So, who invented whisky? Since this is such an old and ancient spirit, we can’t trace it back to any person with certainty. However, there are some historical records showing it is definitely a spirit hailing from the British Isles, specifically Ireland and Scotland. That said, there are many influential personalities who developed what we know to be whisky today.
The study of human history is a curious and eye-opening endeavor, especially where alcohol comes into the picture. From the way general distilling began to the plethora of the spirits we have now is a story that we should remember. But none of these are as interesting as the invention of whisky.
Therefore, the story of whisky is definitive, yet elusive. The Scottish and Irish are famous for this classic spirit and, later, the United States along with Canada.
Table of Contents
- Who Invented Whisky?
- Who Invented Whisky? The Nations’ Influence
- Written Historical Records about Whiskey
- Conclusions about Who Invented Whisky
We may not know who invented whisky, per se, but what we do know is that it was a process. Another thing that we know is the art of distillation in general comes from the Middle East. Either it started in ancient Mesopotamia in 2000 BC for fragrances or it started in ancient Egypt at a much earlier time with the beginnings of beer, as some people argue.
Regardless, we do know it comes from ancient, long lost cultures located near or around the Fertile Crescent. However, our first written record of distillation, as a general practice, comes from around 100 AD in ancient Greece. Alexander of Aphrodisias, a philosopher, describes transforming seawater and distilling it into clean, potable water.
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While this distillation wasn’t yet for the purposes of alcohol, it is the genesis from where the process developed.
When the Moors entered Europe between 500 and 1000 AD, they brought their knowledge of distilling. This eventually ended up in the hands of the Christian missionary monks. They used it for creating tonics and waters for ceremonies and medicines.
The first written record of wine, as we know it, comes from Italy around 1250 AD. From here, alcohol consumption grew and spread to what we now have. However, wine was in existence by the ancient Greeks long before this. One proof of this comes from “The Odyssey” by Homer.
The word ‘whisky’ is a derivative of ‘uisge beatha’ or ‘usquebaugh,’ Gaelic words that loosely translate to “water of life.” Gaelic is a type of Celtic dialect that comes from Scotland and Ireland. ‘Uisge beatha’ is old Irish and ‘usquebaugh” is Scottish.
As many people may observe, there are two different spellings for this classic spirit: whisky and whiskey. The differentiation started so that it would show consumers the difference between Scottish productions versus the Irish ones.
Therefore, when you see “whisky”, the word refers to the Scottish version whereas “whiskey” indicates the Irish persuasion. Besides, this argument has traveled across the pond to the United States and Canada who use whiskey or whisky, respectively.
To this day, Scots and Irishmen debate over who invented whisky or, in this case, which country lays claim to the spirit. The Irish say it came from the Christian monks returning from Arabia in 600 AD. There are other stories that say the Irish introduced it to their Scottish neighbours, who then perfected the art. However, there is some evidence to suggest distillation came directly to Scotland from the Christian missionary monks.
But, no one has been able to definitively prove any of these claims. They haven’t been able to show that the farmers in the Highlands discovered distillation methods either. So, the debate remains.
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That said, there are some stories suggesting the Vikings brought the initial version of whisky to the coast of Scotland sometime in 400 AD. The theory is they learned the art of distilling whisky from their Syrian raiding campaigns. Since the Norse have global recognition for their love of booze, it’s not a farfetched possibility.
Important Tip: Don’t ever bring this up to any of your Scottish or Irish friends who love their whiskey; not unless you’re looking for a donnybrook. This will be especially true if you’re already drinking. In fact, if you know two of each who start getting into it over the origins of whiskey, stay out of it.
When the monks took up distilling, they didn’t have plentitudes of grapes like they do in the Middle East. Therefore, they used fermented grain mash which has now become what we know to be whisky.
The consensus is that the earliest written historical record we have of whiskey’s existence comes from the Scottish Exchequer Rolls of 1494. Here’s it’s called Aqua Vitae, or water of life, and it lists Friar John Cor to provide eight boils (a measurement equal to six bushels) of malt by order of the king.
Altough it is quite impossible to say who invented whisky, it is possible to trace some historical marks on this spirit’s journey. However, there are some tidbits of written history that indicate whisky’s existence earlier than this. When Henry II arrived in Ireland around 1174, there’s a record of using aqua vitae.
In 1405 there’s an obituary called the “Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise,” about the death of a chieftain in Moyntryolas who took a surfeit of aquae vitae during Christmas. A “surfeit” translates to “excessive amount.”
There are also mentions of whisky regarding the King James IV reign, in September of 1506. His treasury accounts have entries between the 15th and 17th of the month for aqua vitae.
Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry the VIII of England dissolved the monasteries in favor of his new Church of England. Therefore, the practice went into the hands of the public at large. This was mainly due to many monks being homeless and looking for a way to earn a living.
Public and private distilleries began, with Bushmills being the first legal distillery in Northern Ireland around 1608. Also, the Acts of the Scottish Parliament seem to have some records regarding whisky in 1690. Here there’s mention of a famous whisky distillery called Fentosh that was under the tutelage of Duncan Forbes of Culloden.
But, it’s also during this period that the already long-established practice of making whisky traveled to the New World. Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1600s settled in areas around Canada and the United States. Soon after, they began distilling their new versions of whisky.
In the region around Kentucky, they discovered that the limestone content of the water was a near-perfect match to what you can find in Scotland or Ireland. And here’s the location of where it began in America and has gained worldwide acclaim ever since.
Whiskey was an important currency during the American Revolutionary War. People produced this in bountiful numbers as a means of paying for goods and services outside of the British Crown. Afterwards, the first commercial American distillery by Evan Williams established in 1783 near Louisville, Kentucky.
It wasn’t long after the Revolutionary War that the new national government wanted to apply taxes to all distilled spirits. Since whiskey was the most popular among these, it’s more commonly known as the “Whiskey Tax.”
This is what spurred on the Whiskey Rebellion between 1791 and 1794, where grain farmers protested the government’s excise. This is because farmers often distilled their excess crops into whisky and didn’t feel it necessary to pay a tax in order to do it.
Know the whole story of the Whiskey Rebellion!
Ground zero for the Whiskey Rebellion was in the western part of Pennsylvania, where rebels intimidated officials and prevented them from collecting any taxes. But, the Whiskey Tax ended upon Thomas Jefferson taking office in 1801.
However, it’s important to note Kentucky’s importance in the development and evolution of what we know to be whiskey today. As a matter of fact, it’s the areas around Kentucky and Tennessee that are the birthplaces for the various types of whiskey.
In 1823, Dr. James C. Crow developed the process of producing sour mash. We know this distillery today as the Woodford Reserve in Kentucky. This involves adding a small amount of spent mash into a new mash. This balances the acids with the live yeast and controls the growth of foreign bacteria.
The process also improves batch consistency, which means each bottle is very close to the previous one. And thus, this is how bourbon came to be. As a matter of fact, today it is part of the legal requirement when producing and advertising a product as Tennessee whiskey. But the word bourbon wasn’t official until 1840.
Whiskey has one of the more interesting histories when it comes to the distilling of spirits. Unfortunately, we can’t pinpoint a particular person to credit for its origination. However, we do know it comes from the British Isles, specifically Ireland and Scotland.
Aside from the debate over who started it and where it came from, whiskey distilling was common at many Christian monasteries. Regardless, whiskey has been with humankind for centuries and it’s certain to continue for many more epochs.