Origins of Whisky – The Name and Drink

origins of whisky

Continuing on my little diversion down the side streets and into the dark and enchanting world of whisky, I thought I would tell you a little bit about the origins of whisky.

What Does Whiskey Mean?

Whiskey has a bit of a mishmash of origin in terms of its name.

Most people know that the word whiskey is derived from a Gaelic word “uisge” which when spoken aloud broadly sounds the same. The word “uisge” means or translates as the word for water.

In modern anglicised language, it began to be spelt as the English heard it spoken which ultimately resulted in the word whiskey.

Origins of Whisky and Whiskey as Spellings

But its unusual origin doesn’t entirely stop there, and the Gaelic language isn’t entirely responsible for the word whiskey being used to denote the alcoholic spirit.

For that, we need to look to the Romans and specifically Latin which commonly called spirits by a blanket term “aqua vitae” which translate into modern English as “water of life”.

When Britons were naming their new favourite tipple, they looked to use the same language usage as their Latin ancestors and drew on the Gaelic word for water to do just that.

Misnaming Whisky – A Historical Blunder?

They failed however to take more than just the word water from the Gaelic language and now whiskey when traced back simply translates as water.

The intention however was that it would be named from the root Latin term “water of life” and originally whiskey was written in full Gaelic as “uisge beatha.”

It is for this reason that you sometimes hear distilleries mis-translating the word and stating that whiskey means water of life or another common misrepresentation is “fire water”.

But if you want to settle the argument down the pub, whiskey means simply water, which is just as well because some drink it like it is water.

The Origins of Whisky as a Drink

In the grand context of things, especially given how old wine is (tracing its roots back for thousands of years) whiskey is fairly new in comparison to the alcohol scene.

Distillation Begins

The first recorded alcoholic distillation was in the 1200’s and occurred in Italy and was as you would imagine alcohol distilled from wine which was and remains very popular in Italy. This is what we now call Brandy and was used medicinally for diseases like smallpox.

Whiskey itself, is made from grains and the first recording of something we would today call whiskey was in 1494 with the distillation of malt. The process of distilling alcohol likely spread with the monasteries and you can thank the Catholic Church in part for the process, reaching the cold and sparsely populated Scottish Highlands.

Whisky (also known as scotch) was incredibly popular in Scotland and King James IV of Scotland was noted to be a very keen drinker.

It is not really known how early whiskey started to be produced but we can assume it occurred after the first mention of wine being distilled in the thirteenth century and before 1494. I like to imagine early distillers were too busy enjoying their newfound produce to undertake the laborious task of documenting everything.

Whiskey in the Middle Ages

As with a great many things that were changed drastically by Henry VIII, whisky production also changed during the first Tudor monarch’s reign. When he dissolved the Catholic church, he also disbanded their monasteries. This meant that monks who had previously enjoyed a very good standard of living had no means to support themselves.

Some of these monks went into business privately, producing whisky in the same way they had in the monasteries but without the banner of Catholicism. Where previously, the Catholic church held the monopoly on whiskey manufacture, now private individuals were working with farming communities to create their own independent whisky enterprises.

The process of making whisky varied hugely between one enterprise and another and distilleries were able to make whisky without regulation and with no rules. All they had in common was the method of distilling. Beyond that, pretty much everything else was fair game and the resulting drink was not as refined or as smooth as the whiskies of today.

Whiskies After the Reformation

As time went by, the authorities began to realise that alcohol was a largely untaxed and untapped market for filling treasury coffers. This meant that various laws, licences and orders were made around the production of alcohol.

A distillery in Northern Ireland called the Old Bushmill’s Distillery was the first distillery to be licenced with a royal seal of approval in 1608. Although the distillery is a little older, Old Bushmill’s bottles still carry the 1608 date proudly, seeing themselves as the first official whiskey makers in the world.

Origins of Whisky – Outlaw Distillation

The malt tax in England and Scotland hampered the progress of the whisky industry and most Scottish distilleries had to work illegally in prohibition style outfits. They whisky was sold illegally under the counter (or alter, as many distillers used Sunday services to distribute alcohol).

This is where the prohibition term moonshine originates from as whisky producers distilled at night to hide the smoke from the distillation process.

Booming Whisky Industry

As time went by, whiskey distilling processes were refined, the drink began to command the kind of prices that would make it profitable even with oppressive taxation. By the mid-1800s (after legislative changes) it flourished and was adopted all over the British Empire.

In the Americas, whiskey was used as a currency during the Revolutionary war and in the far reaches of India and the West Indies, whiskey gained a lot of popularity.

Whisky was also exempted for medicinal purposes during the prohibition and Americans could get a whiskey prescription and collect it from a pharmacy like other medicines.

From the Origins of Whisky to Today

Today, whiskey is enjoyed the world over and still made from many different types of grain.

Depending on where in the world you are, you will likely find a whiskey sourced from the local grain and it is for this reason that Rye whiskey is incredibly popular in the US.

With the invention of the internet, whiskey is at the consumer’s fingertips and I aim to try as many as I can (responsibly) to give you some awesome whiskey reviews and hopefully a few personal recommendations of ones to try! I hope you enjoyed my origins of whisky guide, make sure you check out my other whisky related posts too.

Jon Logan

Jon Logan is an editorial consultant and author that loves living life without boundaries. Over the past 5 years, his content at Immortal Wordsmith has helped thousands of readers gain new perspectives and discover fascinating stories. Jon holds several professional qualifications and is financially qualified in the UK. He left the humdrum world of financial advice to pursue a career in writing – his lifelong passion. He has partnered with local and global brands to help them grow their businesses and audiences through insightful and innovative content strategy. Jon specialises in creating inspirational and thought-provoking writing that challenges readers to look beyond the confines of “the norm.” He uses dynamic writing styles to convey messages to diverse audiences from all walks of life. He is an avid explorer and loves sharing the world from his perspective with his readers.

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