Whiskey has a long and varied development history, although nobody’s sure of the precise origin of the drink as we recognize it today.
Alcohol distillation and fermented beverages like beer and wine were developed far earlier than whiskey. Evidence of the earliest fermented beverages was found in jugs dated to the Stone Age – at least 10,000 B.C. It’s interesting to note that whiskey was originally developed in the middle ages as a remedy, and wasn’t consumed as a beverage until about 200 years later.
The first distillation of alcohol began in Western Asian region of Mesopotamia around 2,000 BC. Early distillation was associated with perfume-making, so the development of whiskey and other distilled alcohol may have been an outgrowth of scent manufacturing.
The earliest description of alcohol distillation was composed by Majorcan writer and philosopher Ramon Llull in the 13th century. After Llull, alcohol distillation technology passed through many civilizations until it became widely adopted. Alcohol distillation was imported to Ireland and Scotland around 1100 and 1300 by monks, making them early fans of “A wee bit of the creature” (the Irish nickname for whiskey). However, spirit alcohol up to the early 1400’s was still being used primarily for rituals and religious purposes and distilled by monks.
The word “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic term uisge beatha meaning “water of life,” and it was called aqua vitae in Latin. Whiskey was originally a medicine – a popular antibiotic among medieval physicians. Whiskey was prescribed to treat various internal and external infections and even lifestyle problems like marital discord. It’s not known if prescribed whiskey eased or worsened marital discord.
As spirit alcohol caught on with doctors, it became a standard item in pharmacopeia. Alcohol distillation had evolved from the purview of monks to the medieval physicians’ group, The Guild of Surgeon Barbers. The first known textbook about alcohol distillation for doctors and surgeons was published in 1500 by German physician and chemist Hieronymus Brunschwyg.
The good doctor’s handbook gave detailed instructions on distilling and utilizing aqua vitae as a curative with text and detailed woodcut illustrations. “Liber de arte distillandi” expounded on the virtues of alcohol as remedy for a variety of ailments and mood disorders such as depression and memory problems.
Modern whiskey is aged a minimum of three years in wooden casks to give it that familiar mellow flavor. The wood used to age whiskey is usually charred white oak, and the aging process is called “oaking.” It’s said that 80% of whiskey’s taste comes from the wood it’s aged in, and whiskey makers know that old oak imparts the best flavor to the drink. Early whiskies were produced using primitive distillation equipment, unrefined methods and it was not aged at all. Early Renaissance whiskies were used straight from a barrel and extremely raw-tasting compared to modern whiskies. A large serving of this undiluted concoction was so potent that a Whiskey Sour made with crude whiskey of the past could cause alcoholic shock.
Whiskies are made from various grains; in Scotland malt whisky uses 100% malted barley mash. Whisky production spread quickly in Ireland, Scotland and other northern European areas where beer and wine were already popular. This was due to grains and barley being locally available and limited supplies of grapes.
The first confirmed written record of whiskey appeared in 1405 in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where the death of a chieftain was blamed on excessive whiskey consumption at Christmastime. The Scots become the world leaders in quality whisky soon after spending decades perfecting the distillation process. The first known record of Scottish whisky appeared in 1494 in the Exchequer Rolls to Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make “aquavitae.” Friar John received sufficient malt to produce about 500 bottles of whiskey.
When King Henry VIII dissolved England’s monasteries between 1536 and 1541, monks were unemployed and forced to manage on their own. Many of them earned money by doing what they knew well: making whisky, and they soon spread their knowledge across Scotland. Thus began whisky production that was no longer controlled exclusively by monastic monks and The Guild of Surgeon Barbers.
The oldest licensed distillery was the Old Bushmilll’s Distillery on Ireland’s north coast. They were licensed in 1608, and the company is still in the whiskey business today.
The Acts of Union merged England and Scotland in the 18th century, and new harsh taxes on any unlicensed alcohol brewery tested the Scot’s love of whisky. Scotch whisky production was shut down when the English crown imposed new harsh taxes on any unlicensed alcohol brewery.
Thousands of distillers across Northern England and Scotland responded by producing whisky illegally using homemade stills, usually in the wee hours of the night. Low nighttime visibility hid the smoke from distillation fires. Stealth production in the dark of night endowed whisky with the nickname “moonshine.” After production, they hid their whisky stocks in unusual places like church altars and coffins to avoid government excisemen.
The governments did their best to stop illegal whisky production, yet regulations did little to curb it; about 50% of the whisky produced during this era was illegal. Smuggling became an art form, and the fight between smugglers and the Scottish and English governments lasted for 150 years.
During the taxation years, shortages of whiskey around the world had international impact. During the American Revolutionary War, whiskey was scarce enough to be used as a currency. After the war ended, the new American government repeated England’s mistake and heavily taxed the ingredients, production and sales of whiskey. The 1791 tax protest of US grain and corn farmers was called the Whiskey Rebellion, and the tax laws were repealed in 1801.
Whisky makers in Scotland and England were free to resume legal whisky manufacturing when the English government passed a new law that legalized production after paying a fee. This revived the industry, and drove innovations and improvements in the product. One of the new innovations was the “continuous still” that enabled brewers to make whisky that was higher quality, and distilled much faster.
In 1880, even the French began making whiskey because of a disease which wiped out much of the grape crop. This led to whiskey becoming popular worldwide, and in 2009 Scotland broke their record and exported 1.1 billion bottles of whiskey.