HISTORIANS have discovered the earliest known reference to a still for distilling Scotch whisky, suggesting the spirit’s origins may lie in Aberdeen.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen found a mention of a still for making “aqua vite” – which is Latin for “water of life” and the Middle Scots word for whisky – in a document dating back to 1505 in the city’s Unesco-recognised Burgh Records.

Although not the first reference to whisky – which is widely recognised as being made in 1494 when King James IV ordered malt to be sent to make “aqua vite” – the team said it is the earliest found mention for a still for Scotch whisky.

Historians said it is a “significant” discovery which “reframes the story of Scotch whisky”.

The reference appears in an inquest into the inheritance arising from the death of Sir Andrew Gray, convened at the bailie court of Aberdeen on June 20, 1505. Among his “moveable possessions” was “ane stellatour for aqua vite and ros wattir”.

Gray died in December 1504 and researchers believe he probably made use of his still during his lifetime.

The reference was found by research fellow Dr Claire Hawes as she worked her way through the 1.5 million words in Aberdeen’s municipal registers to make them digitally available in the recent publication Aberdeen Registers Online: 1398-1511.

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Dr Jackson Armstrong of the University of Aberdeen, who led the project to transcribe the Burgh Records, said: “This is the earliest record directly mentioning the apparatus for distilling aqua vite, 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.

“This find places the development of whisky in the heart of this movement, an interesting counterpoint to the established story of early aqua vite in Scotland within the court of King James IV. What is more, some other early references to aqua vite refer to the spirit being used in the preparation of gunpowder for the king.

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“The Aberdeen still being for aqua vite and rose water may suggest, by contrast, that it was for making whisky to drink. This is a very significant find 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.”

Researchers have been awarded £15,000 in funding from Chivas Brothers, which owns distilleries including The Glenlivet and Aberlour, to fund new research into the still and associated stories from the Aberdeen Registers Online.

Hawes said: “All references to aqua vite or whisky from this period are significant because its early development is largely unrecorded but what is really exciting here is that it is part of our extensive Burgh Records.

“That means we can trace those involved in the distillation of aqua vite through the records, looking at their connections, where they lived, their professions and how all of this might be intertwined with the early development of Scotch whisky.

“This could significantly change our understanding of the origins of our national drink.”

Aberdeen find is rewriting whisky history 500 years after the event – by Hamish MacPherson

NOBODY knows who invented Scotch whisky or when and where it was first distilled.  

The likelihood is that we will never know, given that so much of Scottish history from the Stone Age until the end of the first millennium of the common era has been lost to time. Documents were pillaged and lost by the English and the Reformers, who smashed so many churches and monasteries which were the keepers of so many local records.  

Distillation itself was a process known to ancient Egyptians, and there is evidence that the ancient Celts distilled some sort of common brew for hundreds of years before whisky entered written history. It was a fiery, spicy liquid, and was revered by the ancient tribes of what is now Scotland.

The earliest surviving reference to whisky is the oft-quoted order by King James IV in 1494 for “eight bolls of malt” for the making of “aqua vite”, the Latin name for the “water of life” or uisge beatha.  That was sent to Friar Cor at Lindores Abbey at Newburgh in Fife, and interestingly, Friar Cor was not then the abbot.

He may have been the chief distiller and certainly the remains of a distilling vat were found on the site just last year.

What the Aberdeen find tells us is that the distilling of whisky was widespread and legal, and that’s why it has the capacity to rewrite history. For if the new research inspired by the find looks in the right places, more such records are sure to be located and we will eventually get a much fuller picture of the early days of Scotch.