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Some 550 years ago this month, Scotland’s Exchequer Rolls, or tax records, recorded “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” This was the first mention in print of the “water of life” – now called Scotch whisky. Eight bolls of malt would make an estimated 1,500 bottles of Scotch. Half a millennium later, 38 bottles are exported from Scotland every second. According to the Scotch Whisky Association, whisky makes up a quarter of all the UK’s food and drink exports. The same source says the industry supports 40,000 jobs in the UK.

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In Business and Economic History, Peter deH. Caldwell argues that whisky’s economic importance is nothing new. It’s been key to Scotland’s economic growth since the 18th century, when it powered Scotland’s transformation from a poor agricultural nation to an industrial region within the United Kingdom.

His case study “reveals an engine for economic development appearing at the nexus of market opportunity, technological advancement, and institutional change.” He also examines government taxation and regulation, and attempts to circumvent those. Above all, though, it was regulation that turned “a haut, fiery gout,” which was sometimes fatal, and never aged in barrels, into the product consumed the world-over today.

Scotland’s first large-scale vertically-integrated company was not part of the “holy trinity of coal, iron, and textiles,” usually seen as the drivers of Scotland’s entry into the Industrial Revolution, but a distillery. The Haig family expanded out from their copper pot stills: raising barley, using distillation-byproducts to feed cattle, and putting the resulting feedlot manure back into the soil to increase barley production.

“Manure mattered,” runs Caldwell’s shortest sentence. It might even be a toast, should you take a wee dram now and then.


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Business and Economic History, Vol. 25, No. 1, Papers presented at the forty-second annual meeting of the Business History Conference (Fall 1996), pp. 19-26
Cambridge University Press