Whisky —or whiskey (with an e), as it is commonly spelled in Ireland and the US— is the national drink of Ireland and Scotland. However, it has given rise to an enormous number of varieties all around the world. They are all made from a fermented mash of cereal grains aged in wooden containers. But, who invented it, and under what circumstances? All we know is that it happened in the British Isles.
Both Ireland and Scotland claim to have invented whisky, but neither country has solid proof of this. According to 12 experts, the art of distillation already existed in ancient Egypt around 3000 BC, and it spread to Europe during the first millennia AD. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland was a safe place for Christian monks, and many of them moved to the island. It is said that they took the distillation knowledge with them.
The origin of the term ‘whisky’ goes back to both Ireland and Scotland, where the beverage was known as ‘uisce beathadh’ (in Irish) or ‘uisge beatha’ (in Scots Gaelic), which were adaptations of the Latin phrase ‘aqua vitae’, ‘water of life’.
WHISKY A GO GO
The earliest written references to whisky date back to the 15th century and are found in Irish and Scottish documents. Experts believe that at the time the spirit was made for medicinal purposes and was very different to modern-day whisky.
After the English king Henry the VIII dissolved the monasteries, many monks had to look for new ways of making a living, and distillation became one of them. This way whisky became more accessible to the general public. In the following centuries, European colonists settled in America, taking with them the practise of distilling ‘whiskey’ and trying new types of grains and mash.
In the early 18th century, the English Malt Tax seriously threatened the production of whisky. This forced most Scottish distilleries to shut down and many started working illegally making whisky at night. This gave whisky a rather romantic nickname: ‘moonshine’. The production of moonshine ended in 1823, when distilleries legalised their activity by paying a fee.
In the US, whiskey was so valuable that it was used as a currency during the American Revolutionary War. The so-called ‘whiskey tax’ caused the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax protest pitching farmers against the government. The most famous American variety is known as ‘bourbon’, and there are many others all around the world: Canadian whisky, Japanese whisky, Mexican whisky… You name it!!