Enjoy Scotch Whisky? Thank the Catholic Monk Who Invented It

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Of all the world’s religions, Catholicism has traditionally had the healthiest relationship with alcohol. We are not excessively Puritanical in shunning drink, nor are we cultists seeking enlightenment in intoxication. We give the just thanks for God’s gifts and treat them as such.

“From man’s sweat and God’s love, beer came into the world.” – Saint Arnold of Metz, patron saint of brewers

Our Church’s good relationship with alcohol has produced some of the world’s best wines, spirits, and brews, particularly arising from the Catholic monastic tradition. One sublime invention arising from monasticism is Scotch Whisky, and if you ever enjoyed the drink – you have a Catholic monk to thank for it.

History’s first mention of Scotch whisky has it arising the year 1494 in the accounting Rolls of Her Majesty’s Exchequer. The document, which records taxation and government spending, reads as follows:

“To Brother John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.” — Exchequer Rolls 1494–95, Vol x, p. 487

This line was a purchase order by King James IV to the Friar John Cor for approximately 8000 pounds of malt – enough to make around 790 gallons of Scotch whisky. Brother John Cor was a monk of the Tironensian order at Lindores Abbey on the outskirts of Fife, Scotland; today it is the location of Lindores Abbey distillery. He was a servant at the court of James IV and most likely an apothecary.

You might be asking yourself how Brother Cor was the first distiller of Scotch whisky if the spirit is never actually mentioned in the purchase order. The answer arises in the name aqua vitae. This means water of life in Latin but of course no such tongue was spoken in Scotland. In the country’s native Gaelic, “usque baugh” means water of life. If you take the phonetic pronunciation “oos-key” of the first word, water, and slur it a little a bit sure enough you’ve dawned on the etymological origins of the word whisky.

Just what kind of Scotch whisky did the king order from Brother Cor? While there’s not much to go off, “malt” leaves us with a clue. Over 500 years later we would probably know it as a single or blended malt as opposed to grain. Because the distillation process was still in its infancy, whisky itself was not allowed to age. The drink would have tasted very raw and brutal, and most of all would have been strong – Renaissance era whisky was very potent and not diluted.

If you were surprised to hear that Scotch whisky has its origins in the Catholic tradition, you might not believe that the Church is also responsible for the first ever pizza delivery and pizza party, the domestication of chickens as we know them today, and even the popularity of coffee!

Comments

4 COMMENTS

  1. Please correct “usque baugh”…. It’s uisge-beatha.

    I invite you to look more deeply into the fascinating Gaelic and monastic history in Ireland and Scotland, and the Gaels in those countries, whose drink you’re claiming was invented by this monk who was simply filling a purchase order for something that had obviously already been around. How could the king order something that hadn’t been already invented, and how is this purchase order proof this man invented it?

    What you said about Latin not being in Scotland is confusing. In the Church and among the literati in Scotland at the time, Latin was very much in use, as much as anywhere else – that’s why “aqua vitae” was on the order… And clearly “aqua vitae” was referring to that distilled malt liquor now widely known in English as “whisky,” because of the ingredients asked for. The English word comes from uisge-beatha, which is the Gaelic translation of aqua vitae – because it’s a Gaelic drink; In Ireland, and Scotland.

  2. Thank you David for your explanation. I was getting rather confused as to how aqua vitae could be used when there was no Latin spoken…….also how something could be ordered if it hadn’t been invented!! This monk could have just been the person the king contacted at the monastery when he put an order in. Not sure I buy this story.

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