Whisky, the drink without which any party is incomplete, has been consumed since centuries. The name ‘whiskey’ is taken to mean a number of alcoholic beverages that are distilled from fermented grain mash and thereafter, aged in wooden casks that are generally made of oak. There are different types of whiskeys available in the market today, made from different grains, like barley, malted barley, rye, malted rye, wheat and maize (corn). In case, apart from drinking the alcoholic beverage, you are also interested in exploring its origin, check out the interesting background information provided below.
History of Whisky
Though the exact origin of whiskey is not known, it is estimated that the knowledge of distilling was discovered in Asia, somewhere around 800 BC. During the initial phases, the distillation process was used to make perfumes only. With time, the Chinese started distilling liquor from rice. As time progressed, the knowledge of distillation traveled across to the British Isles. Though it is not known exactly how this took place, there is evidence that the Moors were responsible for the same.
The most common explanation is that Patrick, the Patron Saint of Ireland, brought the knowledge to Ireland, where he went there as a Christian Missionary, in 432 AD. Celts used the distillation process to make their Uisge Beatha (Gaelic for ‘water of life’). In fact, the name ‘whisky’ emerged from the word ‘Uisge’ only. One of the first written records, related to the beverage, dates back to the year 1494. The Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, of that year, show a purchase of “eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”.
With time, the knowledge of distilling soon spread to the whole of Scotland and whisky came to be produced at almost every other farm there. The whisky that was being produced till eighteenth century had a very young, raw and brutal taste, different from the drink that we know of today. It was only in the 18th century that people started realizing that whisky improved and mellowed, if it was allowed to mature. The discovery was an accident. A merchant found an old forgotten cask of whisky and realized that instead of becoming rotten, the old beverage tasted even better than the new one.
The parliaments of Scotland and England got united under the ‘Act of Union’. The year 1725 saw an equivalent to the English Malt Tax being applied, which resulted in illegal distilleries, smuggling and itinerant Excisemen. The coming years witnessed tax raises, introduction of different duties for different distilleries and other license regulations. Till 1820s, most of the whisky continued to be produced illegitimately. It was with the passage of the Excise Act that local government started closing shutters on illicit distilleries.
In 1831, Aeneas Coffey, a former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, invented a twin-column version of the patent. With this, the technique in continuous distillation improved, resulting in lowered production costs. At the same time, the simultaneous use of malted and unmalted barley, together with other kinds of corn, became acceptable. The idea was introduced in Scotland too, despite the disliking of the Irish. Though Coffey idea increased production of whisky, the resultant product was quite inferior.
The solution for the problem was provided by Andrew Usher, in 1852, in the form of blending of the spirit, produced as per Coffey’s idea, with the traditional whisky. The solution turned into a major success and resulted in Scottish volumes exceeding the Irish. Around this time only, the American vine louse Phylloxera vastatrix entered France. The pest started spreading quickly and reached the Cognac region by the 1880s. This resulted in the destruction of the vineyards and with them, the entire brandy industry of France.
Suffering from the loss, French readily accepted the blended whisky, as an alternative. By the time the French vineyards came back to the original level, whisky had ceased to become an alternative. In fact, it had gained the status of one of the most popular beverages in the country. With time, the alcoholic beverage started being consumed across the globe. What once started as a product for the British market in the 1820s; has today turned into a beverage that is consumed around the world. Though majority of the whisky produced today is the blended one, the demand for the single malt whisky is slowly on the rise too.