Whisky is an alcoholic drink made by distilling fermented grain mash. The name originates from the Gaelic term "Uisge Beatha" or "Usquebaugh", meaning ‘water of life. It can be made from wheat, barley, oats, corn and rye, and is aged in oak barrels for varying periods of time.
Only whisky produced in Scotland can legally be sold as “Scotch Whisky”, although many other countries such as France, Canada and India produce their own varieties.
Today whisky is a popular collectors item and can fetch extremely high prices at auctions, with some bottles selling for hundreds of thousands of pounds.
Collectibles whiskies often feature in sales of the biggest auction houses including Christie's and Sotheby's.
Some collectors collect whisky from a certain time period whilst others focus their collections on whiskies produced by certain distilleries.
Other collectors may prefer to focus on a particular type of whisky such as single malt or cask-strength whisky.
The process of distillation is first recorded in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BC, and arrived in Europe via Africa with the Moors. Between 1100 and 1300 the process spread from Ireland to Scotland and was developed in monasteries.
The distilling process was originally applied to perfume, then to wine, and finally adapted to fermented mashes of cereals in countries where grapes were not plentiful.
The distilling of alcoholic spirits was confined to monasteries and apothecaries until the late 15th century.
The first recorded production of Whisky in Scotland is in 1494, and the Exchequer Rolls of that year record a purchase of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’.
During this time the drink itself had a much stronger, raw taste.
The practice of ageing whisky developed during the mid 18th century, when old forgotten cask was found and the owners discovered the taste had improved with age.
The practice of distilling spread throughout rural Scotland during the 16th century.
When the monasteries were dissolved by Henry VII between 1536 and 1541 many monks relied on their distilling skills to earn a living and whisky production moved out of the monasteries into homes and farms.
When taxation rates increased following The Act of Union with England in 1707, whisky producers went underground to avoid the new taxes. Battles arose between the newly-appointed excisemen and the illicit distillers, and smuggling became a way of life for many in Scotland.
By the 1820s up to 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year.
Scotch whisky was hidden under altars, in coffins, and in any available space to avoid the governmental Excisemen. Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, took to distilling their whisky at night, where the darkness would hide the smoke rising from the stills. For this reason, the drink was known as moonshine.
In 1823, the United Kingdom passed the Excise Act, which sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a license fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon of proof spirit.
Smuggling died out almost completely over the next ten years and a great many of the present day distilleries stand on sites originally used by smugglers.
In 1826 Robert Stein invented an effective continuous still and in 1831, Aeneas Coffey refined it to create the Coffey still, allowing for cheaper and more efficient distillation of whisky.
In 1850, Andrew Usher began producing a blended whisky that mixed traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still. Even today, around 90% of all Scottish whisky produced is used in blended whisky.
Over the years whisky has become a multi-million dollar worldwide business, and the oldest and rarest bottles have become highly collectible in their own right.
Types and manufacturers
There are a number of different types of whisky, which can vary depending on the grain, the particular distillation process used and the country of origin.
The world’s most expensive whisky
The world’s most expensive whisky ever sold is a bottle of Macallan Lalique 64-year old whisky contained in a unique Cire Perdue crystal decanter, created especially for Macallam by Lalique.
It was sold at auction in November 2010 for $460,000.
The most expensive bottle of single malt whisky ever sold is the Glenfiddich Janet Sheed Roberts Reserve, one of only 15 bottles produced to celebrate the 110th birthday of Janet Sheed Roberts, the granddaughter of William Grant – founder of the Glenfiddich distillery – and the oldest person in Scotland.
It was sold at a Bonhams auction in Edinburgh in December 2011 for a price of £46,850.
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