A Short History of Whisky

A Short History of Whisky

Whisky, also spelled Whiskey, originates from a Gaelic word uisge, a shortened version of uisge beatha meaning "water of life," also known as aqua vitae in Latin.

Whisky is classified as hard liquor because of its high alcohol content relative to beer and wine. It is made from the fermented mash of one of a variety of grains including barley or rye and also corn or wheat.


Distilling

Although distillation was practiced from early times, likely since the Babylonian period about four thousand years ago, its use in Europe by the middle ages was mainly limited to monasteries where it was made for medicinal purposes, both as an internal anesthetic and as an external antibiotic.

Distilling techniques were brought to Ireland and Scotland sometime between 1100 and 1300 AD by monks. Since grapes and wine were not easily obtained in Ireland and Scotland, barley beer was distilled into alcohol which became whisky.

Named as such, it was definitely entrenched in Ireland and Scotland by the 15th century where it was produced not only by religious organizations but began to pass to secular medical men of that age who were organized as The Guild of Surgeon Barbers. At times they held a monopoly on production in some locales.

The Drink of Kings and Queens

Those in power retained a liking for the stuff, however. Late in the same century, the king of Scotland sent malt to Friar John Cor, enough to make about five hundred bottles of whisky.

A few years after this, Queen Elizabeth I had a liking for Irish whiskey, which led it to being the fashionable drink in England at the time.

In the days of the English King Henry VIII, the secularization of whiskey distillation expanded when he dissolved the monasteries and newly independent monks, who understood the process, found a way to make a living by producing whiskey in homes and on farms throughout the land.

Don’t Drink Too Much!

The hazards of overindulging are confirmed by the first written reference to whisky. This dates from 1405 in Ireland where, in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, a certain chief's death was said to have been caused by drinking too much of it at Christmas.

The whisky of those days was powerfully strong since there were no laws regulating its alcohol content, and it was rarely diluted. In addition, the distillation of those times was much less controlled than it is today, and there was no aging process as there is in our era. The combination of these factors meant it tasted rather raw and wild.

America and Prohibition

In America, whisky was popular but valuable enough to be used as a currency during the American Revolution. Soon thereafter during George Washington's administration, a whiskey tax was introduced by treasury secretary Alexander Hamilton to help fund his policy of assuming the war debt of states which had failed to pay.

The Whisky Rebellion ensued since many farmers, many of whom were  veterans, argued they had fought against taxation without representation. The rebellion came to a climax in western Pennsylvania in 1794 when over five hundred armed men attacked the home of tax inspector General John Neville.

President Washington called on the state governors to send a militia to enforce the tax, and thirteen thousand militiamen were duly provided. The president himself rode at the head of the assembled army to suppress the insurgency but before they arrived, the rebels returned home; a few were arrested but the point was made and the taxes paid. Later in 1801 the Jefferson administration repealed the tax.

Bourbon - whisky made from corn - is largely American and is often associated with Kentucky and the south. It was certainly established by the 1780s when distillers such as Evan Williams, Elijah Craig and the Samuels family were active.

Later during the American Civil War there were shortages not only because men were drawn away to fight, but many of the battles were fought in major American distilling regions.

Production

The oldest licensed producer still making the drink is the Old Bushmills Distillery in County Antrim in the north coast of Ireland, where a license was granted in 1608 by King James I to distill Irish whiskey.

The production of the liquor in Britain was dramatically affected after 1707 with the Acts of Union, which merged Scotland and England, when taxes on whiskey rose greatly, particularly after the introduction of the English Malt Tax of 1725.

Immediately afterward, much of Scotland's formal distillation halted and was forced underground. A race was on to hide Scotch whisky from the taxmen, known as Excise men. During this period Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, made whiskey at night when darkness hid the smoke, leading to the moniker moonshine.

Up to the 19th century, whisky was made using pot stills. Under this method, heat is applied directly to the pot containing the wash. Alcohol boils at a lower temperature than water and so during distillation, the vapor contains more alcohol than the liquid and when the vapors are condensed, the resulting liquid contains a higher concentration of alcohol.

In the pot still, the alcohol and water vapor combine with esters and flow from the still through a condensing coil where they condense into the first distillation liquid before flowing into a second pot still, which is distilled a second time to produce a much higher concentration of alcohol.

A major advancement occurred in 1826 when Scottish developer Robert Stein invented the continuous  or column still, which allowed for a constant distillation process and whiskey with a higher level of alcohol.

Five years later, Aeneas Coffey from Ireland improved upon this invention by creating a still that was more efficient yet and led to cheaper whisky, which changed production because up to this point, everything produced was malt whiskey.

With the development of the new still, grain whisky began to be distilled. It was different since it was less intense than the malt whisky produced in the copper pot stills.

This Coffey still, or column still, works as follows.

  • The first of the two columns, called the analyzer, has steam rising and wash descending through several levels.

  • The second column, known as the rectifier, carries the alcohol from the wash where it circulates until is condensed.

  • Column stills work like a series of single pot stills, formed in a long vertical tube.

  • The rising vapor, which is low in alcohol, starts to condense in the cooler, higher level of the column.

  • The temperature of each successively higher stage is slightly lower than the previous stage, so the vapor in equilibrium with the liquid at each stage is progressively more enriched with alcohol.


With the introduction of this new technique, whisky blending began, sometimes between products produced in pot and column stills, and the types of whiskey proliferated into many varieties.

These include single malt, which is made from a mash of only one kind of grain; blended malt, which is a mixture of single malts from different distilleries; blended whisky, which is typically a blend of malt and grain whiskys; bourbon, which is made from mash containing over half corn (maize); and rye, wheat and malt whiskys which are likewise made with a mash at least half rye, wheat or barley respectively.

Whisky was produced, mostly illegally, during Prohibition in the USA from 1920 to 1933, however there was an exception: whiskey prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies was allowed by the government.

Today, whisky is made world-wide, especially in the English speaking countries, Europe, India and Japan, though Scottish Whisky is both unique and protected.


To learn more about Scottish whisky, you can visit the Scottish Whisky Experience on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh.

Queen's Hall Edinburgh

Queen's Hall Edinburgh

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