Ancient records could ‘reframe the early story of Scotch whisky’

Historians at the University of Aberdeen believe they’ve found the earliest record of a whisky still in Scotland, making the city the birthplace of Scotch.


Aberdeen could be the birthplace of Scotch whisky.

Research fellow Dr Claire Hawes found a 16th century record for a still for making ‘aquavite’, both Latin for ‘water of life’ and the Middle Scots word for whisky, while working her way through deciphering the 1.5 million words in Aberdeen’s municipal registers to make them available online.

Although it is not the first reference to whisky, which is widely recognised as being in 1494 when the king ordered malt to be sent to make ‘aqua vite’, the document is the earliest ever found for a still for Scotch whisky, and its descriptor suggests this was a spirit to drink.

Dr Jackson Armstrong, who led the project to transcribe city’s UNESCO-recognised Burgh Records, said the record dating to 1505 is the earliest “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.”

(L-R) Phil Astley, Dr Jackson Armstrong and Dr Claire Hawes outside the Illicit Still on Guestrow.

He said the find could “reframe the early story of Scotch whisky.”

“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,” he said.

“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.”

The modern English word ‘whisky’ comes from the Gaelic ‘uisge beatha’, which also means water of life. It appears in various forms in written records from about the seventeenth century onwards to refer especially to the aquavite made in the largely Gaelic-speaking highlands and islands.

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

According to Dr Hawes’ research this is almost certainly the same man, known as Robert Carver, who would later become a famous choral composer based at the Chapel Royal at Stirling Castle.

Dr Armstrong also said there are “tantalising” suggestions of where the still could have been located.

“Andrew Gray had property in a street known as Guestrow,” he said. “In Middle Scots this distinct place name was usually written as ‘gastraw’, in which ‘gast’ means ghost or wraith. So the very first reference to a whisky still is likely to have been on a street associated with spirits.”

Today just a small section of Guestrow remains, opposite the bustling Broad Street, and it is home to the appropriately named ‘Illicit Still’ pub, said Armstrong.

“The name recollects a later age when whisky was crafted for sale undetected by the taxman, but it is possible that its location has a connection to the history of Scotch going back much further.”

He said this is “very significant 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.”

The researchers have now been awarded £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, which will fund new research into the still and associated stories from the Aberdeen Registers Online.

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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