What is whisky?

In Scotland (and across Europe) a liquid can be called whisky if it has distilled from water and grain, has an alcohol content of between 40% and 94.8% abv (alcohol by volume) and has been matured for at least three years in barrels with a maximum of 185 gallons (700.3 liters).

Protected designations

A whisky may call itself Scotch only if it has been distilled and aged in Scotland, similarly a Bourbon needs to be made in the US (not only Kentucky). While these are protected by their region of origin, similar to the Bordeaux, Cognac, champagne etc. the term whisky, or whiskey is the preferred generic.

The water of life

The name “whiskey” comes from the Gaelic “uisge beatha”, which means “life water”, from which this website takes its name. It is thus the same name as the Nordic “Aquavit”, which is derived from the Latin “aqua vitae”. The Irish and most American distillers use the term Whiskey, though the Scots, along with the rest of the world use the world Whisky.  The collective term is generally taken as whiskies.

Where was whisky first made?

The first written mention of whisky production is an entry in the royal Exchequer Rolls* in Scotland in 1494 for “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae”. Prior to this date whisky distillation was certainly practiced, and multiple other records refer to the creation of “aqua vitae” unfortunately as the term was used as a generic to refer to any distilled alcohol these may, or may not refer to whisky. Irish distillers generally claim to have been the origin and original masters, and not without merit, alas the records simply do not support this claim. Regardless while the warmer south was used to make grapes, and thus brandy, the colder north grew grain. Barley was grown as a staple food and cattle feed, and in winter surplus was brewed, and distilled. *A record of taxation and government spending

The introduction of legal distillation

Until the early 19th century, whisky was distilled in countless small distilleries, often using nothing more advanced that self-made pots and hoses, without paying taxes. In 1823 the production of whisky was legalised so that it could be taxed, the first distillery to obtain an official license was “The Glenlivet” in 1824.

The Phylloxera myth

It’s often claimed that whisky only gained its importance as an export in 1870, when a phylloxera attack destroyed the French grape harvest and brought the production of brandy to a standstill. In reality while this certainly exacerbated the situation the evidence suggests that whisky was already in it’s ascendancy by this point as Europe was consuming 13 times more whisky was drunk than brandy. The “blending” of malt whisky with cheaper grain whisky, may have advanced this even further however as labeling standards and consumer production did not exist in any meaningful way at this point this was common practice. If you’re interested you can find out a lot more about whisky adulteration in the fantastic Bad Whisky by Edward Burns.