From the editors

Recalling Scotch’s usquebaugh roots

  • We huddle in the tower around the wee copper still. Smoke rises, caught in the beams of sunlight. There’s a hissing from inside the pot, the neck is getting warmer, then steam starts to lift off the worm tub and the first drops begin to leak reluctantly out of the pipe into the flask. Claire Mackay dips her finger in it, grins and nods, James Donaldson does the same, then it’s my turn. Yes, the angelica is there.

    Claire is a historian and practitioner of herbal medicine; James is Bruichladdich’s professional forager. That morning we had wandered the coast, roadside and woods of Islay’s Rinns in search of herbs with which to distil this, our own usquebaugh.

    I won’t give you the exact recipe, only to say that the following were picked: angelica seed, wild thyme leaf and flower, bramble leaf, creeping thistle tops, meadowsweet flowers, hog seed and wood avens.

    Medical practice: Distilling wild, foraged herbs to create local usquebaugh

    While all had their medicinal properties, they also had their own compelling flavour: the heavy vanilla and amaretto of meadowsweet, the Seville orange-like bittersweet punch of hog seed, or the seductive apricot and honey of creeping thistle.

    It was our own recipe, but one which conceivably could have been made on Islay centuries ago. Distilled spirit started life as medicine, and all of the ingredients we had picked had their own properties.

    As James pointed out, Islay’s terroir means that it is home to some plants which might not be found on other islands – and vice versa – leading to the thought that as usquebaugh grew, each location would have begun to have its own specific character and specialisation.

    Could it be that when distillers eventually gave up flavouring their spirit, they still searched for ways to retain the aromas and flavours which had long set their own whisky apart? Impossible to answer, but an intriguing notion nonetheless.

    The moment of whisky’s history we were channelling came earlier than that. We were tapping into the period when the medical shifted into the social – probably around the end of the 15th century. After all, Hector Boece in his History of Scotland in 1526 wrote that when his ancestors were ‘of a set purpose to be merrie [sic]’ they used herbs to flavour their aquavitae.

    Local barley: Are usquebaugh’s flavours still apparent in Scotch whisky’s terroir?

    It would be another 100 years before whisky would become the preferred drink of the islands, thanks to the Statutes of Iona in 1609 which banned the sale and consumption of wine in that part of Scotland in order to curb excessive drinking. The populace then turned to distillation whenever they were of a set purpose… which was relatively frequently.

    We’re also honouring the links to the Beaton family (originally MacMeic-bethad/ MacBeth). They were doctors, possibly originally from Ireland who arrived, legend has it, on Islay in the 13th century as part of the entourage of Aine O’Cathain when she married Angus Og MacDonald, Lord of the Isles.

    For 400 years, the Beatons were hereditary physicians to the Scottish crown – from Robert the Bruce to James VI and I – and to the wider populace. They were doctors, surgeons and alchemists, translators of medical texts from Latin to Gaelic; upholders of an older botanical-based medical tradition at a time when the rest of the country followed a different path.

    Make a wish: The smooth stone turned by many a visitor to the Beaton’s Celtic cross

    Just as Gaelic song is the earliest source of information about whisky making and drinking, so the Beatons’ Gaelic texts are an overlooked resource of the early days of medicine and distillation – the roots of those usquebaughs and proto-whiskies.

    Later that afternoon, Claire and I head to Kilchoman Kirk. This was Beaton land, granted to the family for free in return for their services. In the graveyard stands a Celtic cross erected at some point in the 14th or 15th century by Thomas Beaton for his father Patrick, his mother, and his wife. On its pedestal are four depressions. The deepest is filled by a smooth stone worn into a pear shape by centuries of turning deiseil (with the sun) in order to grant wishes.

    We look across to Kilchoman distillery and over the fields of barley, growing for it and Bruichladdich, ripening after this perfect long, hot summer. Whisky making has moved a long way from the eye-smarting smoke and the smell of efficacious herbs rising from the new spirit, yet those aromas are still there in today’s whiskies, rooted in earth if you look hard enough. We’re so different and yet not so far removed.

Scroll To Top