Earliest reference to whisky still dates back to 1505

Historians have discovered the earliest known reference to a still for distilling Scotch whisky, suggesting its origins may lie in Aberdeen.

Researchers from the University of Aberdeen found a mention of a still for making “aquavite” – which means “water of life” in Latin and is 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 in 1494 when King James IV ordered malt to be sent to make “aqua vite” – researchers said it is the earliest found for a still for Scotch whisky.

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

Dr Claire Hawes
Dr Claire Hawes found the reference while studying the municipal registers (University of Aberdeen/PA)

The reference appears in the 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 aquavite and ros wattir”.

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

The reference was found by research fellow Dr Claire Hawes who was working 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.

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 aquavite, 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 aquavite in Scotland within the court of King James IV.

“What is more, 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.

“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.”

Burgh records
The reference to the still dates back to 1505 (University of Aberdeen/PA)

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.

Dr Hawes said: “All references to aquavite or whisky from this period are significant because its early development is largely unrecorded.

“Others such as the first ever reference to malt for the king in 1494 are standalone references 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 aquavite throughout 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.”

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