Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life

…and scotch whisky is introduced to history

The order from King James IV is right there in the exchequer. Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make the water of life. Though archaeological evidence does show that spirits were distilled at Lindores Abbey, we don’t know if Friar Cor was the monk doing the actual distilling. He may have been the quartermaster or the apothecary. We only know he was in charge of the malt.

In any event, I’d like to imagine there was excitement. That Friar Cor goggled his eyes and shuffled his sandalled feet along the grassy walkways of Lindores Abbey with a little excitement in his step. The man had just been involved in what would be the first written evidence of the production of scotch, after all, someone was probably going to talk about that in the future. But the exchequer records don’t let on anything to that effect, no denotation “Friar Cor amped AF” or some other indication.  

In fact, reality destroys any romantic notions we (aka: I) might have had about monks distilling a nice, warm, brown Scotch whisky. Instead, the alcohol that Friar Cor and his celibate associates would have distilled was flavored with spices and herbs and maybe honey. Lindores Abbey was known for its pear and plum orchards, so it was probably using these in its distilling process. And before the 18th century, scotch was not aged after distillation. The final product might have been more like brandy wine, a fruit spirit, or gin than what we know as whisky.  

But the exchequer rolls tell us a few things. First, it tells us that distilling had been a thing for a little while. Beer in Scotland in the 15th century was imported from Germany, wine mostly came from France. And up until this point, distilled alcohols had been used more as a medicine than for getting loaded on a Saturday afternoon and watching the local hurling matches. The volume and the timing of this order suggest that this was not meant as a curative. Eight bolls of malt was about 500 kilos worth of malt and this would have produced about 400 bottles of whiskey. So based on those aspects, historians theorize that King James IV was ordering the water of life to victual his army for the coming campaign to tame the western isles. So at the very least alcohol was deemed helpful in helping soldiers cope with the brutalities of battle, whether it was the boredom dealt with beforehand, the Dutch courage needed to do it, or the limbs they’d lose during it. Someone knew that alcohol was helpful for sending young men into battle.

In that case, that someone was King of Scotland, King James IV. By all accounts, in his time he was widely considered wise, educated, and an effective ruler. History has also deemed him so. He was interested in medicine, surgery, and advocated the development of the printing press. He was a polyglot, a renaissance man who was a patron of science and the arts alike. While he didn’t drink or overeat (evidently too busy impregnating mistresses) he understood the benefits of alcohol in the fields of medicine, recreation, and alchemy.

While aqua vitae (or scotch) was safe under his watch, it wouldn’t be for long. James was killed in the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and things changed. Henry VIII, King of England, made life hard for whisky distillers and for monks in particular. Over the next several years he dissolved Scottish monasteries, which scattered the monks around Scotland where they are forced to hock their wares in shops or on private estates or farms. Scotch would similarly go through some hard times. It would be illegal and slowly gain its legal status through decades and centuries of taxes, bootlegging, and people complaining at parties “Not aqua vitae again?!”

But as much as Friar Cor’s order is the story of the beginning of scotch, it’s also the story of aqua vitae’s journey. Aqua vitae appears to be something like proto-booze. It’s proto-whiskey, and proto-akvavit, and proto-brandy. It popped up everywhere the Romans had an arm of influence throughout southern and northern Europe.

The first records of distillation track back to 1150 in Salerno, but it had been done in Mesopotamia about 6,000 years earlier than that. The first distilled spirits came from wine, because it was higher in alcohol content and because it was the most prevent alcohol in the middle east and southern Europe. As distilling reached the northern countries where beer was the main drink, then it utilized grain or cereal mash. The distillers in each location added local ingredients to make it into different forms of alcohol. The honey, herbs, and spices in Scotland would become scotch. The fruit in France would make their colorless brandy, eau de vie. And the grains, potatoes, and impenetrable sadness of Scandinavia made aqua vitae there into an unpalatable devil’s brew called akvavit.

It’s the distilling process which gives us a lot of our alcohol language. Medieval apothecaries and distillers thought that the distilling process was adding literal fire to a liquid, where we get liquid fire. And the transparent vapors running through the tubes and coils led people to call distilled alcohols “spirits.” Since the alcohol was supposed to be a mixture of the wet and the dry humors, this is why we talk about alcohol and being drunk in terms of wet (e.g. “a souse” or “all wet”) and sober as  being dry (e.g. “to dry out” or “a dry town.”)

So what to drink? Lindores makes Aqua Vitae using spices, dried fruit and herbs such as Douglas fir and sweet cicely. The distillery at the Abbey has recreated the 1494 recipe while putting it out as a spirit more tasty than the fire water made at Lindores. Raise the glass to John Cor, King James, and to whoever sipped it when walking into a western isles battlefield.  

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