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Records show that distillation began around 2000 BC in Mesopotamia. This process was primarily used to produce perfumes. It spread to Africa and then was brought to Europe by the Moors. It was first used in Europe at monasteries for medicinal purposes, such as treating smallpox, colic and palsy. It wasn’t until about the 13th Century that distillation spread to Scotland and Ireland. While beer and wine were already popular throughout Europe, these islands had little in the ways of grapes and wheat so barley was used in the distillation process. This resulted in the production of whiskey. The word whisky is derived from a Gaelic word, uisge, which is shortened foruisgebeatha or aquavitae, which in Latin means the ‘water of life’.
At this point, whiskey had a very raw and severe taste because it was consumed at a very young age. Distilleries functioned with very primitive equipment and a lack of any real scientific expertise. The drink was very potent and not diluted, which at times could lead to death. As legend has it, thanks to a dare where one drinker encouraged another to drink this potent brew from a forgotten cask, a smoother whiskey was discovered.
The popularity of whisky grew through the love of the spirit by Scotland’s Renaissance King, James IV. He was very fond of the uisge and a supply of it was always kept on hand. Queen Elizabeth I was a fan of Irish whisky, which led it to being the fashionable drink in England at the time. During the 16th Century, Henry King VII of England dissolved the monasteries, which were the primary distilleries at that time. When these monks were driven from their homes, they had few other options other than to put their whiskey skills to use. This led to an improved spirit and better still designs. The knowledge of distilling also now began to spread to others other than just monks.
The first whiskey distillation license was issued in 1608 to Old Bushmills Distillery along the northern coast of Ireland. As the popularity of whiskey spread, so did governments desire to start taxing this spirit. The Scottish Parliament introduced the first tax on whisky in the 17th Century and the popularity of this tax quickly spread throughout governments across Europe. In 1725, the English Malt Tax was so high that it led to the closure of most of Scotland’s distilleries. The few that survived functioned secretly underground, literally. The whiskey was often stored in coffins to avoid government watchmen known as the Excisemen. Long and bloody battles were common between distillers and the excisemen. Smuggling became common and many political figures turned a blind eye to the illegal activity.
To avoid detection, stills were hidden in clandestine spots on heather-covered hills. The spirit was distilled at night, which led to its nickname, ‘moonshine’. The smugglers created their own language, including a signaling system that functioned from hilltop to hilltop to warn others when an excise officer was in the area. By the early 19th Century, more than 50 percent of all whisky consumed in Scotland was produced illegally.
In 1823, the United Kingdom ended prohibition against distillers but exercised a hearty tax against distilleries to function legally. Distilleries had to pay a fee of £10 to operate and a set payment per gallon of proof. Within a decade, most illegal distilleries paid the tax and became legal enterprises. To this day, many distilleries once participated in smuggling.
Whiskey had spread to America prior to the American Revolution. At certain points, whiskey was used as currency for the new country. When whiskey taxes started to take hold in America, the Scotch and Irish farmers were quick to stand up against unwanted taxes. The federal tax placed seven cents per gallon on the spirit. The aim was to help raise money to pay off debts incurred during the Revolutionary War. The Whiskey Rebellion spread from Pennsylvania through Virginia, Kentucky and down to the Carolinas. Farmers refused to pay the tax to collectors. President George Washington felt that enforcing the tax was essential for the new government to survive, so he called up militia troops to stop the rebellion.
A major advancement in the distillation process occurred in 1826 when Robert Stein invented the continuous still, which allowed for a constant distillation process and a product with a higher concentration of alcohol. Five years later, Aeneas Coffey improved upon this invention by creating a still that was more efficient and therefore led to cheaper whisky. This forever changed the production of whisky because up to this point, all the spirit that was produced was malt whiskey. With the development of the new still, grain whiskey began to be distilled. This whiskey was different because it was less intense than the copper still produced malt whiskey.
The first appearance of blended whisky occurred in 1850 when Andrew Usher began to combine single still whisky with whisky made from the Coffey Still. This blend merged copper stilled fiery malts with subtler grain whiskeys, which created a new, more appealing scotch whiskey that attracted a world market.
Another major development in the history of whiskey happened in the 1880s in France. The country, which had mainly focused on developing grapes and wine, suffered from an outbreak of the phylloxerabeetle, which destroyed the vineyards throughout the country. Within only a few years, wine and brandy disappeared from cellars throughout France. The Scotch were quick to assist the French which led to Scotch whiskey becoming the preferred spirit throughout France.
As for the American whiskey, bourbon, the history is not that well documented. It is believed that distillation began with the arrival of Scotch settlers in the late 18th Century. The shift from the traditional Scotch distillation techniques to using corn for mash and oak for aging barrels was probably done simply because they were the local materials on hand.