It would be suitable for a people-based profile of whisky to start by naming the very first whisky maker. In reality, no-one knows who the first distiller was. It is clear that from AD 4 onwards, alchemists in China, India, Arabia, Egypt and Greece were utilizing distillation to make turpentine, medicines, makeup (al-kohl, our alcohol) and perfumes, however there is no evidence that they adapted brewing techniques to make whisky.
How the Irish and Scots got in on the act is equally mystical. The Celts may have learnt about distillation, however apart from a number of enigmatic references in the 6th century AD there’s no evidence. What is agreed is that distillation got here in Scotland with the monks of the Celtic Church, suggesting that distillation was currently taking place in Ireland – possibly Irish monks had encountered the art in Sicily or Andalucia, or through their ancient trading links with the Phoenicians.
By the time Friar John Cor bought his popular 8 bolls of malt in 1495 – the very first record of whisky making in Scotland -distillation was widely practiced across Europe. It is barely unexpected that the very first distillers were monks: the water of life, aquavitae (uisge beatha in Scots Gaelic) was a medication made in monastic laboratories, and considerably different to today’s whisky. Flavoured with heather, honey, herbs, spices and roots – partially to hide off-flavours, partially because it was a medication -this middle ages mix was closer to a crude whisky liqueur.
Making whisky was a means of utilizing up surplus grain: in winter, livestock might be fed on the grains left after mashing and crofters could use their whisky as part-payment of rent. Made in batches in small pot stills, the process utilized for malt whisky today, whisky quickly ended up being an important part of rural life.
When crofter-distillers from Scotland arc Ireland were repelled their land from 1 ~ 4; onwards, whisky infect America and Canada. Rye whiskey had been made as early as 1640, it was this abrupt wave of immigrants that developed whiskey as North America’s spirit. They, too, used the local grains – corn, wheat and rye – and by 1783 industrial production had actually kicked or: in Kentucky.
By 1825, the whisky market in Scotland and Ireland was managed by men of capin. In 1827, Robert Stein invented a continuous still (see pages 86-87), which not only mace distilling less labour-intensive but produced lighter, grain-based whisky which could be mass produced. Adjusted in 1831 by Aenea-Coffey, the continuous still changed whisky production forever.
The Irish withstood, for a time. Distillers including John Jameson and John Power, who were currently taking pleasure in global eminence with their pot-still whiskies, refused to use the continuous technique, dismissing it as an adulteration o: ‘genuine’ whisky.
The Canadians were so enamoured of the Coffey still that, in 1875, they passed legislation decreeing that Canadian whisky might only be made from grain distilled in a continuous still, and aged for a minimum of 3 years in oak barrels. Even at this phase there was no indication that whisky would become the world’s best-selling spirit. Brandy was still more popular, but the vine parasite phylloxera vastrix put paid to that when, from the 1870s onwards, it cleaned out Europe’s vineyards – and the brandy industry with them.
At that time, Irish bourbon was selling more in America than Scotch, however while Scotch and Canadian whisky handled to retain a quality image, Irish whiskies lost their biggest market over night and were being (terribly) copied by bootleggers. At the same time, Irish independence led to the restriction of Irish items in Britain and the Empire.
In America, northern Europe and Britain, malts have kept the whisky dream alive. There are now more quality whiskies on offer than ever before, and a renewed interest in how they are made and the individuals who make them.