Whisky or whiskey – what’s in the word?
In Britain, whisky means Scotch whisky – and the word has no “e” in it. Anyone who wants Irish whiskey will ask specifically for it – and in Ireland the word usually takes an “e”. Over in North America there is no strict rule – they usually follow the Irish spelling but apply it to many distilled spirits that don’t strictly qualify as whiskey or whisky at all in the British Isles, (which doesn’t mean they aren’t quality drinks in their own right).
The origin of the word is from uisce beatha – a Gaelic translation of the Latin term aqua vitae, meaning ‘water of life‘. The same Latin term was translated into other languages as the name for their own native spirits (vodka has the same derivation when translated into Polish).
Whisky or whiskey – what’s in the mash?
Whisky is a distillation of fermented grain mash. Barley is the legitimate grain in the UK, as it is for traditional beers too, but there were always variations that used wheat and rye as well. In the US they naturally use a lot of the kind of grain they have most of – maize, which over there they just call “corn” (which is the generic word for any kind of grain in British English). In the British Isles the barley (or other grain) is usually malted and after two or three cycles of fermentation the whisky is normally aged in casks of white oak – sometimes in much prized ones previously used to age port, sherry or cognac.
Whose crazy idea was whisky?
Inebriated and quite pissed off monks seems to be the answer. The art of distillation spread through monasteries in the Middle Ages – and the products reputedly used as medical tonics (they were often prescribed for smallpox and colic).
As medicines always will, the tonic slowly spread beyond merely medicinal use. The earliest surviving reference to a distilled spirit being consumed for purposes of celebration is in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise which attributes the death of a chieftain in 1405 to “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas.
The earliest written record referring to it in Scotland is a 1494 entry in the Crown’s Exchequer Rolls – it records malt being sent to Friar John Cor to make 500 bottles of aqua vitae for King James IV (of Scotland), presumably not for colic unless he suffered a hell of a lot of it.
It was Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, however, that’s believed to have spilled distillation across the land. Bereft of their incomes the dispossessed friars and monks took to setting up stills of their own and passing the art on to their families and neighbours. Thus was whisky – in an early form – propagated across the whole of the British Isles, including both Wales and England. Yes we were all at it.
Oldest distillery in the world
The first lay distillery legitimized with a license was Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland and dates from 1608, making it the oldest surviving licensed whiskey distillery in the world today.
A right royal piss-up
It was after William of Orange invaded (in 1688) and became William III, that spirit drinking began to get a little out of hand. William ingeniously dealt with a grain over-production that was depressing prices and ruining farmers, by encouraging its transformation into distilled spirits. In particular, gin production was encouraged because it had a short time to market compared to whisky, and perhaps because William himself knew of it from a Dutch version called genever.
A halcyon period for distillers and drinkers resulted. For 20 years It was party time across the whole country. Then the government, under Robert Walpole, realized that taxing it – under the guise of constraining drunkenness – would raise revenue to pay for the government’s constant expenditure on a string of foreign wars. The Malt Tax of 1725 hit whisky distilling particularly hard and sent many stills underground.
One reason whisky distilling began to be associated with outlying regions of the Isles at this time was because English taxes couldn’t be enforced there and sympathy for the succession of anti-catholic wars they paid for was particularly low.
The Age of moonrakers and moonshine
On England’s southern coast the reaction to these taxes most often took the form of smuggling operations to bring in French brandy (frowned on especially heavily considering the French were on the other side in most of those wars). The word “moonraker” appears at this time as well as “moonshine” – both having reference to the movement of illicit alcohol.
The most popular story explaining the origin of “moonraker” is an odd tale set in Wiltshire. Wiltshire is on the major smuggling routes out of Devon and Dorset. One night Illegal alcohol is being hidden in a pond by villagers when they’re surprised by government excise men, so they offer the explanation that they’re trying to rake a big round cheese out of the water – the reflection of the moon. In the words of the anonymous Wiltshireman who first told the story –
“Zo the excizeman ’as ax’d ’n the question ’ad his grin at ’n,…but they’d a good laugh at ’ee when ’em got whoame the stuff”
So there you have it. The tale’s clearly true – nobody would make that up.
The word became slang for both smugglers and anyone born in Wiltshire. It’s also been linked to the word “moonshine” still used for illicit whiskies, but a more rational explanation of “moonshine” is the fact that distillers would do their business under cover of night – but needed a good moon to see what they were doing.
Taxes on booze were even less well received in the American colonies – forget that yarn about tea! Boston rioted in 1768 when John Hancock’s sloop, HMS Liberty, laden with over 3000 gallons of plonk was apprehended for import duty evasion. The significance of this event as a prelude to revolution was remembered when the signatories of the Declaration of Independence chose to celebrate with the same wine (Madeira).
Of course, as soon as the revolt against British booze taxes was over the new administration immediately introduced… booze taxes. George Washington’s “Whiskey Tax” of 1791 instantly caused another rebellion. Washington marched into Kentucky and North Carolina at the head of 13,000 troops to suppress his newly “liberated” citizens.
The conflict officially ended when Jefferson replaced Washington in 1801 and immediately repealed the much hated tax, yet Interestingly Kentucky and North Carolina remain hotbeds of illicit moonshine production to this day.
New technology stills
The early decades of the 1800s saw liberalisation of taxes against distilling in the UK too. The Excise Act legalized distilling (for a moderate license fee), and this effectively put an end to the large-scale production of illicit moonshine or poitin in Scotland and Ireland.
New technology in stills was the next thing to have a big effect on whisky production. The Coffey still, patented in 1831, enabled cheaper and more efficient distillation, but some Irish distillers in particular clung to their old-fashioned pot stills – even arguing that the new whisky wasn’t proper whisky. This resistance to new technology could be one reason the Irish whiskey industry entered a long slow decline. The last couple of decades have seen a revival but based on modern technology.
In the 1880s phylloxera devastated France’s vineyards, destroying vines that were centuries old and wiping out entire grape varieties. This not only devastated wine production but that of brandy too. As a result efficiently produced scotch whisky rapidly replaced brandy in international as well as domestic markets and the modern period of whisky history truly began.
Prohibition in the United States gave another inadvertent boost to whisky popularity. As whisky still had tonic properties associated with it (as did brandy) a legal exception was made for whisky prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. Strangely the Walgreens pharmacy chain grew from 20 shops to 400 during this short period and whisky gained a solid following and many imitators.
The factors that affect the taste of a whisky are more complex than for any other spirit and the resulting varieties and subtleties excite passionate devotion as a result.