Distilling has long been considered a tradition of the British Isles. But is that where it originally came from? Let’s take a little journey back through time and find the origins of Whiskey.
The Earliest Days of Distillation
Distillation has been around since the days of early Babylon, where perfumes were a mainstay. Alcohol, of course, has been around since the days of hunter gatherers. But the fermentation of beer, wine, and mead is quite different than the distillation of spirits.
The chemical distillation of spirits didn’t happen until the medieval Latins, all the way in the 12th century AD. Yes– whiskey is not an entirely ancient drink. The Latins learned disillation from the Arabs, who had been using it since the 9th century– but not for drinky drinks.
These early batches of spirits were used not for drinky drinks either, but as medicinal tonics. And while we like to say today that whiskey is the best medicine, they actually WERE using it as medicine to treat things like chronic pain and even smallpox.
Irish I Had Some Whiskey
Distillation FINALLY made it to the British Isles in the 15th century, making it a contemporary of the 100 Years War, linear perspective, movable type, and Sir Thomas Malory. In Ireland, where it seems as old as the wild and rocky landscape, the first recorded whiskey mention in Ireland didn’t happen until 1405, which it was said to have killed a chieftain using it for medicinal purposes. In Scotland, it wasn’t mentioned until 1494– and even then, it was only being used as medicine.
The oldest known distillery of whiskey in the world is in Ireland– the Old Bushmillss Distillery. And it wasn’t even founded until 1608!
Why did it take so long for this drink to become popular?
Well, keep in mind that people were stuck on the notion that it was medicinal for quite a while. And not that people don’t abuse medicine for pleasure (that’s been happening since the beginning of time). But the main reason was that using it as medicine didn’t allow for the whiskey to age. We’ll drink medicine that tastes horrible straight up because we expect medicine to taste horrible. But whiskey needs to age to become smooth, and no one was letting that happen for quite some time, because why bother?
Whisky (note the lack of an ‘e’– that’s important) became a popular social drink over time in Scotland, after King James IV of Scotland becoming enamored with it. But it also began to be seen as a part of the Scottish identity especially after Scotland became a part of Great Britain in 1707.
The distillation of whisky became illegal after the Malt Tax was inacted in 1725. The Scottish saw the taxation of Malt as a direct affront since so much of their economy surrounded the use of malt to brew beer and distill spirits. It was one of many nationalistic resistances that Scotland experienced in its rocky relationship with Great Britain, and people actually died in the riots that ensued.
Conservative estimates claim that at some point during this whole kerfuffle, over half of Scotland’s whisky production was illegal due to peoples’ resistance to paying the Malt Tax.
When Great Britain joined the colonization game (admittedly later than the rest of Europe), they brought whiskey with them.
One of these examples would be India, where Scotch became very popular in the 19th century.
It was particularly popular in the US because farmers found corn a cheaper and plentiful alternative to other grains.
The United States of Whiskey
One notable example of this is in Mount Vernon, Virginia, where George Washington opened his own distillery. The building has been reconstructed and can be visited to this day. The US also had its very own Whiskey Rebellion when the ol’ tax man caught up to it during Washington’s presidency.
Of course, we’ve talked quite a bit in the past about the creation of the Bourbon Belt and so on, but whiskey also had a very important role in Prohibition during the 1920’s. One of the exemptions to the ban of alcohol was that doctors could still prescribe the water of life. This whiskey had to be made in pharmacies– which lead to the company Walgreens growing from a mere 20 stores to 400 across the country.
Today, whiskey is brewed in many forms, flavors, and styles all across the globe. With whiskey’s popularity growing in Japan and India, good things are still on the horizon for this not-so-ancient drink.
[Read More: Is Aged Scotch Better?]