A Brief History of Whiskey

Ancient Monk on The TippleSince the dawn of time there's been a fascination with the creation of alcohol and the processes of fermentation, reaching as far back as 10,000 BC. Mankind's later interest in Alchemy, the obsession to producing 'gold' from things that weren't, also extended to developing even better techniques of distilling, and many Asian communities in 800 BC even experimented with rice and mares milk!  The Ancient Greeks scribbling in the 4th century A.D. also attributed the development of the tribiko, or three-armed pot still, to “Maria the Jewess", Alchemy the first recorded Western Alchemist. But it wasn’t until the 8th century A.D. that Arabic alchemist Abu Musa Jabir ibn Hayyan designed the alembic pot still, a device that became the mother of all inventions to the creator of refined alcoholic beverages. But of course, initial interest in alcohol was medicinal - honest ! Early accounts of its medical qualities appear in an Italian medical school journal though it wasn't till “aqua vitae” arrived into the 14th Century that its recreational use was notably in full swing.

The word 'whiskey' (or whisky) is derived from the Irish 'uisce beatha', meaning water of life. Irish Whiskey was one of the earliest distilled varieties in Europe. The Annals of Clonmacnoise, duly noted that a local Clan Chief died after taking on board a little too much “aqua vitae” in 1405. And, the nobel liquer appears in Scottish records as early as 1494. Whilst the Irish reportedly sold the Patent to the Bag Pipes to the Scots, initially as a joke, it could be considered the creation of Whiskey became very much a joint venture and by 1556 Whiskey production was widespread. Naturally, an Act of Parliament, wasn't far behind in an attempt to control production, though customs duties didn't appear till 1661. Early legislation it made it Law that nobody other than Old Distillery Pic posh, well to do people, or Freemen of larger cities could get involved in the activity of Distilling (keeping the popular business ventures amongst friends).

One such licence was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips, a landowner in Bushmills, in County Antrim in 1608, which made this licence the oldest surviving right to distill. However, the current Bushmills Company wasn't registered to trade until 1784, which means the Killbeggan Distillery in Co. Westmeath (formally Locke's) with its 250 year old Copper Still, could lay claim to being the oldest distilling company to-date opening its doors in 1757. The earliest recorded Scottish site was the Glenturret Distillery, creators of the famous Grouse Brand, some two decades later in 1775. The introduction of levies of course led to the term 'Parliament Whiskey' and the rest created by un-registered ventures went by it customary Irish name of  'Potin', Gaelic for "small pot", that is until 100 years later when in 1761 it became compulsory to register. The term 'Moonshine' again poked amusement at the fact the craft went 'underground' only for the distillers fires to be lit by the light of the moon, far away from prying eyes. And, the term blind drunk, Old Clipper Ship derived from the resultant blindness from drinking 'unfettered' whiskey/potin of some 80-90% proof, which ruptured blood vessels subsequently detaching the eye's retina, leaving the unfortunate drunk to regain sight some days later.  

With the advent of prolific exploration, trading and colonization throughout the 17th & 18th Centuries, the popularity of whiskey knew no bounds, the native American Indians coining the phrase 'firewater' from the makeshift settlers potato whiskey which was clear. It took the work of a Scotsman and an Irishman Robert Stein and Aeneas Coffey, to perfect the coil cooling methods. The “column,” or continuous still, as the name indicates, facilitated a virtually constant distillation process, hence large-scale commercial distilling was born. And so, the race for domination of emerging world wide markets began in earnest between the two centres of excellence. One developing the art of 'Triple distilling' and the other perfecting casking and smoking. Enjoy !

Martin's Hot Whiskey Recipe