On this date in 1495 is entered the following in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland:
“To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.”
This is the first known reference to Scotch whisky. Obviously it had been in production for some time before this date, so my title is a tad misleading. Forgive me; I have to draw readers in somehow. “Aqua vitae” (the water of life) is a common Latin name for liquor but in this case means whisky. Historians estimate that this amount of malt would have produced the equivalent of 400 liters or more of whisky, which at that time was considered medicinal.
Friar John Cor was a Tironensian monk based at Lindores Abbey in Fife, but was also a servant at the court of James IV. The King gave him a gift of 14 shillings on Christmas Day in 1488, and at Christmas time in 1494 Cor was given black cloth from Lille in Flanders for his livery clothes as a clerk in royal service. He was probably an apothecary to the court. The Tironensians were well regarded for their skills as alchemists. Because of this early quote, Lindores Abbey has come to be known as the birthplace of Scotch whisky. The whole entangled history of whisky, alchemy, monasticism, and medicine is intriguing.
Whisky is distilled beer. Beer is made by fermenting barley which usually has been malted (allowed to sprout and then roasted) because this intensifies the sugar content needed in fermentation. Archeological evidence shows that beer has been produced for at least 7,000 years, beginning somewhere in the Fertile Crescent – probably in the region now known as Iran. The earliest pottery shards containing traces of beer come from Godin Tepe in the Zagros mountains.
The discovery of how to make beer may have been accidental. There are natural yeasts in the air, so that if you leave wet barley out it will ferment on its own. Fermentation occurs when you combine yeast and sugar in a wet environment, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Hence yeast is used for beer making and bread making. For beer making the alcohol is important (ancient beers were not carbonated), and for bread making the carbon dioxide is what makes doughs rise (and the alcohol burns off in baking). It has been argued that the control of yeast reactions was one of the first steps in the development of science and technology, setting off a chain of events that got us in the mess we are in today. For example, yeast breads need an oven. Once you have an oven you can fire pottery that is much more durable than pottery fired in the open . . . and so it goes. The onward march of civilization began with bread and beer.
Under conventional methods of brewing you can’t make a beer stronger than about 12% alcohol because at higher concentrations the yeast dies. To get higher concentrations you have to shift to distillation. Generally when people think about distillation they think about producing spirits such as whisky, but distillation has many more uses than producing drinks that make you warm and fuzzy. Making strong drinks is not why distillation was first invented.
The first clear evidence of true distillation comes from Greek alchemists working in Alexandria in the 1st century CE, although the Chinese may have independently developed the process around the same time. Distilled water was described in the 2nd century CE by Alexander of Aphrodisias – working on producing drinkable water from seawater. By the 3rd century CE the Alexandrians were using a distillation alembic. The principles of the alembic are the basis of all true distillation. The image shown here of an alembic is from a work by the 8th century Persian alchemist Jābir ibn Hayyān. Distillation relies on the fact that different liquids have different boiling points. So the trick is to take a mixture that is made up of two different liquids, such as beer, which consists of water and alcohol, and then raise it to a temperature above the boiling point of the alcohol 79°C but below the boiling point of the water 100°C. That way the alcohol boils off but the water does not. This is distillation.
Of course it is not much fun to simply boil the alcohol off a perfectly good batch of beer. What you want to do is capture the alcohol and leave the water behind. That’s where the alembic comes in. From the diagram you can see that there is a main vessel under which is a fire. In the main chamber of the vessel is the mix you want to distill. You heat it to the right temperature, the vapors boiling off rise to the top and then descend through the long, thin neck where they cool and return to a liquid which is then collected in a flask at the end of the neck. The stuff you don’t want is left behind. You might wonder why abstemious Muslims such as Jābir ibn Hayyān were distilling alcohol. The fact is that they were not. They were using distillation to make perfumes (which were very famous), or to perform alchemical experiments.
Muslim alchemists brought the process of distillation to western Europe where it was used to distill alcohol for the first time. By the 12th century there is evidence of the distillation of alcohol in numerous places including Italy, Germany, and Ireland. It probably arrived in Scotland via Ireland, but the dates are unclear. In each of these places distillation was used on the local alcoholic beverage to produce spirits. Thus Irish and then Scotch whiskies came about. The issue remains as to how monks were involved.
Monks, like John Cor, were frequently apothecaries and had installations in their monasteries to produce potions and elixirs. That is, as monks they were working as healers. Whisky was one such elixir. Cor was producing it not to be drunk as a beverage, but as a medicine. Consumption of distilled beverages rose dramatically in Europe in and after the mid-14th century, when distilled liquors were commonly used as remedies for the Black Death. Liquors were used to cure a number of ailments because their consumption made patients feel better! Hence they were generally known under the term aqua vitae, the water of life. Scots Gaelic for “water of life” is uisge beatha, pronounced ooshki bahah. From ooshki it is one small step to “whisky.”
The kind of whisky that John Cor produced probably did not taste very pleasant although it did the trick physically (roughly 40% alcohol). The problem lay in the materials used to make alembics. Recent archeological evidence suggests that early Scottish alembics were made either of glass or pottery. They give you the desired alcoholic content, but distilling beer into whisky also concentrates sulfurous compounds, especially dimethyl trisulfide (DMTS), found in the original drink. DMTS in high concentrations is extremely foul tasting. I suppose people did not mind having their elixirs taste bad because medicine is supposed to be nasty. But, if you want to use whisky as a drink you have to get rid of the DMTS, or at least enough of it that it becomes one among many notes. After all, it is present in a large number of vegetable products we eat every day and we don’t mind because the concentrations are so low. The solution to the problem is to make your alembic/still out of copper. Copper eliminates a large percentage of the DMTS and leaves a much more pleasant liquor as a result. I am not sure when copper stills were first used in Scotland, but when they were, the transformation of aqua vitae to whisky was complete. Slàinte !
I gather from my researches that cooking with whisky has become something of a vogue these days. Chefs describe it as a flavor enhancer as if it were salt or MSG. There’s something inherently blasphemous to me about stirring a dram of single malt into a sauce. Yet various single malt distilleries are promoting the idea, presumably to boost sales. Pass. Whisky has long been used in cake baking and steamed puddings, but I’ll pass there too. My objections here are less about the morality of the act, and more about the fact that I don’t like the taste; I prefer to use brandy in fruit cake and Christmas pudding. I do, however, find the use of whisky in dishes that are uncooked quite acceptable. I give you two, one savory and one sweet.
Auld Alliance is a spread made by blending Scotch whisky with Roquefort. The name refers to the fact that there were numerous treaties between Scotland and France dating back to the 13th century against their common enemy – England. There have also been a number of cultural exchanges between the two partners over the years.
Take whatever quantity of Roquefort you need and let it come fully to room temperature. Then pound, mash, and stir it until you have a creamy paste. Then, drop by drop, blend in whisky until the Roquefort has absorbed all that it can. Pot it up and refrigerate for 3 hours or so. Serve it spread on water biscuits or oatcakes, or you can use it as a dip for crudités.
I’ve only made this once and I will warn you that it has a bite to it. You’ll want to spread it sparingly.
Cranachan is a traditional dessert that has become very popular in recent years with people making all manner of changes to it. The traditional version is oatmeal that has been toasted, soaked in whisky, folded in with whipped cream, and served with raspberries. As far as I am concerned this needs no improvement.
Using a heavy skillet, toast 3 ounces of pinhead oatmeal over medium heat. Shake the pan often to make sure the oatmeal does not scorch, which it easily can if you are not vigilant. Let it cool and then place it in a bowl. Pour over 2 to 3 tablespoons of whisky and let it soak overnight. Whip 1 cup of whipping cream until it forms soft peaks. Do not overbeat. Gently fold in the oatmeal. Put a few raspberries in the bottom of chilled glasses. Fill up the glasses with the cream mix. Alternatively you may fold raspberries directly into the cream and then garnish the top.