Did scientists just find the ancient whisky distillery from the legends?

Modern whiskey barrels in Scotland
© Modern whiskey barrels in Scotland (Photo: Tyler W. Stipp/Shutterstock)

Archaeologists unearthed what may be the world's oldest whisky still.

It was only a legend. King James IV of Scotland kept a record of a whisky distillery from 1494, the first record of Scotch whisky distillation. It was the oldest record of a whisky still, but for a long time, it was just that: words. No one could actually find this supposed distillery.

That just changed. A group of archaeologists uncovered the whisky still in the ruins of an abbey in Scotland. It's one of the oldest whisky distilleries in the world (possibly the oldest — people weren't great at keeping records back then). The archaeologists found traces of barley, charcoal, oats, pottery and wheat from medieval times by the still.

“It is hard to overestimate the potential significance of this discovery,” said Drew McKenzie Smith, the Lindores Abbey Distillery founder. “Many signs point towards this being one of the earliest stills ever discovered, and this is almost certainly the site referenced in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 that include the first ever written record of aqua vitae or whisky, as we know it today.”

The Abbey itself was already the stuff of legends. It was founded in 1191. William Wallace, a Scottish knight depicted in "Braveheart," hid out in the abbey after he fought the English in 1298. Poor guy may have got there too early for the whisky.

“Lindores Abbey has long been considered the spiritual home of Scotch whisky, and this discovery underlines the historical importance of this site,” added McKenzie Smith.

Whisky has been a big part of Scottish culture for hundreds of years. This is somewhat problematic, as whisky creates a lot of waste — most of the water and grain used in whisky production doesn't make it into the final product.

But Scotch distilleries are trying to be more environmentally-friendly. The Scotch Whisky Association launched an environmental strategy in 2009.

"Our ambition is to become world leaders in sustainability. Scotland has an abundance of natural attributes which can support this," writes the Association in a report. "Our Strategy aims to protect Scotland’s natural capital for generations to come."

The industry has been focusing on renewable energy and waste reduction.

"Only 2% of waste was sent to landfill in 2014 and many sites already have met the target of zero," continued the report.

Of course, industries are hardly the most reliable organizations to be reporting on themselves. Still, it's heartening to see that even very old industries are willing to update their practices for the environment. And it's a great excuse to get some whisky this winter.

Did scientists just find the ancient whisky distillery from the legends?
Archaeologists unearthed what may be the world's oldest whisky still.

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