Sunday, June 1, 2014

Raise a Glass of Single Malt to Scotch’s Maybe Birthday

This illustration from a 1519 Treatise manuscript shows the distilling process.

Well, it may not actually be the occasion of the creation of the first batch of Scotch whiskey, it is the first time, apparently, anyone sat down with quill and parchment and recorded the event.  And since it was in a royal ledger book, who are we to argue?  According to the Exchequer Rolls, 1494–95, Vol. x, p. 487 payment was authorized to “Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.”
The King in question was James IV of Scotland, one of the Stewart kings and son-in-law of the first English Tudor, Henry VII.  So you know he was an important guy who generally got what he wanted.
What he wanted in this case was aqua vitae, literally “water of life.”  This was a term usually associated with a particularly fine sort brandy.  But instead of wishing it to be distilled from grape, Henry wanted a beverage distilled from malt, a grain. 
Where he got such an idea is anyone’s guess.  Mine is that a court favorite had already slipped him a dram or two and got him hooked like an old time pusher on the playground did with free tastes of smack.
The courtier in question was the aforementioned Friar John Cor.  Cor was a learned man, a member of the Tironensian Order or Gray Friars, an order split from the Benedictines.  These brothers lived to be “of service in the world” rather than live in cloistered contemplation and isolation.  A relatively new order it had spread widely from its French origins, it had established fine and wealthy Abbeys in England, Wales, and Scotland.  Cor was from Lindores Abbey in Fife.  The brothers there were said to be skilled alchemists.  Perhaps they had already perfected a new way to transmute ordinary grain to liquid gold.
Cor was living out his calling of being of service to the world.  Like other friar he was absent from the Abbey for extended periods doing good work among the people.  Cor was said to have been an apothecary, a useful skill and considered a sort of herbal doctor.  Somehow Cor caught the eye of the King who brought him into the Royal household as a clerk.  These important positions were generally held religious men because most of the Scottish nobility was illiterate.
The brother evidently rose to be a court favorite.  Records show that The King gave him a gift of 14 shillings on Christmas Day in 1488, and at Christmas in 1494 he was given black cloth from Lille in Flanders for his livery clothes as a clerk in royal service.  The following year he received his commission to supply the king with liquor.
The eight bols of malt given to Cor for the purpose would be enough to distil about 1,500 bottles.  That indicates that a distillery at Lindores Abbey was well established and had probably been producing whiskey for years, if not decades, before James decided to stock his cellar.
Given no earlier information, however, the Scots are content to celebrate this date as the birthday of the national beverage.  And the Scots are very serious about their whiskey.
The popularity of aged malted liquor grew, and distilleries spread over the landscape, each one with their own unique recipes.  When whiskey production became taxed in 1644, almost all distilleries became, in essence, moonshine operations and continued so for almost two and a half centuries.  Being an excise man in parts of Scotland was a very dangerous occupation.  Finally, in 1823, Parliament eased restrictions on licensed distilleries with the Excise Act, while at the same time making it harder for the illegal stills to operate, thereby ushering in the modern era of Scotch production.  Improved distillery technology and the practice of blending single malt batches with barley and rye versions of Scotch led to vastly increased output and consistent products marketed by brand names like Johnny Walker, Dewers, J&B, and Cutty Sark.  Today whiskey snobs pay exorbitant amounts of money to show off with small batch single malt Scotch whiskeys, while once popular blended Scotch brands loose favor in saloons to Vodka and clear rums.
On a note of cultural diffusion, the practice of distilling spirits from grain came to the new world with the waves of Scotch-Irish immigrants from the mid 18th Century on.  These were folks on the cutting edge of any frontier.  They quickly found that distilling whiskey from corn or rye was the cheapest and easiest way to get their grains to distant markets across the formidable transportation barriers of the Appalachian Mountains.  That led to conflict with the infant Federal government over taxation and the Whiskey Rebellion that George Washington crushed with a larger army in the field than he had ever commanded in the Revolution. 
With a tradition of illegal distilling, the Scotch-Irish simply melted into the hills, hollows, and remote places to continue making their whiskey.  The conflict between Revenuers and moonshiners helped create a culture of hate and mistrust of the government that continues to this day.
So if you wish, I guess you could blame Friar Cor for the Tea Party.  But I would rather not.
But I would like a dram or two of fine old Scotch.  Who’s buying?

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