The history of whisky
The origins of whisky
The origins of whisky remain something of a controversy between the Irish and their Scottish cousins. The uncertainty over its past contributes to the mystery surrounding this eau de vie. The Scottish lay claim to the very first whisky based on written records. The Irish on the other hand, take a very different and, it has to be said, quite convincing view of whisky’s origins.
The first traces of distillation were found in Egypt and date from around 3,000 BC. At that time, fragrance was distilled, as was kohl, a dark powder used as eye shadow. The term ‘alcohol’ appeared around the end of the Middle Ages and is derived from the Arabic word al-khul. In the 9th century BC, arak, a liqueur obtained by distilling molasses, sugar cane or fruit, is said to have been made in India. Much later, in 384 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to mention stills in a treatise on meteorology.
In an age where Europe was plagued by barbarian invasions, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland became a safe haven for Christianity and monastic teaching. Irish missionaries led by Saint Patrick are said to have returned from their evangelical missions to Ireland, bringing knowledge of a distillation technique with them, which they adapted to makeuisce beatha, the Celtic term for ‘water of life’.
Although no mention is made of a grain distillate prior to the 15th century, whether using barley, wheat or oats, uisce beatha is thought, originally, to have been used for medicinal purposes. In reality, the spirit produced at the time bears no resemblance whatsoever to modern-day whisky. Closer to a fragrant liqueur of herbs and honey, it served as a kind of antibiotic, and may even have been used as an antidote to food poisoning. This undoubtedly explains the spiritual name given to this drink.
In 1170, the English armies invaded Ireland. King Henry II’s soldiers discovered an alcoholic beverage beloved by the native people. Legend has it that the English, too, fell under the spell of uisce beatha - the only thing they had in common with their Irish foes. As the name of this drink was utterly unpronounceable for the English invaders, it gradually became uisce, fuisce, uiskie, whiskie and finally whisky.
Once again, no truly reliable written source is available to confirm this hypothesis which would prove whisky’s Irish origins. Yet whatever its past, whisky began developing beyond the Irish Sea, helped along by the missionaries who continued to preach the divine word.
The men who made whisky
Whisky owes a significant proportion of its success to the inspirational qualities of a handful of key figures. Some sit between history and legend. Despite having no historical proof, the Irish are unanimously convinced that whisky was first made by their most famous of evangelical monks, Saint Patrick. The Scottish retaliate by resurrecting his Scottish origins. 1,500 years later, another man of the cloth, the monk Magnus Eunson, founder of the Highland Park distillery in the Orkney Islands, and famed for his smuggling exploits, serves as a further reminder of Scotland’s passionate attachment to its national nectar.
The United States also has its own founding ‘saint’ in the form of the reverend Elijah Craig who is said to have invented bourbon. Less contestably, some men played crucial roles in shaping the history of whisky. Among them is Aeneas Coffey, an inventor and engineer who gave his name to his patent still that allowed Scotland to rule supreme in the world of whisky. Scotland also owes much to Andrew Usher who used the patent still to create the first premium blends.
Distillers deserve as big a mention as founders and inventors. Thanks their perseverance and enterprising spirit, some of them went on to build commercial empires. In Ireland, John Power and John Jameson gave their names to two of Ireland’s most famous whiskies. In the United States, Jack Daniel made his Tennessee whiskey into America’s leading brand. And as for the entrepreneur Hiram Walker, he took Canadian whisky to new heights. In many respects, the story of whisky is a passionate affair. Scottish poet Robert Burns crafted the most beautiful rhymes to express his love for whisky, while the chancellor Lloyd George invented the harshest of penalties to keep British distillers in line.