsible for the regulation now governing the maturation of the Scotch in oak casks for a minimum period of three years. The selection of casks has a profound effect on the character of the final whisky, thus used casks are needed. The most common source of casks is American whiskey producers, as U.S. laws require that bourbon and Tennessee whiskey age in new oak casks. Bourbon casks impart a characteristic vanilla flavour to the whisky. An important minority of whisky maturation occurs in sherry casks. This practice arose because sherry used to be shipped to Britain from Spain in the cask rather than having been bottled, and the casks were expensive to return empty and were unwanted by the sherry cellars. Sherry casks are more expensive than bourbon casks, and account for only seven percent of all casks imported for whisky maturation. In addition to imparting the flavours of their former contents, sherry casks lend maturing spirit a heavier body and a deep amber colour. The Macallan Distillery goes so far as to build their own casks, leases them to the sherry cellars in Spain for a time, then has them shipped back to Scotland to ensure the unique aspects of their extraordinary whisky. The whisky continues to develop as it spends time in the wood, and maturation periods of twenty years or more are not uncommon. Each year spent in the wood reduces the alcohol content of the whisky as the alcohol evaporates through the porous oak the lost alcohol is known as the 'angel's share' thus the reason why the older the whisky, the more expensive it is.
Like many things in our globalised economy most distilleries are no longer owned by Scots whose forebears avoided The Crown on gravel tracks scattered across Scotland. If Scottish ownership is important may I suggest Macallan, Glenfarclas, Bruichladdich, and Bunnahabhain. Regardless of ownership Scotch remains critically important to Scotland's economy so, Slainte Mhath, to your very good health or Sguab as e, polish it off.