Aberdeen ‘could be birthplace of Scotch whisky’

The city of Aberdeen could have been the site of the first Scotch whisky still, according to researchers who came across a record from 1505.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen found a 1505 record for a still making ‘aquavite’ – Latin for ‘water of life’ and the Middle Scots word for what is now known as whisky – in the city’s Unesco-recognised Burgh Records.

Dr Claire Hawes discovered the document as she was deciphering the 1.5 million words in Aberdeen’s municipal registers, the earliest and most complete collection for any Scottish town, to make them available online.

It is thought to be the earliest found mention of a Scotch whisky still and its descriptor suggests the equipment was used to create spirit for drinking, rather than to be used in the preparation of gunpowder.

However, it is not the first reference to whisky, which is widely recognised as being in 1494 when King James IV ordered malt to be sent to make ‘aquavite’.

The reference to the still appears in the inquest into the inheritance arising from the death of Sir Andrew Gray, held by the bailie court of Aberdeen on 20 June 1505.

Gray died in December 1504 and among his possessions was a still, which he is thought to have used during his lifetime.

“This is the earliest record directly mentioning the apparatus for distilling aquavite, and that equipment was at the heart of renaissance Aberdeen where at this time our own university had just been founded and the educational communities of humanism, science and medicine were growing,” said the University of Aberdeen’s Dr Jackson Armstrong, who led the project to transcribe the Burgh Records.

“This find places the development of whisky in the heart of this movement, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

“What is more, some other early references to aquavite refer to the spirit used in the preparation of gunpowder for the king. The Aberdeen still being for aquavite and rose water may suggest, by contrast, that it was for making whisky to drink.”

‘Significant find’ 

The Aberdeen record shows that the aquavite still was in the hands of a George Barbour at the time of the hearing and he was ordered to hand over possession to Gray’s heir, dean Robert Kervour.

“This is a very significant find in the history of our national drink. It reframes the story of Scotch whisky and suggests new layers of complexity in Scotland’s urban history,” added Armstrong.

Researchers have now been awarded £15,000 (US$18,790) in funding from Pernod Ricard’s Scotch whisky arm Chivas Brothers. It will fund new research into the still and associated stories from the Aberdeen Registers Online.

Hawes said the funding would allow the research team to uncover further details of the origins of whisky in Aberdeen.

“All references to aquavite or whisky from this period are significant because its early development is largely unrecorded,” she explained.

“Others such as the first ever reference to malt for the King in 1494 are stand-alone references but what is really exciting here is that it is part of our extensive Burgh Records.

“That means we can trace those involved in the distillation of aquavite throughout the records, looking at their connections, where they lived, their professions and how all of this might be intertwined with the early development of Scotch whisky.

“This could significantly change our understanding of the origins of our national drink.”

Karen Betts, chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, said: “This is an exciting discovery which adds to our understanding of the history of Scotch whisky distillation.

“The work that the University of Aberdeen has done to uncover new information about the origins of the industry is particularly timely given the surge in Scotch whisky distilling in recent years.

“All new distillers learn their craft from the past, and so ensure that the heritage and traditions of the industry are taken forward into the future.”

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