Its earliest origins in Scotland have been shrouded in mystery though peasants, monks and alchemists had all discovered how to transform grain into a potent golden liquid which could be drunk for pleasure, healing or preparing gunpowder for use in battle.
Now it can be revealed that the earliest ever record, dating from 1505, of a still for making ‘aquavite’, Latin for ‘water of life’ and the Middle Scots word for whisky has been uncovered in historical records of renaissance Aberdeen.
Research fellow Dr Claire Hawes, made the remarkable discovery last summer while working her way through deciphering the 1.5 million words in the city’s Unesco-recognised municipal registers covering 1398-1511 to make them digitally available.
“I knew what it was immediately. I was really excited. The first thing I did was to email the entire team,” she said.
The reference appears in the inquest into the inheritance from the death of Sir Andrew Gray, convened at the bailie court on 20 June 1505.
While not the first reference to whisky, widely recognised as being in 1494 when the king ordered malt to be sent to make ‘aqua vite’, it is the earliest ever found for a still for Scotch whisky and its descriptor suggests this was a spirit to drink, rather than to be used in the preparation of gunpowder.
Among his ‘moveable possessions’ was ‘ane stellatour for aquavite and ros wattir’. Andrew Gray, who died in December 1504, was a chantry chaplain in Aberdeen’s parish church of St Nicholas.
Dr Hawes said: “All references to aquavite or whisky from this period are significant because its early development is largely unrecorded.
“That means we can trace those involved in the distillation and how this might be intertwined with the early development of Scotch whisky.
“This could significantly change our understanding of the origins of our national drink.”
Dr Jackson Armstrong, who led the project, and who bought Dr Hawes a bottle of malt whisky to celebrate, said: “This find places the development of whisky in the heart of renaissance Aberdeen, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.
“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.”
Chivas Brothers, which owns a number of distilleries in Scotland including The Glenlivet and Aberlour, have donated £15,000 for research into the still and associated stories.