A brief history of whisky

Before we begin, there’s one thing we need to clarify…

Is it whisky or whiskey?

The distinction surrounding the spelling of whisky is not a result of a spelling mistake made hundreds of years ago as many have speculated, rather it comes down to a matter of region. The first introduction of whisky comes from Celtic branch of Gaelic in the Highlands of Scotland, derived from the term ‘uisge beatha’, meaning ‘water of life’. As such, the traditional spelling, and that which is still adopted today in Scotch, Canadian and ‘other’ variants. However, when Irish competitors emerged on the whisky scene in the 19th century, they wanted to make their product distinct from other Scottish and rural variants, and so ‘whiskey’ with an ‘e’ was introduced. This addition of the ‘e’ is now used among almost all Irish and American variants of the liquor.


The early days

The general history of whisky goes back centuries with the earliest record of distilling alcohol stemming from the 12th century. Wine was the predominant alcohol of the time, but being that Scottish and Irish land didn’t have sound grounds for growing grapes and housing vineyards, locals turned to their surplus grain for fermentation, uncovering the first distillation practice of modern whisky. 

While the dates get a bit blurry, it is well known that the illicit distillation of whisky was a thing for a very long time, providing essential income to poor and isolated communities across Scotland and Ireland. Back then, the liquor was quite rousing stuff, and unlike anything communities had tasted before.

1600s: The first of many distilleries

In no time, whisky found its way into the homes of Scots right across the country where the locals worked to refine the process of distillation so that the end product resulted in something entirely enjoyable on its own. The earliest written evidence of whisky distillation comes in the late 15th century with the first legally established distillery, Bushmills, recorded in 1608. The Northern Ireland distillery still holds the title for the oldest licensed whisky distillery in the world.

1700s: Introducing “Moonshine”

In 1707 England and Scotland merged to create what we now know as Great Britain. With this change, the government enacted a bunch of new taxes, one of which attempted to control the production of whisky throughout the country. Most impactful was the English Malt Tax of 1725 which threatened the entire production of whisky and sent many Scottish distilleries into dissolution.

However, this didn’t stop whisky lovers from crafting their own brews. With the cessation of many distilleries, local folk began producing the drink late at night to cover their tracks from authorities, making and distributing homebrews across the country. The production of ‘poteen’ or the more famously known name, ‘moonshine’ soon flourished with illegal stills severely outnumbering the count of legal distilleries.


1800s: The fall of legal prohibitors

1822 saw Scotland introduce the Illicit Distillation Act, introducing more severe consequences for both the production, supply and consumption of illegal whisky products.  This was soon followed by a major reduction in the duty fee for every gallon of whisky, as well as the introduction of a licence fee for distilling whisky. These few changes saw a major shift in the production of whisky, effectively seeing an end to mass illicit production.

The reduced duty and the marginally affordable licence fee also created cause for legal trade as the profits from international distribution were much higher. It was during this time that a Mr John Walker entered the scene, producing his own whisky which would in time become one of the most widely distributed Scotch whiskies in the world.

It was also in the mid-1800s that Bourbon whiskey first hit the scene after Old Bourbon County distiller Jacob Spears coined the name on a recent batch, derived from the name of the region. 

Technological advancements in distilling equipment also allowed the first blended whisky to come into production, opening up a whole new market for the whisky industry.


1900 – present: The rise of a global appreciation for whisky 

Fast forward to the 19th century and people were crazy for whisky, and whisky of any variety. The success of Bourbon whisky spread throughout the US, bringing about the reintroduction of rye whisky and a unique selection of blends. 

All over the world distilleries started popping up, with Japan soon becoming an industry leader for the production of whisky, with other regional drams following suit, including Germany, Australia, and Brazil, among others.