The knowledge of distilling was discovered somewhere in Asia around 800 BC. Initially the technique was only used to make perfume, but there is evidence that the Chinese also distilled liquor from rice at this time. It is unclear exactly how the knowledge of distillation found its way to the British Isles, but we know that the craft was brought to Europe by the Moors. What most likely happened then was that the knowledge spread through Europe’s monasteries. A common theory is that it was St. Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, who brought the art with him when he came to Ireland as a Christian Missionary in 432AD.
In any event, the knowledge at some point came to the Celts who used it to make their Uisge Beatha, which is Gaelic for ‘water of life’. We have the Celts to thank for the word ‘whisky’ at least, since ‘whisky’ can be derived from the Gaelic word ‘Uisge’.
The year 1494 is a milestone in the history of whisky; in the Exchequer Rolls of that year is recorded a purchase of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae’. This is the first written proof of whisky production in Scotland. As with many other crafts the knowledge of distilling soon spread outside of the monasteries, and eventually the ‘water of life’ came to be produced on almost every farm in Scotland. This widespread household production was to continue until the 1820s when the Excise Act was passed and local government started to come down harder on illicit distilleries.
Whisky back in the sixteenth century tasted very different from the drink we enjoy today. At that time whisky was consumed very young and had a brutal, raw taste. The discovery that whisky improves and mellows if it is allowed to mature was not made until the mid eighteenth century. As with many other breakthroughs the discovery was made by accident; an old forgotten cask was found, and the lucky owner realised that the whisky had in fact not been destroyed but instead tasted better than ever.
The Act of Union in 1707 united the parliaments of Scotland and England. The treaty was the result of political and economic factors which all indicated that a union would be mutually beneficial. The government naturally wished to expand the treaty and the turn eventually came to malt. After a violent period with many riots with deadly outcomes an equivalent to the English Malt Tax was finally applied in 1725. This was the start of an era filled with illicit distilleries, smuggling and roving Excisemen. In the beginning of the nineteenth century more than every other bottle of whisky in Scotland was illegally produced.
The following years saw a large number of tax raises, the introduction of different duties for different distilleries and other license regulations. Crime and violence was common and the administration of all the regulations eventually became unmanageable. In the 1820s the government had had enough and passed the Excise Act which made clear exactly what kind of production was legal and what was not. Another act was also passed that substantially increased the penalties for smuggling. The new acts had the desired results and illicit distilling and smuggling was greatly reduced in only a few years.
In 1831 a former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, Aeneas Coffey, invented a twin-column version of the patent still. This improved technique in continuous distillation lowered production costs and allowed simultaneous use of malted and unmalted barley together with other kinds of corn.
The Irish never liked the idea but Coffey managed to introduce it in Scotland. In just a few decades, the Irish standpoint would make them loose the dominance over the whisky industry; the Coffey Still could produce great quantities compared to the traditional stills but produced an inferior product. The solution to this problem was to blend the spirit from the Coffey Still with whisky from traditional stills. Andrew Usher introduced this idea in 1852, and the blending trade was born. Because of the immediate success of blended whisky, the Scottish volumes soon far exceeded the Irish. This advantage in volume soon became important; at about the same time as the introduction of blended whisky the American vine louse Phylloxera vastatrix came to France.
The pest rapidly spread and reached the Cognac region by the 1880s. The louse all but destroyed the entire brandy industry and the blended whisky was readily accepted as an alternative. By the time the French vineyards had recovered, whisky had ceased to be ‘only an alternative’ and was firmly established at the top.
Whisky started out as a product for the British market in the 1820s, but today it has become a drink that is appreciated and loved around the world. Much of this incredible development is the result of the introduction of blended whisky; even today approximately 90 percent of all whisky that is produced in Scotland is used in blended whisky. However the interest of single malt whisky has increased in recent years and this development is likely to continue.