The whisky history that has shaped the production of whisky throughout Scotland, Ireland and England is rich in history. Uisge Beatha – the drink of life – is a myth that is both religious as well as rebellious.
Through the centuries, it was an illicit yet vital income to rural people in Scotland and Ireland as well as an indulgence for Highland lairds and English high society.
A brief history of distillation
Distillation, particularly in its most simple form, has been present all over Great Britain and Ireland for hundreds of years. But, this tradition is said to go to millennia ago, in areas that were civilised, but not part of Europe.
It’s through the transfer of knowledge from distillation and the modification of the components and methods employed to create whisky, that the art of whisky making was born.
The first distilling techniques were likely used to create of ‘perfumes, aromatics’ as opposed to the distillation of alcohol. The first evidence of alcohol being distilled occurred in Italy during the 13th Century.
The distillation process became more widespread in the middle ages of Europe the spirit was mostly used for medicinal purposes by monks, who created it in monasteries.
The history of whisky’s beginnings is in England, Scotland and Ireland
There isn’t any definitive or documented proof of the exact beginnings of whisky’s origins in England, Scotland and Ireland. Some believe that the earliest, unrefined version of whisky today may be discovered by farmers creating spirits using their leftover grains.
Another well-known belief is the whisky industry was introduced by missionary monks on their travels from Ireland, Scotland and mainland Europe.
It is believed that distillation of spirits was a predominantly monastic and medical practice until the 1500s.
Between 1536 and 1541, Between 1536 and 1541, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and dispersed monks into the general population, causing whisky and distillery production to be absorbed into the household or on the farms.
Its Latin name for distillation alcohol was ‘aquavitae”water of life which it was transliterated into Gaelic as ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced uska beg). As time passed, the term was shortened to uska. It eventually evolved into the word ‘whisky’ that we know to this day.
Some notable dates throughout the history of whisky
1405 – the first written record of whisky appears in Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, in which it is noted that the chief of one of the clans had died after taking an excessive amount of aqua vitale’
1494 – evidence that is documented of the distillation of whisky occurring in Scotland. It is noted in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 that King James IV of Scotland ‘granted 8 bolls’ of grain to make aqua vitae’ for Friar John Corr
1536 -1541 – Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries. The monks, and their distillation methods, become a part of the common population
1660s – distillation of whisky is introduced across North America by Scottish and Irish immigrants
1608 – royal licence was awarded to Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland to distill whisky.
1707 The Acts of Union merged the Kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1707, and their legislatures. This was the year that saw increased efforts to control and tax illicit whisky distilling
1725 – A malt tax is introduced, which puts at risk the small-scale whisky distillers that are not legally operating.
1822 1822 – 1822 – the Illicit Distillation (Scotland) Act is implemented, which imposes harsher penalties for the production, supply and drinking of whisky that was smuggled out.
1823 Excise Duty Act – a license fee for distilling whisky was enacted and the duty on whisky was dramatically decreased
1830 1830 – Aeneas Coffey invents his “continuous still that would later revolutionize whisky production and pave the way for blended whisky varieties to enter the market.
A small-scale industry
Once distillation’s knowledge had passed to the general populace of Scotland and Ireland whisky production became a burgeoning cottage industry for centuries to come.
The distillation process However, the process was relatively new. The spirit produced was not matured like modern whisky. This resulted in an ineffective, rough and inconsistent product.
Whisky duty and excise tax
In 1707, The Acts of Union took effect and the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were merged, to form Great Britain. The Government attempted to control whisky production by introducing a number of taxation.
In 1725, the parliament enacted the malt tax, which was an enormous threat to the tiny, small-scale business of producing whisky. Scottish and Irish distillers mostly did not respond by avoiding the tax and whisky production grew to become much more of an illegal industry.
In Ireland in Ireland, the introduction of a whisky tax was a major blow to the legal whisky industry. The distillers who were licensed to make ‘parliament whiskey’ (whisky legally produced under licence) fell from 1,228 by 1779, and 246 in 1780.
Moonshine and Poteen
Whilst the new taxes being implemented to control whisky production were causing destruction to the legitimate whisky industry in Ireland and the UK, production of poteen (whisky’s illegal cousin) prospered. In fact, poteen was often thought to be of a higher quality than “parliament” whiskey due to the pressures that licensed distilleries had to put out their products and earn profits.
In 1882, there were just 40 legally licensed distilleries across the entire region of Ireland however it is believed that in the Donegal region alone, there were around 800 illicit stills brewing whisky.
In Scotland there was a lot of support for illegal whisky production. The illegal stills were typically small-scale and offered an important product for local communities at very low costs.
Highland lairds were often able to turn a blind eye to illegal stills buried on their property because the income they earned to their tenant was likely the only means to pay rent. However, there were still the revenue officials that needed to be avoided.
Illicit stills are often installed in remote, well-hidden areas. Whisky production became an activity at night, to mask the smoke that was created in this process of distillation. This practice gave whisky its name of “moonshine.”.
The growth of licensed distilleries
With whisky distilleries and illicit stills production being prolific throughout Ireland and Scotland at the beginning of the 1800s, government officials took action with taxation laws.
In 1822, the Illicit Distillation Act was passed in Scotland. The Act was intended to prohibit the making and distributing, or even drinking of whisky produced illegally came with increasingly severe penalties.
However, the following year, the 1823 Excise Act was passed. This Act led to a dramatic reduction in the amount of duty that was charged on a gallon of whisky, and also the introduction of a relatively affordable distilling license.
The Excise Act saw a huge modification to the manufacturing of whisky. It brought an end to massive production of whisky that was illegal in Scotland.
The reduction of duty to two shillings or the equivalent of three cents (roughly 12p) per gallon, in addition to the cost-effective licence fee allowed for a legal and fair trade, as well as export of whisky to England immediately became more appealing also.
In 1824, there were 167 licensed distilleries registered in Scotland In 1826 the number was up to 264.
The introduction of casks as well as barrel aging
The process of aging whisky which we know now steeps whisky in deep tones, and enhances its rich flavor profile was probably discovered by an accident in the 1800s.
Prior to being aged in barrels or casks whisky was generally consumed “raw” and right away from the still.
Spanish sherry barrels became more widely available in the 19th century, after Blight devastated the harvest of wine in the Cognac region of France. Due to Cognac supply greatly affected across England in England and Scotland, Spanish sherry was imported as an alternative.
It was simply not cost-effective to send empty barrels back to Spain, Scottish distillers seized the opportunity to buy up empty barrels that would be more expensive than their vessels that they were keeping their whisky production.
It was through this accident that the origin of whisky aged in casks was identified.
Up until the 19th Century, Irish and Scottish whisky was made in a pot still in batches. The process of distillation by pot resulted in smooth, rich and flavoursome whiskies.
In the early 1820s, a new design of started to appear which was later patented from Aeneas Coffey in 1830. Coffey, the former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland established what was called a “continuous or column.
This simple distillation apparatus is associated with the traditional that whisky is produced. They vary greatly in terms of size and shape in large part, based on the amount and types of spirits being distilled the pot still consists of one heating chamber that is equipped with an arm, or piping and an insulated vessel that collects the distillation alcohol.
A column still acts like a series of pot stills arranged into the form of a long vertical tube. The still releases an increasing vapour, which is at first very low in alcohol. However, it condenses and becomes more enriched with alcohol as it climbs upwards through the column.
Coffey’s development of the column still allowed whisky makers to create their whiskies in more cost-effective and efficient method.
Instead of distilling in batch, Coffey’s still operated on a continuous basis and produced larger amounts of whisky, which had an increased alcohol content, but the resulting whisky was largely deemed to be less flavorful and aromatic than those made with pot stills especially when compared to Irish distillers.
Even though column stills have become an integral part of whisky production, and continue to be the preferred apparatus in the production of many distillation spirits, pot still technology remains part of the modern distillation of single malt and single pot still types of whisky.
Both pot still, and continual stills are constructed of copper, since it helps remove alcohol-based sulphur compounds during the distillation process.
Modern stills are made of stainless steel, with copper lines.
A NEW ENTRANCE INTO THE WHISKY market
Coffey’s continual still design led the way for the creation of whisky that was blended, which opened up a whole new market for whisky production.
In spite of Coffey himself being Irish, the majority of the established Irish distilleries of the time rejected his invention, in favour their traditional pot still method. This resulted in Coffey to take his design to Scotland and Scotland, where it was much more enthusiastically received.
At some point, the blend Scotch whisky was made and surpassed its consumption Irish whiskey that was created using the traditional pot still method.
Types OF WHISKY
Single Malt Whisky: is a whisky made using the single malted grain at a single distillery. Single malt whisky typically produced using the potstill distillation process.
Blended Whisky: typically, blended whisky is made from different grains and is typically a blend various whiskies that have already been aged. Blended whisky may also refer to whisky that doesn’t fit in with the traditional varieties. Blended whisky is usually distilled by using a continuous or column still process.
Scotch Whisky: According to the law Scotch whisky is only identified as such when it is made in Scotland (and follows a specific distillation procedure). Scotch can be single malt whisky or blended whisky. Scotch is renowned for its distinctive ‘peaty’ or smoky flavor that comes from the malt used to create it being dried in a peat-fueled fire.
Irish Whiskey like Scotch, Irish whiskey is only legally permitted to carry that label if it follows the exact process of distillation and is produced in Ireland. Although it is usually mixed, Irish Single Malts may also be purchased.
Rye Whisky While rye whisky has its roots in North America, there is no geographic restriction on where it can be made. Rye whisky is of course, created using Rye grains, but other grains such as wheat and barley can be used in the production of.
NEW WORLD WHISKIES
New World Whisky refers to whisky that is made outside of the traditional whisky-making countries, or “whisky that is made in a way not traditionally associated with the country that it is produced in”, as described by Distill Ventures, an independent drinks accelerator.
Traditional whisky-producing countries comprise Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Japan. As various countries around the globe expand their presence in the production of whisky, the world of whisky is booming and bringing new life to the spirit industry.
In most cases, New World Whisky producers utilize traditional blending methods in-keeping with original and historic whisky making practices, while also exploring new ways to improve the process of production.
New World Whisky producers like those from Australia, Bolivia, Scandinavia, as well as South Africa, are forging their own distinctive designs, entering a new generation of buyers and determining how the industry will evolve in the coming years.
While the background of English Whisky isn’t as extensive as Scotland or Ireland’s, the whisky industry in England has been in existence since at least the 1800s. In 1903, the country’s final distillery, Lea Valley Distillery, Stratford had to shut its doors, shutting down English whisky manufacturing in England for over a century.
In the past decade however, distillers who are craft in England have popped up, revitalizing English whisky production. There are currently more than 30 English whisky distilleries that are in different stages of production. The majority of English whisky distilleries operate, producing and selling mature whisky. Some are in the process of being built.
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