Where does Whisky come from ?
Today whisky can be made anywhere: Scotland, Ireland, Tennessee, Japan… But actually where does it come from? There are many stories surrounding the origin of the first whisky distiller, with evidence of grains being fermented and distilled going back thousands of years BC. Originally used for perfume and other non-consumables, the alcohol distilling process eventually found its way to the Christian monasteries of Europe and over to Scotland and Ireland between the 11th and 13th centuries, where monks distilled spirits with herbs to create medicines. How then, did this medicinal spirit become whisky as we know it?
The birth of whisky
As this ‘aqua vitae’ (meaning ‘water of life’) was untaxed and therefore, undocumented for the next two hundred years or so, no one can be sure exactly how the spirits were used, but it is clear that the practice continued to be developed. The Scottish Gaelic words for water of life – ‘uisge beatha’ – eventually became ‘uiske’ and then ‘whisky’ as technical developments moved production forward. At this time though, the spirit was still made with any raw materials that could be found; not just malt, but oats and other grains would be used, often together. There was also no evidence yet of the spirits being specifically aged in wood as whisky as we know it, now needs to be.
A turning point for whisky production
One turning point for whisky production came in 1541, when Henry VIII dissolved the Scottish monasteries forcing the newly unemployed monks to look to the private production of whisky to make a living, sharing their knowledge across Scotland as they did so. Eventually though, the Excise Act of 1644 put the first taxes on whisky and malt, which drove many distillers underground. An illegal trade thrived for nearly two hundred more years and by the time the 1823 Excise Act was passed – the act that allowed whisky to be made for profit – there was a ready-made industry there to take advantage of and come above ground.
Another key date for whisky production came just a few years later in 1830, when Aeneas Coffey invented a still which allowed the continuous production of higher quality spirits, rather than production by batch. Producers learned to blend lighter grains with more intense malts, creating a taste for ‘blended’ whiskies too. Production grew with these new stills as did the competition and with it came the demand for more rigorous quality control. The market for fine, blended whiskies exploded and it wasn’t long before the first whisky brand was born.
Fifty years later, whisky production was boosted again, this time, by the spread of phylloxera; a vineyard pest that decimated the grape vines of Europe, causing a worldwide shortage of wine and brandy. Whisky immediately became the drink of choice for the rich, sealing its place in history.
Today, whisky is defined as a spirit distilled from fermented grain mash, particularly barley or rye. Typically, it is also aged in oak casks that have been toasted on the inside. In Scotland, it is spelled ‘whisky’, but in America and Ireland, it is ‘whiskey’ and there are many differing styles and types that can now be found, each named according to key ingredients, and production methods.