The Origins Of Whisky

Published 6 Feb 2023

The origins of distillation are uncertain, with various theories attributing its discovery to different civilizations and regions. While it is commonly believed to have been discovered by Arabian physicians, the practice may have existed earlier in India and China. Arabian physicians were among the first to document the distillation process and made significant contributions to its development. Jabir ibn Hayyan, also known as Geber, was a renowned 8th-century chemist and alchemist from Tus, Iran who played a crucial role in the history of chemistry. He wrote extensively on distillation and described the process as a means of extracting the fragrances of plants and flowers. Other notable Arabian physicians including Rhazes, Albucassis, and Avicenna, who lived in the 10th and 11th centuries, also mentioned the distillation of roses, which was highly valued as a perfume by royalty and nobles. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Arabian physicians distilled wine.
The art of distillation made its way to Europe in the 13th century, where it is documented that wine was being distilled. Arnold de Villa Nova, a French alchemist and physician of the time, was the first to write authentically about the distillation of wine, considering it a recent discovery and a universal cure-all. His pupil and contemporary, Raymon Lulley, is credited with coining the term "alcohol" for the strongest spirits produced through the distillation of wine.
France remained the centre of alcohol distillation in Europe for several years, thanks to the plentiful supply of wine used to produce brandy. The 14th century saw advances in agriculture, including the expansion of the three-field system and the use of horse-drawn ploughs, which led to an increase in grain production. It is likely that alcohol was first distilled from grains in Europe during this time. The term "aqua vite" is thought to have emerged in the 14th or 15th century, meaning "water of life." However, it may have originated as a corrupted version of "Aqua vitis," meaning "water of the vine."
The origin of distillation in the British Isles is unclear, but it is believed to have been first introduced to Ireland. In 1405, the Irish annals of Clonmacnoise recorded that the head of a clan died from excessive consumption of aqua vitae. Scotland saw documented evidence of alcohol distillation in 1494, when King James IV granted 8 bolls of grain to Friar John Corr for the production of aqua vitae. At first, distillation of alcohol was mainly a monastic practice. However, with the dissolution of monasteries during the reign of King Henry VIII, the monks and their distillation techniques became part of mainstream society. As a result, the distillation of alcohol became a thriving industry in Ireland, with exports to other European countries.
The word ‘whisky’ is undoubtedly a corruption of ‘usquebaugh’.The origin of the term "usquebaugh" is unclear, but it is believed to have originated from the Irish or Scottish Gaelic word "uisce," meaning "water." It was used in the 16th and 17th centuries in Ireland to describe a strong distilled spirit made from malted barley, flavoured with spices and herbs. Smith's book, "The Compleat Body of Distilling," published in 1792, includes a recipe for usquebaugh that lists ingredients such as malt spirit, cloves, mace, nuts, cinnamon, coriander, cubeb, raisins, dates, liquorice, saffron, and sugar. Irish usquebaugh was highly valued and consumed as a medicine or tonic, used as currency, and often traded as a valuable commodity.
The early 18th century was a difficult time for the distillation industry in Scotland and Ireland. In 1725, the introduction of a malt tax by Parliament posed a significant challenge to the small-scale, cottage-based production that was common at the time. In response, many distillers chose to evade the tax, leading to an increase in illicit alcohol distillation.
In 1822, the Illicit Distillation Act was enacted in Scotland, imposing severe penalties for the production, supply, or even consumption of illegally produced spirits. However, this legislation was followed by the 1823 Excise Act, which significantly reduced the duty on malt spirit and made obtaining a distilling license more affordable. The Excise Act marked a major turning point in the history of the distilling industry, paving the way for the growth of legal, regulated distillation, effectively bringing an end to the widespread illicit distilling.
In the early days of distillation in the British Isles, the malt spirit produced was rarely consumed as a pure malt spirit. Instead, it was typically rectified and flavoured before being sold to the end consumer, making it vastly different from the whisky we know today. With the advent of the Excise Act of 1823, which encouraged legal distillation, the quality of the spirit improved.
An unexpected consequence of the growth of the legal whisky industry was the discovery of the benefits of oak cask ageing. A phylloxera blight in France in 1872  decimated the vineyards and cognac production in the late 19th century. The availability of Cognac fell and the demand for Sherry increased. Sherry was imported from Spain and transported in oak casks. Rather than waste the casks, distillers purchased them for their own use, leading to the accidental discovery of the benefits of oak ageing.
The Scotch Whisky Act of 1909 established a legal definition of Scotch whisky and set strict standards for its production, including the requirement that all Scotch whisky be aged in oak casks for a minimum of three years. This regulation was established to ensure the quality and consistency of Scotch whisky, and remains a critical component of the industry's regulatory framework to this day. 
Author: Liam Hirt