‘I dram therefore I am’ - a short history of whisky

By Franz Scheurer


According to Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food barley might just be the oldest cultivated grain in the world, preceding rice cultivation in Asia. Evidence of barley consumption dates back as far as 8000 BC with large stores of gathered wild barley found at Tell Mureybat in Syria. It was by far the most important food grain in the ancient world and barley was consumed by the Egyptians, the Greeks and as early as 5000 BC made its way to Spain from North Africa.


Egyptian inscriptions mention the use of barley water and the first written recipe for making beer dates back to Sumerian clay tablets in the Hymn to Ninkasi, dating back to 1800 BC. It seems that everyone fermented grains; the Japanese used rice to create sake, the Russians used rye to produce kvass and the whole of Northern Europe lived on barley beer.


The Egyptians were first to master distillation, around 3000 BC, and used it for the production of perfumes and embalming ointments. Around the same time Phoenician sailors learnt to distil seawater to obtain drinking water (salt is left behind in distillation). The word alcohol originates from the Arabic ‘al-kuhul’.


Wine made from grapes and other fruit was commonplace in the warmer climes but with the arrival of barley, countries blessed with a harsher climate finally had a way to produce a brew that was both intoxicating and safer to drink than water. As whisky is nothing else than distilled beer (without the addition of any bitter elements, such as hops) it didn’t take long for the apothecary to distil barley water into medicinal spirit, using a cooking pot, hence the name ‘pot still’.


In the early days of distillation it was often necessary to resort to fruit infusions and spices to mask the bad taste until distillers learnt to discard amyl alcohols and most of the congenerics (impurities that flavour spirits but cause terrific hang-overs). These early spirits were called ‘Water of Life’; in Norse Aquavit, in French Eau de Vie, in Scots Uisge Beatha and in Irish Usquebaugh, which evolved to usky then finally whisky. Spirits were distilled mainly in monasteries from the 11th Century and there is proof that Whisky was being made in Scotland from 1494. The Exchequer Rolls for that year list: “Eight balls of malt for Friar John Cor, by order of the King, to make aqua vitae”. By the 16th century it was commonplace and in the mid 18th century Scotland made the legal distinction between flavoured spirits and plain malt.


Charles I, King of England implemented a fiscal tax on the ‘Water of Life’, quickly endorsed by the Scottish Parliament in 1644. They restricted the right to distil to the upper and noble classes, which led to a lengthy battle between the illicit distillers and the government representatives. After Scotland and England were joined in 1707 the Scottish Parliament was abolished and the new governing body of the United Kingdom imposed a whole series of new taxes and created special government departments to fight the illicit distillation. This greatly accelerated the antagonism and evading the excise man become Scotland’s favourite sport. The inaccessibility of the Scottish terrain proved to be heaven sent and not even a £ 5 reward changed the status quo. As a matter of fact the reward worked for the illicit distiller: all he had to do when his copper coil was finally worn out was to ‘give away’ the place of the illicit still (and a carefully buried old coil) and the reward would buy him a brand new coil. By the end of the 18th Century the distillers had united to control several areas of Scotland where few excise men would venture. The Duke of Gordon instigated the Excise Act in 1823 with the aim to make licensed distillation an economical and viable proposition, and of course generate some revenue for the government. This was the beginning of the end for the illicit distiller.


In the mid to late 19th century the French wine industry was hit by powdery mildew (1847), phylloxera (1863), downy mildew (1878), and black rot (1885), which, combined, devastated 6.2 million acres of vines. As well as almost destroying the French wine industry, this caused almost a total cessation of the production of Cognac and Armagnac, giving Whisky a once in a lifetime chance to become the world’s most popular spirit.


The development in the Lowlands of using continuous stills and producing much lighter and cheaper grain whisky, then blending it with malt whisky for consistency and flavour, was hotly contested by the Highland distilleries but a Royal Commission ruled in favour of blended whisky in 1909, thus probably saving the whole industry in the long term.


As the distillers generally did not have a bottling line, the whisky was mainly sold in casks, giving a unique opportunity to merchants to buy in bulk, bottle, label and sell under their own names. One of the earliest was Gordon & MacPhail and soon many merchants would vat for consistency, ergo the birth of brands such as Johnny Walker, Chivas Bros, George Ballantine and Berry Brothers & Rudd.


The Irish of course maintain that they were the first to make Whiskey. Legend would have it that Saint Patrick himself introduced distilling to Ireland in the 5th century. Apparently he acquired his knowledge during his travels in Spain and France. Ireland’s golden age of whiskey production at the end of the 18th century saw 1,100 licensed distilleries (plus an estimated 8,000 illicit stills, an even greater number than in Scotland), which produced the bulk of the world’s whiskey at that time. Ironically it was an Irish ex-excise man who invented the continuous still in 1831. His name was Adrian Coffey and the still is known as a ‘Coffey Still’ to this day. The continuous still eventually made its way to the Lowlands and changed the history of Whisky forever.


In the New World, North America’s whisky industry was influenced predominantly by Irish émigrés, whereas Canada mainly welcomed the Scots and was influenced by their traditions. This explains the spelling of Whisky (without an ‘e’) in Canada and Whiskey in the United States. During Prohibition all the old Irish and Scottish smuggling talents came back to the fore and great volumes of Whisky were smuggled in. Laphroaig was the only legal import during that time, classified as a cleaning agent as no one in America believed that one would actually drink something that smelled like Laphroaig.


It is estimated that in excess of 950 million bottles of Scotch Whisky are exported a year, given the average maturation time, that means there should be in excess of 19 million casks currently in Scottish bonded warehouses.


Whisky/Whiskey is made from many ingredients, governed by availability and the local laws.


Here’s a quick overview:


Irish & Scottish

Malt whisky: Made from malted barley

Single Malt whisky: Made from malt whisky from one distillery

Vatted Malt whisky: Made from malt whiskies from more than one distillery

Grain whisky: Distilled from grain, including unmalted barley

Single Grain whisky: Made from grain whisky from one distillery

Single Cask whisky: Made from only one cask from one distillery

Scotch Whisky: Made in Scotland, matured for a minimum of 3 years

Blended Whisky: Made from a blend of grain and malt whisky

Irish Whiskey: Made in Ireland, minimum age 3 years



Bourbon: made from grain (must contain a minimum of 52% corn) and must be matured in new oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years; no colouring is permitted, except natural charring of the oak. No whisky produced outside America can be called Bourbon

Rye whisky: must contain 51% rye

Tennessee whisky: must adhere to the Bourbon laws but must also be charcoal filtered though a 10-feet deep layer of maple charcoal, according to the Lincoln County Process

Sour Mash: denotes a mash with optimum acidity that still allows yeast fermentation, using a mixture of old and new mash (a bit like sourdough bread)



The definition is rather loose, the Canadian Whisky Board defines Canadian Whisky (Canadian Rye Whisky) as: “whisky distilled in Canada…possess(ing) the aroma, taste and character generally attributed to Canadian Whisky.” It is generally, but not always, made from rye, and they do allow the addition of up to 9.09% of non-Canadian whisky or any other distillate.


Rest of the World

Japan allows the production of Single Malts, vatting of Scottish and Japanese Single Malts and Single Grains and Blends. Whisky is also made in most European countries, in India (one of the biggest markets in the world, almost entirely filled by local product as the excise for imported whiskies is 500% and more), Australia, New Zealand and in parts of South East Asia and China.