15 Essential Bottles of Scotch [Timeline]

Scotch is the spirit of Scotland, figuratively and literally. It’s generally accepted that whisky distilling began in Scotland by way of monks who arrived on the isle, didn’t have wine grapes, and started using grain mash to make spirits. The first documented record of distilling in Scotland appears in a 1494 tax record that reads, “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae,” or “water of life.” About 10 years later, the first reference to a still shows up in Aberdeen council registers. The term Scotch, though, didn’t come about for another few hundred years.

It has only three ingredients: malted barley, water, and yeast. In order for a whisky to be officially labeled as Scotch, it must be produced in Scotland and aged in oak for a minimum of three years. As of today, there are nearly 150 Scotch distilleries spread across five designated regions: Speyside, Highlands, Lowlands, Islay, and Campbeltown. More than half the Scotch on the market these days is produced by Diageo and Pernod Ricard. But, of course, this wasn’t always the case.

Here, we’ve put together a timeline of some of the most iconic bottles throughout modern(ish) Scotch history.
15 Essential Bottles of Scotch [Timeline]

1779: Bowmore Becomes First Licensed Distillery in Islay

At a time when smuggling and black market distilling were responsible for much of Scotland’s whisky, local merchant John P. Simson founded the Bowmore Distillery. Shortly after, it was inherited by the Mutter family, and James Mutter had a small steamship built specifically for importing barley from the mainland and exporting whisky to Glasgow. The distillery was closed in 1915, only to be revived in 1963 by Stanley P. Morrison and James Howat. It’s still up and running to this day, though it’s now under the ownership of Beam Suntory.

Bottle: Bowmore No. 1 Single Malt

1824: The Glenlivet Becomes First Licensed Distillery Post-Excise Tax

When Bowmore was founded, the taxes on Scotch (which had been implemented back in 1644) were rather high. There was a roughly 150-year period of illegal whisky distillation, but that changed with the Excise Act of 1823. It essentially lightened up on previous distilling restrictions, but upped the penalties on illegal distillation. A year later, a farmer named George Smith became the first person to take out a distillery license under the Act, and founded the Glenlivet Distillery in Speyside to produce single malt Scotch.

Bottle: The Founder’s Reserve

1906: Dewar’s White Label Is Introduced

At the turn of the century, J.A. Cameron was in charge of the blending department of John Dewar & Sons. He was big on the idea of blending whiskies, and performed a number of experiments, during which he vatted malts for three or four months before mixing them with grain whiskies. In the end, he discovered that this process brought improved consistency and uniformity to the liquid.

Cameron then went on to create the famous Dewar’s White Label in 1906, the company’s best-selling expression to this day. During World War II, Dewar supplied the Scottish Army and Navy catering corps with 3 million bottles of White Label, further cementing the Scotch’s place in its nation’s culture.

Bottle: Dewar’s White Label Blended Whisky

1909: ‘Luxury’ Scotch Brands Emerge

Johnnie Walker’s history dates back to the 1820s when grocer John Walker started blending single malts to create what he felt was a more consistent product. He passed away in 1857, and left the business to his son Alexander. By the 1880s, phylloxera had wreaked havoc on wine, brandy, and Cognac production, so Scotch was poised for a boom. Alexander continued to expand the business, which brings us to 1908 when his two sons made the name Johnnie Walker a registered trademark. The following year, cartoonist Tom Browne drew up the iconic striding man sporting a cane and monocle, marking the birth of Johnnie Walker Old Highland’s three core expressions: White, Red, and Black Label, the last of which went on to be one of the most heavily counterfeited whiskies to date.

1909 also saw the launch of Chivas Brothers’ Chivas Regal. The whisky was bottled at 25 years old, and many consider it to be the first-ever luxury blended whisky. The brand is now under the ownership of Pernod Ricard.

Bottle: Johnnie Walker Black Label and Chivas Regal

1913: The Stopper Cork Is Invented

Before 1913, Scotch whisky bottles were sealed with driven corks, like those you’d find on wine bottles. But that year, distiller William Teacher’s son, William Bergius, invented the stopper cork. Teacher’s Highland Cream became advertised as the “self-opening bottle” and was touted by the motto “bury the corkscrew.” Stopper corks and plastic screw caps are now the industry norm.

Bottle: Teacher’s Highland Cream

1935: J&B Rare Is Blended for the American Palate

The 1920s and ‘30s saw many Scotch distilleries close. During Prohibition, rum-running took off around the southern tip of Florida, and merchant Francis Berry (of Berry Brothers) met with some rum runners to see what the fuss was about. It was there that one of the runners allegedly told Berry that his best bet on getting Americans into Scotch was to make something “light but smooth, and never darker than pale sherry.” He ran with the cue, and coined Cutty Sark Scotch in 1923. But arguably more famous than Cutty Sark was J&B Rare, a 1935 creation designed for the American palate.

J&B’s founders, Giacomo Justerini and Alfred Brooks, were long gone by ‘35. But according to Charles MacLean’s 2005 book “Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History,” then-board director Eddie Tatham allegedly traveled to New York and asked a bartender for some Justerini & Brooks, to which the barman replied “Listen Mac, I’m not interested whether you are ‘just reading a book.’” Upon his return to the U.K., the name was shortened to J&B and the whisky was reblended to be lighter in both style and color, following suit with Cutty Sark’s Americanized profile.

Bottle: J&B Rare

1963: Glenfiddich Popularizes Single Malts Outside Scotland

Scots had been enjoying single malts on their home turf for centuries, But before the ‘60s, blended Scotch was all the rage for folks outside  Scotland. In 1963, William Grant & Sons began pushing its brand Glenfiddich outside Scotland. Simultaneously, Glenfiddich rebottled its “pure malt” as an 8-year-old whisky in a dark green bottle, but kept the spirit’s color pale. Since the Cardhu Distillery started using the term pure malt to describe blends of single malt whiskies, confusion arose, and the Scotch Whisky Association redefined the terminology. From that point forward, the label of pure malt was prohibited, and any mix of single malt whiskies must bear the labeling of blended malt. Consequently, Glenfiddich adopted the “single malt” term. By the ‘70s, newly enfranchised airport duty-free stores gave the Scotch a huge marketing push, and Glenfiddich is now the best-selling single malt Scotch in the world. Other distillers, like the Macallan, cashed in on the craze around this time.

Bottle: Glenfiddich 12-Year-Old Single Malt Scotch Whisky

1968: Glenfarclas Released First Cask-Strength Single Malt

Five short years after single malts took off stateside, Speyside’s Glenfarclas Distillery became the first to release a cask-strength single malt whisky. It was named 105 proof through the now-defunct British proofing system, which is equivalent to 60 percent ABV. The Scotch is aged in a combination of sherry and bourbon casks for eight to 10 years depending on the expression.

Bottle: Glenfarclas 105

1980: The Famous Grouse Becomes the Best-Selling Whisky in Scotland

The Grouse brand was created by Matthew Gloag & Son Ltd. in 1896, shortly after phylloxera hit and inadvertently drove Scotch sales up. Over the years, it became a favorite within Scotland itself, and by the 1970s, its flagship Scotch The Famous Grouse was getting some love in the U.K., North America, and South Africa.

After Matthew’s great-grandson Freddie died, the brand was relabelled and relaunched in 1972 with the help of Highland Distillers. An ad campaign was also launched, touting the mantra “quality in an age of change.” The slogan particularly appealed to the home market, as the Scots were less concerned with trends than, say, Scotch fans in the U.S. By 1980, The Famous Grouse had become the best-selling Scotch within Scotland, and it still holds that position to this day.

Bottle: The Famous Grouse Blended Scotch Whisky

Late ‘80s: Sherry Cask Finishing Takes Off

Sherry cask-finishing was by no means a new phenomenon in the ‘80s, but that’s when the concept really gained appeal in the public eye. As not every distillery had a portfolio of regional malts to experiment with, many offered the same malt but tinkered with different finishes. One of the biggest purveyors of sherry cask-finished Scotches of the time was William Teacher & Sons, which released two expressions of Glendronach 12 Year Old in the late ‘80s: one exclusively matured in sherry wood, and one in both sherry and bourbon casks. In the ‘90s, Madeira became a popular cask choice as well, signaling a promising future for the Scotch category at large. Soon after, independent bottlers and specialty Scotch shops started popping up.

Bottle: Glendronach 12 Year Old Matured in Sherry Casks

1997: Ardbeg Releases First Peated Scotch to Go Mainstream

The Ardbeg Distillery, situated on the south shores of Islay, was founded in 1815. Unlike many other Islay distilleries that aim to draw flavors from the salty sea air, Ardbeg takes pride in its heavily peat-influenced Scotches.

In 1978, the distillery crafted a batch and then production came to a halt in 1981, before resuming to a low level of output in ‘89. Then, Highland’s Glenmorangie distillery came in and bought Ardbeg in ‘97, bringing production levels back to full force.​​ That same year, the brand bottled and released its 1978 vintage, marking the return of Ardbeg in the modern world. This peat bomb is now a hugely sought-after bottle, and, of course, it’s extremely hard to find. These days, the distillery is most known for its 10 Year Old Scotch, which was first released in 2000.

Bottle: Ardbeg 1978

2008: Bruichladdich Debuts “World’s Most Heavily Peated Whisky”

When the early aughts rolled around, people couldn’t get enough peat, and Islay’s own Bruichladdich heeded the call. In 2008, the distillery launched Bruichladdich Octomore, peated at 160 parts per million (PPM). According to the brand, it’s “the world’s most heavily peated whisky.” Last year’s Octomore release included three expressions (14.1, 14.2, and 14.3), each of which was aged in different casks and bottled at varying ABVs.

Bottle: Bruichladdich Octomore

2022: The Macallan Reach Becomes the Oldest Whisky Ever Released

For the Scotch diehards out there, it may seem odd that the Macallan doesn’t show up on this list sooner. After all, the legendary Macallan 25 debuted back in 1983. However, the championed distillery went above and beyond to wow the community in 2022 with the release of the Macallan Reach — the oldest Scotch to ever hit the market.

The Scotch itself was distilled in 1940, and spent a whopping 81 years maturing in a single sherry cask. Only 288 custom decanters were produced, commanding a hefty price of $125,000 each. Decanters of Reach are now going for almost double that amount on the resale market.

Bottle: The Macallan Reach

2023: A Scotch Whisky Becomes the Most Expensive Bottle Ever Sold at Auction

A year later, the Macallan hit another milestone when Sotheby’s auctioned off a bottle of the distillery’s ultra-rare Adami 1926 vintage, fetching a jaw-dropping 2.2 million pounds ($2.7 million) and making Reach seem like a damn bargain. The final bid steamrolled past pre-auction estimates of 750,000 to 1.2 million pounds — a testament to the coveted status of the Macallan whiskies and fine Scotch as a whole.

The Macallan Adami 1926 was bottled in 1986 after 60 years spent in sherry casks, and only 40 bottles were produced. This particular bottle was one of 12 hand-painted by Italian painter Valerio Adami. Interestingly enough, the previous record for the most expensive bottle of booze sold at auction was set in 2019 by another bottle of the Macallan 1926. That bottle sold for 1.5 million pounds ($1.9 million).

Bottle: The Macallan Adami 1926

*Image retrieved from Craig McKay via Unsplash.com