The royal Exchequer Rolls from Scotland recorded the first known written reference to Scotch whisky.
The Scottish Exchequer was responsible for recording royal income and expenditure in Scotland. The well-preserved calfskin parchment, better known as vellum, bears an entry on 1 June 1495 that records “To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae VIII bolls of malt.”
The Latin term aqua vitae means ‘water of life’. In Scottish Gaelic this same phrase translates as uisge-beatha, the first word being pronounced ‘ush-kee’. English language transcriptions subsequently recorded the word as ‘whisky’.
In terms of the quantity, the boll was a form of measurement in Scotland at the time. Consequently the record indicates that King James IV provided enough malt to distil approximately 1,500 bottles of alcohol in the last accounting year. Such a quantity suggests that the distillation process was well-established by this time, but no earlier reference to the production of what we now call Scotch whisky have ever been found.
Friar John Cor, the recipient of the malt, was a monk from the Tironensian order based at Lindores Abbey in Fife. Little is known about the monk himself, with historians even being unsure of the extent of his role in the distillation process. Later records do however show him receiving money from the king at Christmas and being given black cloth for clothing as a clerk in royal service.
While the records are therefore a key part of the story of Scotch whisky, subsequent writers have only been able to guess that exchequer rolls’ exclusive reference to ‘malt’ suggest that it must have been a single or blended malt whisky. It’s also unknown how much of the estimated 800 gallons of whisky was drunk.