The story of distilling in Scotland begins over 500 years ago, with a tax record entry noting the production of 'aqua vitae' marking the very start of what would become an established industry in the centuries that followed. Scotch whisky production has remained an integral part of Scotland's economy and cultural identity to this very day, however, that is not to say it has been a simple story of prosperity and growth. From the knock-on effects of American prohibition in the early 1900s to the 'Whisky Loch' of the 1980s, there is much more to this fascinating story than meets the eye, not to mention the iconic distilleries that have been lost along the way.
The Early Days
Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.
1494 tax records, the Exchequer Rolls
This simple entry found in the 1494 tax records of the day, the Exchequer Rolls, marks the earliest documented record of distilling in Scotland, with 'aqua vitae' the beginning of whisky as we know it.
The spirit was distilled from malted barley in a process that would be refined over the next 150 years, during an era when whisky production was very much an un-regulated affair. However, as the popularity of whisky continued to grow, the Scottish Parliament would eventually come calling and the first taxes on Scotch whisky were introduced in 1644 - leading to an era of smuggling and illicit distilling that would continue across Scotland into the early-19th century. The passing of the Excise Act in 1823 provided legal means to produce whisky in Scotland, ultimately putting an end to illicit distilling and giving rise to over 300 distilleries that flourished in that decade. The first 'golden era' for Scotch production would arrive less than 60 years later, catalysed by a not-so golden era for European vintners.
The modern Lindores Distillery, opened in 2018 on the site where Friar John Cor first made aqua vitae.
The First Golden Age of Growth
The mid-late 1800s is considered the first 'golden era' for Scotch whisky, a period of prosperity that would lay the foundations for the industry's successes today. Whisky became an export for the first time during this period, with the likes of Andrew Usher, Tommy Dewar, Johnnie Walker and James Chivas pioneering the art of blending whisky and bringing the spirit to the U.S. and beyond. During this time, many of Europe's great wine regions were devestated by the Phylloxera beetle, a vineyard pest that crippled the wine industry. This opened an opportunity for Scotch to replace brandy as the spirit of choice among high society. By the time the French winemaking industry had recovered, Scotch had more than taken the share of the market and close to 160 distilleries existed in Scotland in the late-1880s. Unfortunately, these successes would not last forever and an overproduction of Scotch, coinciding with the bankruptcy of one of the industry's biggest names, would culminate in the 'Pattison Crash' of 1898, marking the beginning of what would be the first major downturn in the market.
Clynelish Distillery (later known as Brora), circa 1905.
Periods of Decline
Pattisons was a blended Scotch whisky producer that played an integral role in the booming industry of the late-19th century, but was also instrumental in its ultimate decline. Pattisons bankruptcy, followed by convictions for fraud and embezzlement, saw knock-on effects across the country with a number of companies following into bankruptcy - Glen Elgin distillery would open in 1900 and close just 5 months later. Furthermore, a new distillery wouldn't be built in Scotland until 1949, with many closed during this 50 year period.
From 1920 to 1933 the United States passed a nationwide law that prohibited the production, importation, and sale of alcohol: the effects on the Scotch whisky industry cannot be understated. As one of Scotland's biggest markets, the future of the industry was uncertain at this time and the consequences of the Pattison Crash, followed by the First World War and over 30 years of U.S. prohibition, crippled it almost to the point of collapse. From having 159 whisky distilleries in Scotland in 1900, it's thought that as few as 15 remained operational by 1933.
The effects of prohibition were felt even more keenly in Ireland. This was compounded by the Irish War of Independence, which led to a secondary loss of export opportunities for distilleries in the new Republic. The nation's whiskey industry wouldn't see a true resurgence until the 21st century - read more about Ireland's whiskey journey here.
Perhaps suprisingly, Prohibition wasn't all bad news for the Scotch Whisky Industry. In fact, the reputation of Scotch in the United States actually grew during this period. An odd exemption that allowed whisky to be prescribed by a doctor for medicinal purposes meant that exports didn't drop as much as expected, and the United States became Scotland's greatest overseas market following the repeal of prohibition.
1930s whisky from Scotland's closed Glenfyne distillery and Ireland's closed Jones Road distillery. [Source: Whisky Auctioneer]
The 1950s-1970s was a boom era for the Scotch whisky industry, with some of the most acclaimed single malt whiskies of all time produced during these decades. During this period, the Distillers Company Limited or DCL (now Diageo), was a controlling giant in the industry, responsible for the opening of many new distilleries in order to meet increasing demand. This growth sadly preceded a devastating period for the industry and widespread overproduction of whisky in the 1970s (combined with a decline in demand) culminated in the 'whisky loch' of the early-1980s - aptly named as the volume of surplus stock was said to be enough to fill a loch.
A wave of DCL distillery closures would follow, with knock-on effects felt across the industry and a total of 20 distilleries closing their doors in the 1980s. Some would lay dormant awaiting their revival in years to come, others would be demolished and truly lost to the history books. The iconic names of Brora, Rosebank, Port Ellen, Littlemill, Dallas Dhu, Glenugie, and St Magdalene (Linlithgow) were all shuttered during this period.
Read more about legendary closed distilleries in our article: Scotland's Iconic Lost Distilleries
Port Ellen distillery, Islay, closed in 1983.
Resurgence and Modern Market
In 1994, the Scotch whisky industry celebrated the 500th anniversary of whisky production in Scotland, with export sales of Scotch reaching £2 billion for the first time in history that very year. This rise in popularity has continued to this day, with Scotch whisky enjoyed in almost every country around the globe, many believing that the industry is currently in a new golden era. With the revival of lost distilleries (including Brora, Port Ellen & Rosebank), a wave of new distilleries appearing across the nation (including Nc'nean, Lochlea & Lagg) and a booming secondary market (a bottle of The Macallan 1926 sold at Whisky Auctioneer for £1 million in 2021), it is hard to argue otherwise.
It has been less than 30 years since export sales of Scotch first reached £2 billion, and in 2022 a new milestone was reached when exports of Scotch Whisky surpassed £6 billion for the first time. That year, Whisky Auctioneer's sales surpassed £50 million for the first time also, another testemant to the incredible successes of the industry - it's certainly a great time to be a Scotch whisky lover.