Use of Botanicals in Early Malt Whisky

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Early spirits were unlikely to be aged, at least not intentionally. There is no mention of maturation in wood in 17th century distillation texts (French, 1651) (Y-Worth, 1705). According to John Conner of the Scotch Whisky Research Institute (SWRI), “it is likely that the majority of whisky distilled in the 18th and 19th centuries was drunk without being matured,” though storage in oak was common and thus so was incidental maturation (Conner, 2014).

John McDonald, in his extremely detailed and technical text focusing on whisky production, makes no mention of maturation (McDonald, 1828). Despite this, maturation was clearly so known and appreciated by the beginning of the 19th that Samuel McHenry advised American distillers on methods “to give an aged flavour to Whiskey” (McHarry, 1809). Botanicals and flavorings were often added to various stages of the spirit production process, as noted in the above-cited primary sources, and such practices persist today in beverages such as genever, chartreuse and akvavitt (Buxtan & Hughes, 2014).

It is, however, impossible to state with certainty a specific set of methods that were broadly adhered to due to insufficient data, particularly for early spirits. This problem is greatly compounded by the fact that historically, a great deal of spirit production in Scotland and beyond was illicit, so producers had very good reason not to record their methods for posterity (Dalrymple, 1786) (Devine, 1975) (McGeachy, 2005).


Buxtan, I., & Hughes, P. (2014). The Science and Commerce of Whisky. Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry.

Conner, J. (2014). Maturation. In I. Russell, & G. Stewart (Eds.), Whisky: Technology, Production and Marketing (2nd Edition ed.). San Diego: Academic Press.

Dalrymple, J. (1786). Impartial Observations on the Mode of Levying Distillery Duties. Edinburgh: William Creech.

Devine, T. M. (1975). The Rise and Fall of Illicit Whisky-Making in Northern Scotland, c. 1780-1840. The              Scottish Historical Review, 155-177.

French, J. (1651). The Art of Distillation: Book I. London: Richard Cotes.

McDonald, J. (1828). The Maltster, Distiller, and Spirit Dealer's Companion for Scotland, England, & Ireland. Elgin: R. Johnston.

McGeachy, R. (2005). Argyll 1730–1750: Commerce, Community and Culture. Edinburgh: Birlinn (Alba).

McHarry, S. (1809). The Practical Distiller. Harrisburgh: John Wyeth.

Y-Worth, W. (1705). The Compleat Distiller, Or, The Whole Art of Distillation Practically Stated .. The 2nd ed., with alterations and additions. London: J. Taylor.

Y-Worth’s The Compleat Distiller, Or, The Whole Art of Distillation Practically Stated was originally published in 1692, but I was only able to locate the text of the 2nd edition, published in 1705.

McDonald and McHenry do not discuss their use in standard production, but do provide many recipes and methods which include them.