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Welcome to Episode #111 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

Do you know the origin of the word “whiskey”? Turns out we have Scotland to thank for not only the drink we know as whiskey today, but the word we use to describe it as well. The earliest record of whiskey on paper happens in 1494 with a reference to aqua vitae in the Exchequer Rolls, but there was a great interest–and a good deal of illicit smuggling of Scotch whiskey– happening not just in Shakespeare's lifetime, but under the title “aqua vitae” (which is used no less than 6 times in Shakespeare's plays), the beverage was also hugely popular for centuries prior to Shakespeare’s life in the Catholic Church as a kind of holy water. After the Dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the monks with skills in distillery went underground to create whiskey, and in so doing formed one of the largest illegal operations in Europe. As our guest this week, Rosie Wilmot of the Scotch Whisky Association in Edinburgh Scotland is here to share with you today, these stories and aqua vitae, in particular, have a real historical basis directly from the life of William Shakespeare.

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Rosie Willmot is the Communications Officer at the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA), headquartered in Edinburgh, Scotland. The SWA is the organisation that represents the Scotch Whisky industry on the world stage, and its work aims to drive the best possible business environment for Scotch – incorporating everything from legal protection, global market access and political engagement. They also love to tell the world about Scotch Whisky! Originally from Cornwall, Rosie has been working in the Scotch Whisky industry for a few years now, and most enjoys visiting distilleries in Scotland’s five main Whisky regions and hearing direct from the people who make it. She went to university in Birmingham, just 20 minutes from Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. Her favourite Shakespeare play is Twelfth Night.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Rosie Wilmot about :

  •  Aqua vitae is the Latin term for whiskey, but there is a Scottish phrase for this drink as well, and according to the website for the Scotch Whiskey Association, the actual word “whiskey” evolved from a drink called uisge beatha. (OOsh bih-gah) I will include a link to the proper Scottish Gaelic pronunciation of that word so you don’t have to rely on my American accent. First though, Rosie, can you explain this Gaelic phrase and how it helped us develop the word “whiskey”?
  • I know that there are different kinds of whiskey, such as single malt, single grain, or blended malt. Which kind of whiskey was the one most likely drank by Shakespeare?
  • In 1494, the Exchequer rolls record what historians consider to be the first ever written record of whiskey when it records “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae” Rosie, how was aquae vitae made, and what kind of quantity is being recorded here? Is this amount of malt large or small in terms of what it takes to make whiskey?

     

  • … and more!

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I have bought
The oil, the balsamum and aqua-vitae.

Dromio of Syracuse

Comedy of Errors (IV.1)

Talisker distillery manager Charlie Smith explains the meaning and origins of the word uisge beatha. Talisker Distillery is the oldest working distillery on the Isle of Skye. Source

Uisge Beatha

Uisge-beatha [pronounced Oosh gih-baye] is the Scots Gaelic expression for aqua vitae, or water of life. 

Though the phrase “aqua vitae” specifically refers to the spirits produced in the highlands and islands of Scotland, and has become today synonymous with whisky, Rosie explains that for Shakespeare (and even among distilleries today) aqua vitae and scotch whisky are not neccesarily the same beverage. 

Whisky is made from barley and would have been aged, whereas aqua vitae was often made with fruit, could be made from imported wine, and frequently was flavored with various herbs and spices. 

So while the phrase we see in Shakespeare's plays referring to “Aqua vitae” does refer to alocholic spirits, and even likely to have been whisky, the exact compound of spirits used under that monicker could vary greatly.  

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Ah, where's my man? give me some aqua vitae:

Nurse

Romeo and Juliet (III.2)

The exchequer was one of the earliest government departments and developed out of the king's chamber, the branch of the royal household which oversaw the royal finances. The chief financial officer was the king's great chamberlain. It was not a permanent body, meeting only to audit the accounts of the sheriffs and other collectors of royal revenues. Amongst the records of the exchequer we find the earliest mentions of tartan and whisky. [This document pictures is an] excerpt from the Exchequer Roll which notes that John Corr, a monk at Lindores Abbey, was allowed 8 bolls of grain to make aqua vitae for the King, 1494 (Crown Copyright, National Records of Scotland, E38/306) Source

First official reference to whisky

Aqua vitae was originally used medicinally, and traditionally it was the church who dabbled in the new or exotic when it came to growing strange imported fruits, or in the case of aqua vitae–running a whisky distillery.

In what is believed to be the earliest known reference to whisky, this 1494 record of the Exchequer Rolls in Scotland shows that James I essentially commissioned John Corr from an abbey called Lindores Abbey to make aqua vitae for the King. 

The record indicates Corr was given “8 bolls of grain” to make his wares, and Rosie explains how much this would be in terms of production:

“8 bolls is about 500 kilos, or 1100 pounds…since 9 bushels makes 7.5 gallons of ale, or just over a gallon of whisky, [this amount commissioned by John Corr] would make about 1500 bottles of whiskey”

For one monastery in Scotland, that seems like a large amount of production, but as Rosie explains, the Scotch Whisky Assocation today oversees millions of bottles of whisky produced, so by today's standards 1500 bottles is an absolutely tiny production.

Surprising as it may seem to our modern image of monks, the 15th century church was known for producing aqua vitae and it was probably used primarily as medicine rather than consumption.  

Monasteries were amply supplied with grains, herbs, and fresh water as well as with time and the manpower to man still. In addition to these resources, monasteries often ran hospitals and libraries as part of their ministry work, such that the aqua vitae production and recording of recipes would have been useful to those endeavors.

Monks were well regarded for their horticultural and medicinal skills and after the dissolution of the monasteries, it would be monks who went underground to continue the production of aqua vitae (albiet illegally) to use primarily as medicine for the sick. The historical reality of monasteries being the production center for aqua vitae is one place writers and storytellers get the trope of a drunk friar, because there is a direct connection between monasteries and the production fo whisky.

In 2018 a distillation vat (shown here) was discovered in the ruins of Lindores Abbey (the site now turned into a working Distillery), along with evidence of whisky production. The remains of the still are preserved for display in the ruins. Wooden panels of the early 16th century survive from the Abbey in the Laing Museum, Newburgh and, reset in a 19th-century cabinet, in St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, Dundee. While the creative commons record of this photo does not indicate who the researchers are in this photograph, since their shirts have the Lindores Abbey Distillery logo on them,  I checked the Lindores Abbey Distillery website which shows that the man on the left is Drew McKenzie Smith, Managing Director at Lindores Abbey Distillery, while the woman is Helen McKenzie Smith, Operations Manager at Lindores Abbey Distillery.
Lindores Abbey Distillery Website | Photo Source.

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Some aqua vitae, ho! My lord! my lady!

Nurse

Romeo and Juliet (IV.5)

Philippus Ulstadius, Coelvm philosophorvm, sev, Liber de secretis naturæ. Lvgdvni: Apud Gulielmum Rouillium, 1557. Woodcut of two alchemists using a distiller. University of Delaware. Special Collections, Medicine, Source

Illegal Distilleries

Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VIII passed a series of acts of suppression and supremacy which is known collectively today as the Dissolution of the Monasteries. When he became (or rather, established himself) as the Head of the Church of England, he wanted to increase the income to the Crown and sought to do that by disbanding all of the monasteries and selling off their lands and assets. The profits from these sales funded Henry VIII's military campaigns, and moved whisky production underground. 

Monks with distillery experience setup their now illegal distilleries and produced whisky illegally in what was essentially elaborate 16th century moonshining operations. While it is true that a giant underground illegal whisky making operation was now launched on England as a by product of Henry's disolving the monasteries, Rosie points out that it was not only the monks who were operating these kind of stills. Apparently, (as America would find out with Prohibition in the 20s and 30s), making whisky illegal only served to increase its' production by a large portion of the population.

To be Scotch in the pure sense, the whisky has to be made in Scotland. But as with any recipe, you can follow it anywhere in the world, so aqua vitae could be produced by anyone who had the equipment to make it. Whisky was quite frequently created in private households (as was ale) and even individual taverns had their own brew created in house. Residences and business alike are known to have had their own stills specifically for the purpose of creating aqua vitae. 

While there is obviously overlap between using whisky medicinally vs recreationally (and a fine line at that) when we see aqua vitae show up in Comedy of Errors, a Winter’s Tale, Merry Wives of Windsor, Twelfth Night, and twice in Romeo and Juliet–three of these 6 references are associated with recovering from an illness.

As Rosie explains, aqua vitae (certainly in the case of monasteries) was not yet seen as primarily a consumer drink but instead as a medicinal product, even sometimes produced by pharmaceutically minded alchemists who used their distilleries for medicine. This means that the aqua vitae references we see show up in Shakespeare's plays are talking about an alcoholic beverage, and even whisky specifically, but whether or not it was Scotch whisky, and whether or not it contained any of the wide variety of additional ingredients which could have been experimented with by any given distillery across England is impossible to know. 

Detail from Coelum philosophorum, seu De secretis naturae liber / Philippo Ulstadio Patricio nierebergensi authore by Philippus Ulstadius. Argentorati : Arte et impensa Joannis Grienynger, 1528. To distill alcohol—called “the fifth essence”—from wine, Ulstad called for a balneum Mariae, or Mary’s bath, named after the ancient alchemist Mary the Jewess. A flask of wine is placed in a hot-water bath. Above, a jacket of cool water surrounds the alembic (condenser). To this day a double boiler is known as a bain-marie in French, a bagno maria in Italian, and a baño maría in Spanish. Source

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…then stand till he be three quarters
and a dram dead; then recovered again with
aqua-vitae or some other hot infusion…

Autoclytus

Winters Tale (IV.4)

Woodcut of alchemist trying to transmute metals, circa 1503. Rare Books. Wellcome Library. Source

Whisky for Gunpowder

James I was what might today be called a real Renaissance Man. His interests were wide, varied, and constantly intrigued by the new. Historians record that the King's interest in aqua vitae may have been as much, if not more, based in military and alcehmical applications than in drinking.

James I specific recipe for gunpowder called for the use of aqua vitae. In 1502, The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland records a gunner by the name of Hans for “drying of the gwn powder in the Castell of Edinburgh” including a specific sum for “ane galloun aqua vitae.” (Source)

In addition to the applications for making gunpower, aqua vitae was useful to the King's keen interest in alchemy. James I supported several alchemists during his tenure, but one particular alchemist and pioneering aviator who tried and failed to create winged flight from Stirling Castle in 1507, was John Damian, whom James I specifically endowed to search for the holy grail of alchemists–the ability to turn metal into gold. Damian arrived at James' court in the early 16th century, and had laboratories for his alchemical work in at least two castles–Stirling and Edinburgh. Aqua vitae was considered an essential ingredient for discovering the “quintessence” or fifth element, that would allow an alchemist to turn metal into gold or create the elixir of life (provide eternal youth). The Accounts of the Lord High Treasurer of Scotland records several instances where Damian is provided with aqua vitae “for the quinta essencia.” (Source)

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Books & Resources Rosie Wilmot recommends:

 

Books Cassidy Thought You Might Enjoy:

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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