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The Balvenie

The Early Years

The story of Scotch whisky is the story of a people who saw themselves as having an inalienable right to Nature's bounty. Distilling was as much a part of their lives as bringing in their harvest, tending their animals on the hills and fishing their salmon. For centuries, they kept their whisky to themselves, distilling mainly for their own use - transforming the barley from their harvest, the peat from their hills and the clear waters from their streams into 'the water of life'.

The origins of the drink are shrouded in mystery. When the mist is not rolling in from the sea, you can make out from the Mull of Kintyre in Scotland the white farmhouses on the green hills of Ireland. In the Dark Ages, the two countries were united by their proximity, sharing a common religion forged by Christian missionaries, and a common language - Gaelic. Small wonder, then, that distilling was common to both countries; in which one the art origi­nated, however, historians have continued to debate.

The word 'whisky' is derived from the Gaelic uisge beatha, meaning 'water of life' and its equivalents crop up in other languages including the Latin, aqua vitae, and the French, eau de vie, which may be familiar. Gradually the word uisge became usky and eventually 'whisky'.

The oldest reference to whisky dates back to late medieval times. The Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494 had an entry of'eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae' (a boll was an old Scottish measure). By the early 16th century, whisky had apparently become a drink fit for a king - whisky receives generous royal patronage to this day. When King James IV of Scotland was in Inverness, during September 1506, his Treasurer's accounts had entries for the I5th and iyth of the month: 'For aqua vite to the king . . .' and 'For ane flacat of aqua vite to the king . . . ' One of the earliest references to 'uiskie' occurs in the funeral account of a Highland laird about 1618. Afore ye go, you might say!

The 'spiritual' home of distilling in Scotland must surely be the Highlands. No one who visits that region, loosely defined as the area north of a line drawn between Greenock and Dundee, can fail to be struck by its awesome mountains, silent lochs, empty glens and sea-misty islands. The very absence of people - though it wasn't always so deserted - nurtures a sense of disco­ very and an air of purity for the visitor that is the Highland's special atmosphere. Above all, is its remoteness. In the 18th century, that remote­ ness was even more acute: visitors were seldom tourists - Johnson and Boswell excepted - but rather an adventurer or even an English soldier.

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