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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Monks, Loch Ness & Scotch

Raise glass to St. Columba

I was the only scotch drinker in Alabama. At least I was the only undergrad that I knew of who drank it. True, Scotch is an acquired taste, but the Usher’s Green Stripe that I drank required more getting used to – it was truly awful. I acquired the taste for the simple reason that it made it easy to know which bottle was mine. And that just might be the most Scottish introduction to malt whisky possible without wearing a kilt.

The acquisition stuck – although after graduation the quality got better, and after I went into investment banking better still. And a whole lot pricier, still. Investment types drink a lot of scotch – or did back before the financial universe melted. We drank buckets of the stuff, but given the nature of the business, the price tags had more to do with vanity than being a connoisseur. The bond daddy is a strange creature – he wants everyone to know that he can buy a $300 bottle, but also wants everyone to know he got the price down to $195. I did learn something drinking those show ponies, though – the absolutely best ones I ever had were in the $60- 75 range. Give me a Talisker or a Bruichladdich Port Charlotte any time – Islay style: with the peat and the iodine vapors of the North Sea.

It was that same sea, so it is said, that an Irish monk called Columba crossed to bring the art of distillation to Scotland. St. Columba is an interesting figure, he is mentioned in the account of St. Brendan’s voyage from Ireland to Iceland and onward the next summer to America. He was also firt guy to get credited with banishing the snakes from Ireland – before they revised the story for St. Patrick. The evidence suggests that there were neve snakes in Ireland, I’m not sure what a difference this makes. Still, branding sells. That same St. Patrick, is also credited with introducing distilling to Ireland. Unlike snakes, thought, the evidence suggests that there is a lot of whisky in Ireland.

Later, after landing in Scotland, and this is in writing, Columba recorded the first sighting of a “aqua bestia” in Loch Ness. Just so we have our time-line right, you understand, the sighting was after he’d started a distillery.

That having been said, those monks were distilling wine for brandy or even mead. It wasn’t until the eleventh or twelfth centuries that they started distilling the beer made from malted barley – or more to the point, anything that we’d call scotch. In 1492 that we have the oldest surviving (but certainly not the first) written reference to someone buying the stuff when James I, King of Scots, bought enough barley for a Friar John Cor to make 70 gallons of the aqua vitae.

Interesting word choice because thats Latin for “Water of Life”, the Scots called it the same thing, they just spoke Scots Gaelic “uisqebeatha.” The English soldiers – being soldiers – took to it swimmingly. And not being Latin scholars, used the local name. And they used it badly – corrupting it into “Whisky.”

Still, Scotch wasn’t the overnight sensation that it was with yours truly. Most people kept on drinking ale the way that they always had. Which is a little weird because hops was pretty late getting wide-spread use in Briton, so up in Scotland a lot of the ale was not the clear, fizzy stuff your local craft brewer is calling Scotch Ale – it probably looked like or like porridge. You know, old habits. What happened to change this was a tax levied on Scottish malt in 1725. It was in clear violation of the Union Act that united England and Scotland 18 years earlier, but you know how politicians are. And the Scots are still pissed about it.

The tax drove the price of ale up – which was a shame, because the introduction of hops really livened a brew up. Everyone tried their best to evade the tax – plus ça change – but it’s hard to actually hide a brewery. Much easier to move around was a still – stick it in the barn, hide it behind one of those shaggy cows they’ve got over there. It got even easier in the highlands , where the police wouldn’t go if they could at all help it. Suddenly, not only was whisky cheaper, it was also a symbol of Scottish resistance to England and a little outlaw country in the bargain.

Of course, this was when the upper classes were perfectly fine acting the upper class and didn’t need to slum it to prove they were “just folks.” So they kept drinking imported tipples like port, brandy and French wine until the Napoleonic Wars made this tricky and – even worse unfashionable – among the Burke’s peerage set. When King George IV visited Scotland in 1822 and had a snort of Glenlivet, that cinched it.

So after nearly a century of this foolishness, in 1823, parliament had had enough and decided to introduce a tax structure so cheap that it was just easier to distill legally. And thus the Scotch Whisky industry was born.

So raise a glass to St. Columba, and middle finger to excessive taxation, and drink a scotch. Steer clear of swimming with water beasts, though.


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