Evolving from small medieval distilleries into the colossal $88 billion dollar industry that it is today, the story of whisky is one founded on tradition, revolution, and a thirst for innovation.
So, in honor of World Whisky Day, MacGregor Black explores the murky origins of whisky, the art of distilling, and the factors that fueled the rise of one of the world’s most popular spirits.
Where Did Whisky Come From?
Whisky’s history dates back hundreds of years. Which means, unfortunately, there are a number of theories as to where exactly the fiery golden liquid originates from.
Some academics argue that the ancestor to modern whisky was first discovered by Irish, Scottish, and English farmers, who began distilling spirits from their surplus grains. Although, a more favoured theory suggests that missionary monks brought the art of distillation over to the UK over a thousand years ago having mastered the practice on their travels across the Mediterranean, the Middle East and mainland Europe.
If we turn to the pages of history, we find the first ever written evidence of whisky appears as early as 1405, in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise. Here it was documented that the head of a clan died from ‘taking a surfeit of ‘aqua vitea’. However, the earliest historical reference to whisky appears a little later down the line, in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494 where an entry refers to King James IV of Scotland granting ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’.
Aqua vitea, a term historically used to describe distilled spirits, is a Latin term meaning ‘water of life’. When translated from Latin to Gaelic, ‘aqua vitea’ became ‘uisge beatha’, which over the years, eventually evolved into the word ‘whisky’ that we know and love today.
Whisky Production & The Art of Distillation
Whisky, like all of its spirit counterparts, is made using distillation. A complex practice that dates back as far as the 1st century BC and research suggests originates from ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt, where early practitioners first used the process to create a mix of potent perfumes and aromas.
However, thanks to the global migration of knowledge and through the adaptation of ingredients & techniques, over time, alchemists refined and expanded distillation beyond perfumes to include medicines, poisons and of course, whisky.
One such factor that fanned the flames of mass whisky production took place in 1536, when Henry VIII broke ties with the Roman Church and disbanded many of the English monasteries. Prior to this point, distilling spirits remained largely a monastic and medical practice, but with so many unemployed Monks dispersed into the general population at the time, the art of distilling spirits quickly made its way into homes and farms, and the general production of whisky shifted into the hands of the people.
The increasing popularity of whisky would soon attract Scottish Parliament, where plans to profit from the growing industry, saw the introduction of the first taxes on whisky, in 1644. However, in protest, many Scots turned to illicit distilling in an attempt to avoid the high taxes. By the 1820s, as many as 14,000 illicit stills were being confiscated every year, and more than half the whisky consumed in Scotland was being enjoyed without the taxman taking his cut.
However, in 1823, the Excise Act was passed, which allowed Scots to distil whisky in return for a license fee of £10 and Illicit distilling and smuggling eventually died out.
With restrictions lifted for the import and export of commercial whisky, this incentivised people to grow barley and licensed distilleries began emerging in all corners of the Scottish lands. With a license now required, the process of distilling whisky became more refined and eventually upped the quality of the product. From here, whisky gradually gained worldwide popularity, becoming a talisman of heritage, craftmanship and cultural identity for the regions it was produced in.
In the early days of whisky production, the process was relatively simple. Grains were mashed, fermented using yeast, and the resulting liquid was then distilled. Following distillation, the liquid was aged in wooden casks for several years, providing it with the unique characteristics, colour, and flavours that whisky is known for today.
In the modern era, the fundamentals of whisky making remain largely unchanged. Grains are still mashed, fermented, and distilled, and whisky is still aged in wooden casks. However, over the centuries, advancements in innovation and technology, as well as the introduction of advanced aging and maturation processes have birthed a new age of whisky production.
In the 18th and 19th century, the industrial revolution brought significant advancements to the field. Namely, the invention of the column still in 1830, by Aneas Coffey, which revolutionised distillation and paved the way for large-scale whisky production. Today, distillation has transcended its traditional ties to spirits and is now a crucial process in various other industries including, the production of fuels, petroleum refining, essential oils, pharmaceuticals, and even water purification. Proving that distillation has played, and will continue to play, an essential role in the advancement of human society… not to mention good quality spirits.
Whisky or Whiskey…
The terms, whisky and whiskey are often used interchangeably, causing quite a bit of confusion amongst connoisseurs and casual drinkers alike. However, there are a number of distinct differences in their production methods, geographical origins, and their unique flavour profiles.
Whisky (without an e, and the starring spirit of this article) typically refers to whisky produced in Scotland and is often dubbed, Scotch whisky. Scottish distilling largely inspired the production of whisky in countries like Japan and Canada, explaining why both countries also use the ‘without an e’ spelling of whisky.
Scotch whisky has some pretty stern regulations when it comes to what can actually be labelled as a true Scotch Whisky. It must be made from malted barley, water, and yeast, and must be distilled in Scotland for at least three years. Scotch whisky is also well-known for its range of rich and smoky flavours, which can be attributed to the use of peat in the malting process.
However, recent research found that peat releases an excessive amount of stored carbon dioxide when harvested and is currently under some scrutiny for its potential contribution to climate change. The Scottish Government has since drawn plans to move away from using peat products in the future, thus protecting the environment, and ensuring no further damage to the peatlands.
Whiskey, on the other hand, is the preferred spelling of grain spirits that have been distilled in Ireland and the United States.
As Irish colonists began to arrive in America, they brought with them the process of distilling grain spirits and from that moment onwards, whiskey was born.
American whiskey encompasses various styles, including bourbon, rye whiskey and Tennessee whiskey, all of which are distilled in different ways, using different ingredients and under strict legal regulations specific to America. For example, similar to Scotch, for a bourbon whiskey to officially labelled as a bourbon whiskey, it must be distilled in America and at no higher than 160 proof, 80% alcohol-by-volume.
Brands to watch…
As the world of whisky continues to evolve, and an increasing number of individuals embrace the charm and cultural complexities of this cherished spirit, certain brands have emerged as rising stars in the industry. MacGregor Black caught up with award-winning mixologist and drinks practice operations consultant, Kieron Hall, to gauge which brands are gaining popularity and the reasons behind their rise.
Nc’nean Distillery is a young, independent, organic whisky distillery perched above the Sound of Mull in the remote community of Drimnin on the west coast of Scotland. Declaring their main purpose to be “creating experimental spirits, and pioneering sustainable production”, Nc’nean Distillery aims to really get people thinking about Scotch.
“Nc’nean Distillery is a favourite brand of mine for a number of reasons, I think they’ve just hit the mark with everything a brand needs to be in today’s economy,” comments, Kieron.
“The brand is constantly looking at ways to shake-up the traditional Scotch market and improve their impact on the planet. Like, using organic Scottish barley at their distillery, which is powered by renewable energy, as well as recycling 99.97% of their waste, and making all of their bottles out of 100% recycled clear glass. Not to mention,
I think the quality of their product is brilliant, particularly their Organic Single Malt Whisky.
If you haven’t checked out Nc’nean yet, you definitely should!”
InchDairnie Distillery, based in Fife, Scotland, pride themselves on their origins, whisky traditions, and their ability to take an innovative approach to flavour. Their distillery uses only barley that has been grown locally in Fife and they operate using two bespoke pieces of equipment; a Mash Filter and Lomond Hill Still, both used for experimentation and innovation.
Kieron Hall comments, “InchDairnie opened in 2015 and they literally built the whole distillery around their mash filter. Their bespoke methods to whisky production means that they can handle a variety of different grains and can extract more flavour and sugar during the process.
Every year, the brand clears two weeks in their calendar to distil something ‘out of the ordinary’ which most recently saw the distillery make their way to ‘the dark side’, being the first to distil a mash made from a majority of Dark Kilned Malted Spring Barley, which is usually used to brew dark beers.
A great drink and I suspect a great deal of innovation to come from InchDairnie in the near future.”
Ellers Farm Distillery
Based in North Yorkshire, Ellers Farm Distillery’s state-of-the-art production ranks as one of the largest distilleries in the country. The brand prides itself on being carbon neutral since day one of its operations, with further plans to achieve official B Corp certification. Ellers Farm Distillery has also partnered with Bristol based environmental organisation, Ecologi with the aim of planting one million trees.
“Ellers Farm is a classic,” says Kieron Hall.
“My colleague, Dana Bond and I recently visited the famous Ellers Farm Distillery and toured their site. After hearing some of their ambitious environmental goals and their plans for the future, we were pretty impressed.
Not only do they distil whisky, but they also produce vodka, gin and a range of small batch spirits that are only released in batches of 500 bottles. Ellers Farm will surely continue to lead the charge when it comes to sustainability, NPD and of course, great quality spirits.”
Kieron also comments about the “up and coming challenger brands” stating that:
“There are so many brands that deserved a mention, with many up-and-coming challenger brands also making big moves in the world of whisky right now, such as, Wolfburn, Milk & Honey, Mackmyra and Stauning Whisky to name a few.”
“It’s an exciting time to be a whisky lover as we have front row seats to watch a wave of new brands redefine the landscape of whisky.”
Whether it’s neat, on the rocks, or mixed into a complex cocktail, whisky clearly has a rich history of being beloved by many, throughout the centuries. From the rolling hills of Scotland to the bourbon-soaked barrels of Kentucky, the production methods, legal regulations, and geographical influences have shaped the unique identity of whisky.
With each sip, we embark on a sensory journey of tradition, rebellion, and innovation, connecting us to a rich, yet murky, history of one of the world’s most beloved spirits.
So, if you’re a complete connoisseur, a beloved bourbon fan or an avid enthusiast, join us on World Whisky Day 2023 to appreciate the deep and remarkable world of whisky.