1st part : the origins

Are the origins of whisky Scottish or Irish ? Naturally, opinions about this question are drastically opposed depending on the native country of the person to whom you ask.

Nevertheless, it seems that more and more people tend to agree on the hypothesis of an Irish origin. It would be no one else than Saint-Patrick himself, the patron of the Irish, who would have introduced the still in his country at Vth AC, holding it himself indirectly from the Arabian. Irish monks would have then spread from Vth before J.C. the art of distillation at the same time as Christian civilization, in their own country to start with, then in Scotland.

In any case, what one knows for sure is that the art of distillation is very old and dates back too much more ancient time than the first origins of whisky. The Egyptians are known to have practised the distillation of perfumes 3000 years before J.C. As a matter of fact, the word alcohol is directly derived from the Arabic al-koh’l, koh’l being a dark powder from pulverized antimony and used as an eye make up.

From XIIth onwards, distillation of water of life or aqua vitae spreads progressively through Europe, notably in Ireland and in Scotland under its Gaelic name of Uisge Beatha or Usquebaugh, which will eventually transform into Uisge then Uisky, until becoming Whisky. Some virtues, literally miraculous which were justifying its name, were attributed to the water of life. Curing virtually any pain, it was then a medicinal potion which was prescribed as well as an ointment as a remedy to be drunk. It was a long way from possessing the flavours and the subtlety of the one drunk today, and was consumed for its mere virtues as opposed for pleasure.

In his “Chronicles of England, Scotland and Ireland” published in 1577, Raphael Holinshed describes as follows the incomparable virtues of Uisge Beatha :

A remedy definitely miraculous and most indispensable !

Whilst Irishmen and Scotsmen were distilling and double-distilling whisk(e)y from malted barley, at the same time Frenchmen were producing Armagnac and Cognac from fermented wines with the same techniques. In Italy, in Spain and in Germany, one distils also the burned or branded wine.

Whether distilled from malted barley or from fermented wines, in both cases the spirit of life offered, when compared to the drink from which it originated – a kind of rough beer or a wine – the triple advantage of allowing preservation without problem, of being more economical to transport and of being more palatable.

Uisge Beatha

In 1494 is to be found the first official and indisputable reference concerning distillation of whisky in a document from the Scottish Exchequer Rolls mentioning :

“Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae”.

In Ireland as well as in Scotland, distillation of Uisge Beatha will from now on develop steadily but not without events, governing instances waiting little time until they would start to regulate and tax its production. In 1644 distillation had developed to such a stage in Scotland that, following a poor harvest, a fear of a shortage of cereals appeared. This situation inspired to the king of England, Charles Ist, the idea of a fiscal tax on water of life. This idea was immediately taken over by the Scottish Parliament who will decide to restrict the right of distillation to upper and noble classes and will put in effect the first taxation measures. These will mark the first step of a long saga which will see illicit distillers and governments representatives confront each other. This epic, rich of anecdotes in which comical and tragic are often mingled, will know its apogee during the course of XVIIIth.

In 1707 Scotland is linked to England with the signature of the Union Act and the Scottish Parliament abolished. The governing body of the United Kingdom will then lay new taxes which will quickly become unbearable, at the same time as it will create specialized brigades aimed at fighting against illicit distillation, the Excisemen.

Find here soon the 2nd part of the history of whisky :

Smugglers and excisemen