Aqua vitae was the predecessor of whisky. Although the measure expressed is open to interpretation, the contract ordered by King James IV or on his behalf was likely to have been for around 350 litres of the spirit. As such, it is the oldest substantial evidence of distilling.
At the time, the distillation of alcohol was still not commonplace. Hence, licenses were unnecessary and there was no tax on the liquor. Though a significant contract in those days, the volume was nothing like today’s levels of production. The stills were relatively small and directly heated. Although their necks did not cater for reflux, they did have a characteristic worm tub condenser to cool the hot vapour into liquid ethanol.
Back then, the yeast was probably uncultivated, too. Therefore, we can guess that this early version of whisky was a somewhat spicy liquor with bitter notes. It would have aged for only a few months before the barrels went to the royal palace.
Whisky becomes popular
Originally from France, the Tironensian order was part of the Roman Catholic church. However, in 1559, the reformist leader John Knox order the destruction of Lindores Abbey.
A few decades later, in 1696, Bushmills became the first documented distillery in Ireland. Nonetheless, for another two centuries or so, imported French cognac continued to prevail in England and Scotland – not least in supplies to the royal courts. Then came the vine pest, which destroyed more than half the wine harvest in France’s Cognac region during the late 1700s.
The consequent drop in brandy supplies prompted developments in whisky production. Innovatively, a Scotsman wondered what new-make spirit would taste like if matured in casks previously used for sherry, as in brandy maturation. The rest is history; the automation of glass bottle manufacturing and the processing of barley on an industrial scale both followed not long afterwards.
Lindores Abbey: new distillery
Today, the grassy site of Lindores Abbey is mainly in ruins; Newburgh people put some of the building’s stone blocks to other use. Visitors can find the grounds next to an innovative new distillery founded in 2017, around an hour’s drive north of Edinburgh.
Finally, in 2018, excavations uncovered two nearby pits that appear to have been bases to heat the original traditional kiln stills.