Until today, it is the subject of fierce debates whether whisky originated in Ireland or in Scotland. Whisky from Scotland has long been the top dog on the whisky market: Irish whisky distilleries deliberately set themselves apart from Scottish distilleries by spelling whisky with an “e”.
Although it is generally believed that whiskey was originally a Scottish product, there is evidence that the first drink close to today’s whiskey was distilled in Ireland.
According to legend, the craft of distillation was already practiced in Ireland in the 5th century: That is why the Irish claim to be the inventors of whiskey.
Water of life
In the Gaelic language, whisky was called uisge beatha: this term goes back to the Latin expression aqua vitae, which means “water of life”. It is not without reason that whisky still bears this name today: water plays a major role in the production of whisky. Water is needed for mashing, for cooling during distillation, for cask filling and finally for diluting the whisky so that it becomes drinkable. The quality of the water is a particularly high priority: some whisky distilleries bought up all the land around the local drinking water source so that they could control the quality of the water themselves. The term “water of life” therefore stems not only from the invigorating effect attributed to the high-proof drink, but also from the high quality of the water used in its production.
Scotland or Ireland?
The missionary Saint Patrick is said to have brought the art of distillation – the basis for making whisky – to Ireland: Scottish whisky connoisseurs argue that Saint Patrick was born in Scotland and that whisky is therefore a Scottish invention.
The only thing that is certain is that whisky was invented somewhere in the British Isles.
In the Middle Ages, knowledge of whisky production spread rapidly throughout the islands: The Scots soon copied the Irish – with one difference: to fire the ovens in which the barley is kilned, peat is used in Scotland – a raw material that is abundantly available thanks to the Scottish moors. The Irish still rely on coal today. Peat is responsible for giving Scotch whisky a smoky touch.
At first, whisky was anything but a stimulant: it was regarded primarily as a remedy and as such found its way into the Scottish royal court in the 15th century. However, it did not take long for the population to get the idea of using whisky as a stimulant and to distract themselves from their everyday suffering with the alcoholic effect. Consumption got out of hand and barley became scarce: in 1572, the Scottish Parliament decided to make whisky distilling a privilege of the nobility. But the spark had spread to the masses: Countless illegal distilleries sprouted up and supplied the people with whisky.
When the Act of Union was concluded in 1707 and the Scottish Parliament was integrated into the English Parliament, the whisky tax that had long been in force on English soil also came to bear in Scotland: riots broke out and numerous moonshine distilleries sprang up in the hard-to-reach Scottish Highlands. To this day, whisky is the national drink of the Scottish Highlands.
It was not until over a century later that the illicit distillation era in Scotland came to an end, when it became easier for whisky distilleries to be recognized as legal distilleries. The Exercise Act of 1823 made the storage and export of whisky tax-free, with only annual fees for a sort of trade license. This meant that many distilleries, which had previously operated illegally, were now commercial whisky producers. Within a few years, the number of official whisky distilleries doubled.
Decisions with serious consequences
In Ireland, the history of whiskey was similar: astronomical taxes brought the Irish whiskey industry to its knees and resulted in numerous illegal distilleries gaining a foothold. In 1823 – the same year as in Scotland – a law was passed in Ireland that significantly relaxed the taxation of whiskey. Although Scotland and Ireland thus seemed to have equal opportunities, Scotch whisky outstripped Irish whiskey in the 18th century. This is linked to a decision made by the two dominant Irish whiskey producers in 1832: The retired Irish tax official Aeneas Coffey offered the whisky distilleries a solution to be able to produce whisky from different types of grain and not only from barley.
Malts and Blends
Until now, it had been strictly prescribed to produce whisky only from barley: This process is called the pot still process. The Irish distilleries rejected Coffey’s proposal and continued to produce whisky only by the Pot Still method. The Scots, however, gratefully accepted the suggestion and from then on also produced whisky from different types of grain: different types of grain – called Blends – not only taste smoother than pure malts, but are also much cheaper to produce. Thus, Scotch whisky managed to become internationally known and to almost completely oust Irish whisky, which tasted stronger and was considerably more expensive, from the market.
With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, whisky production came to a halt: The use of grain for the production of stimulants was banned. Shortly after the end of the First World War, the industry suffered another blow: The year 1919 marked the beginning of Prohibition in the USA, making legal trade in whisky in the USA impossible. The Scottish and Northern Irish emigrants had brought whisky with them to the North American continent in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whisky distilleries now sprang up in the former English colonies in the USA, which still dominate a large part of the whisky market today. But whisky from Great Britain remained as popular as ever: when Prohibition was abolished in 1933, the Scots – unlike the Irish – were able to shower the American market with huge quantities of mature whisky…
Cover picture: © Simon von Ludwig