Whiskey is a commonly consumed drink around the world nowadays. However, whiskey has not always been as popular as it is today. In this blog I will go deeper into the history of whiskey and where it originated from.
Whiskey originated in Ireland in the 14th century. The technique used to get alcohol into the whiskey descended from the Arabs. The Arabs invented distilling and Irish monks transferred this technique to Ireland. The only thing that changed was that they did not use flowers for the distillation but barley. Then the first whiskey was born.
In this blog I will go deeper into the history of whiskey. I therefore explain the timeline that whiskey has completed. I will start with how alcohol was commenced and then largely deal with the history of whiskey.
The History of Alcohol
Before whiskey could officially be made, it was first vital to discover how alcohol is made since there is no whiskey without alcohol! Making alcohol, as you may know, is called distilling. The distilling technique is said to have been invented by the Arabs. However, alcohol was already consumed about 8000 years ago. At this time they drank a beverage called ‘mead’. This is a beverage made out of honey and water. During that time this beverage is believed to have come into contact with yeast in a warm place. This caused a distillation to take place in the beverage and thus alcohol was added to the drink. It is also viewed as the first alcoholic drink ever.
The History of Whisky
Irish monks transferred the distillation technique to Ireland. In Ireland they discovered what was possible with this technique. This resulted in a beverage made from barley and water. This was the first drink to near the modern day whiskey. However, the beverage was still far too strong and had not matured in barrels for a long period of time. The drink was called aqua vitae. This means water of life. Aqua vitae is in Gaelic (Scotland) ‘Uisge Beatha’. Since this is difficult to pronounce, this was renamed to ‘Fuisce’. This eventually became whiskey when the British conquered Ireland.
Whiskey eventually ended up in Scotland at the end of 14th century. The transfer of knowledge prior to this came through Irish missionaries. A missionary is someone who travels to other peoples and countries to convince them of his faith or religion. Religion played a major role in the invention and distribution of whiskey. As mentioned above, the knowledge has been spread by missionaries. Also, the first Scotch whiskey was made by a monk named John Cor. In 1491 he received permission from the Scottish King James VI to make whiskey from malted barley and water.
Distilling whiskey had been risky for a long time in Scotland. This was because you were not allowed to make whiskey without the permission of the English king and had to obtain a very expensive license. This took until 1822 to change. Scottish Head of State George IV loved Scotland’s local delicacies (including whiskey) so much that he decided to encourage rather than ban this industry. He ensured that he himself also earned money from this. As a result of this decision, the ‘Exercise Act’ was enacted. This meant that the prices of a license to distill whiskey dropped drastically. However, from then onwards tax had to be paid per liter of alcohol. This tax was George IV’s revenue model. As a result of these changes, new distilleries sprouted up everywhere and whiskey was more widely produced.
In addition to this new rule, the ‘phylloxera vastratis’ epidemic in France also provided an impulse. During this epidemic there was a lice plague that had spread from America to Europe. These lice destroyed almost the entire grape industry of France. Cognac and wines could no longer be produced. These drinks were extremely popular at the time in almost all of Europe and specifically in Great Britain. The British had to look for an alternative to these beverages and were the first to end up with Irish whiskey. Irish whiskey is generally a bit softer in taste than Scotch whiskey and therefore easier to get used to if you have never drunk whiskey. However, there were many conflicts between the British and the Irish because of the war of independence that was going on at the time. In addition to the war, there was also a famine in Ireland, causing production to almost stop in the permanently. Many shopkeepers switched to Scotch whiskey. However, this whiskey is much more robust and heavier in taste than the Irish whiskey, making it less loved by the British people. The Scottish whiskey was therefore mixed with cheaper grain alcohol. The intention was to make the drink look more like cognac and Irish whiskey. This was a great success! This blend is known today as blended Scottish whiskey. One party that took part in this at the time was Johnny Walker. Johnny Walker is currently the largest whiskey brand in the world. However, this whiskey is much more robust and heavier in taste than the Irish whiskey, making it less loved by the British people. The Scottish whiskey was therefore mixed with cheaper grain alcohol. The intention was to make the drink look more like cognac and Irish whiskey. This was a great success! This blend is known today as blended Scottish whiskey. One party that took part in this at the time was Johnny Walker. Johnny Walker is currently the largest whiskey brand in the world. However, this whiskey is much more robust and heavier in taste than the Irish whiskey, making it less loved by the British people. The Scottish whiskey was therefore mixed with cheaper grain alcohol. The intention was to make the drink look more like cognac and Irish whiskey. This was a great success! This blend is still known today as blended Scottish whiskey. One party that took part in this at the time was Johnny Walker. Johnny Walker is currently the largest whiskey brand in the world.
Ultimately, whisk(e)y has spread all over the world. This was mainly due to the colonies at the time. Settlers and migrants from England eventually shared the knowledge they had about distillation and whiskey making at their new home. This was picked up by the people who lived there. By sharing this knowledge, new whiskeys were created in new places. Examples include the Bourbon and Indian Whiskey.
Problems in the whiskey industry
Of course, whiskey has not always been at ease in its history. Perhaps the biggest whiskey crisis is America’s Prohibition. This period was between 1920 and 1933. During this period, it was prohibited in America to produce or sell alcohol. Its purpose was to eradicate alcoholism. A consequence of the prohibition was of course that the illegal sale of liquor grew. The whiskey industry from Scotland and Ireland could not benefit from this as it was too risky to import it first and thereafter trade it illegally. At the time, the illegal market of liquor was full of American beverages because they no longer had to be imported. Prohibition had major consequences for both the Irish and Scottish whiskey industry. As a result, many distilleries had to close their doors.
Despite the fact that prohibition was lifted in 1933, the whiskey market actually only started in the 1960’s again. In this era, the ‘blended whiskey’ is once again a pacesetter and well-known face in the world. Whiskey is becoming a concept again during this period. However, the whiskey industry cannot enjoy its resurrection for long. As a result of the oil crisis, there is a surplus of whiskey. The consequence of this is a severe depreciation of the good. A large part of the distilleries had to close again.
Fortunately, at the end of the 80s everything is back to normal and whiskey is again a much-consumed drink. During this period, the single malt whiskey is mainly consumed. This is due to its distinct taste and complex aroma. These two properties stimulate the senses. It was a new taste sensation for many people.
Not only whiskey arises during this period. Beer and wine also become very large from the 1980’s onwards. The entire whiskey industry is experiencing tremendous growth during this period. Scottish whiskey in particular had a hard time but got a big boost. Whiskey production in other countries is also increasing. Mainly British colonies are expanding their distilleries and expanding the concept of whiskey.
Single malt is still the most popular whiskey type to date. However, whiskey is being overthrown in popularity. Drinks such as rum, gin and juniper were nowadays more often consumed than whiskey. It is also suspected that the value of whiskey will decrease drastically in the coming period. This is because whiskey can be produced anywhere in the world and is not localized. For example, anyone, anywhere in the world is allowed to produce a single malt whiskey. Other spirits are often local. An example of this is gin. Gin may only be made in a few areas. It is a problem that whiskey can be brewed anywhere because this makes whiskey truly diverse and causes a number of whiskey countries to have a difficult time. For example, India is nowadays the largest whiskey producer. Even bigger than where whiskey originated from, Ireland and Scotland. Besides India there are also other emerging whiskey countries. For example, nowadays both Japan and New Zealand have a big contribution in the whiskey industry.