The popularity of whisky continues to grow with each passing year. In 2009 alone, Scottish brewers managed to export a record breaking 1.1 billion bottles of whisky to customers worldwide! Quite a staggering figure, if you ask us. So, you really can’t blame The Thirsty Barber for wanting to delve deeper into the origins of this silky-smooth alcoholic beverage.
The national drink of the Scots gained worldwide popularity around the 15th century. Over the centuries, alcohol’s influence has had a great effect on the progress of human civilization. Whisky managed to become synonymous with Scottish history making it of the most popular modern alcoholic beverages of all time.
What’s in a name?
The term ‘whisky’ originated from the Gaelic (which is that branch of Celtic spoken in the Highlands of Scotland), ‘uisge beatha’, or ‘usquebaugh’, meaning ‘water of life’.
When was Scotch Whisky first distilled?
Whisky has been distilled in Scotland for hundreds of years. Some evidence even shows that the art of distilling could have been introduced to the country by Christian missionary monks, but it’s never been proven that Highland farmers didn’t discover how to distil spirits from their surplus barley themselves.
The earliest historical reference to whisky comes much later, in his book ‘Scotch Whisky’, Mr J Marshall Robb, says: ‘The oldest reference to whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, where there is an entry of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae’. A boll was an old Scottish measure of not more than six bushels, which is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms.
The Era of King James IV
When King James IV was in Inverness during September 1506, his treasurer’s accounts had entries for the 15th and 17th of the month respectively: ‘For aqua vite to the King. . .’ and ‘For ane flacat of aqua vite to the King.’ It’s feasible that the aquavitae in this case, was the spirit for drinking.
One of the earliest references to ‘uiskie’ occurs in the funeral account of a Highland laird in around 1618. An unpublished letter of February 1622, written by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy to the Earl of Mar, stated that certain officers sent to Glenorchy by the King had been given the best entertainment that the season and the country allowed. It stated: ‘For they wantit not wine nor aquavite.’ This ‘aquavite’ was no doubt locally distilled whisky.
What’s more, there has also been reference to distilling in a private house in the parish of Gamrie in Banffshire in 1614. This occured in the Register of the Privy Council, where a man accused of the crime of breaking into a private house, combined with assault, was said to have knocked over some ‘aquavitie’.
The Era of King Henry VIII
Popularity of whisky continued to grow during the 16th century, until 1541, when English King Henry VIII dissolved monasteries in Scotland. This occasion forced newly unemployed monks to start the private production of whisky, who soon spread their knowledge across Scotland. In the beginning of the 18th century, the Scots’ love towards whisky would be put to test again, when English merged with Scotland and imposed new harsh taxes on any unlicensed alcohol brewery.
To battle these taxes, which greatly reduced production of whisky in northern Europe, Scottish brewers started manufacturing their beverage illegally. Thousands of clandestine distilleries started producing whisky across northern England, often working only during the night when low prominence hid the smokes from their fires. It was during this period whisky received the famous nickname of ‘moonshine’.
The American Revolution
The trafficking of whisky progressively became an art form, and abundant fights between smugglers and the Scottish and English government officials fought daily for over 150 years. During the years of the Scots’ taxation, shortages of whisky around the world had great impact on several countries, most notably, during the American Revolution.
Whisky became very rare and was often used as a currency. A few years after the war, the US Government repeated the same blunder as in Scotland and introduced heavy taxes on the ingredients, manufacture and sales of whisky. This brought great displeasure among US farm workers, who quickly started the well-known “Whisky Rebellion”.
Whisky and the Porhibition Period
During the Prohibition Period, distilleries all around the US received a crippling setback, and only very limited production of wines and medicinal whisky was allowed to remain. As with the 150-year long alcohol ban in Scotland, the US’s public soon began its own underground movement for production and transportation of alcohol.
Rise of small crimes, formation of very organized criminal organization and public pressure brought the end of Prohibition in 1933, but the consumption of alcohol remained to pre-prohibition levels for the next three decades. Advancements within the alcohol industry were also severely stifled, and the majority of pre-prohibition breweries needed to shut down their businesses, which led to the closure of many taverns, mass loss of jobs and overall economic reversal. The effects of Prohibition had great impact on US culture making heavy drinks such as whisky rise in popularity, at the expense on previously popular beer and wine.
You see, the origins and history of whisky is certainly one for the books. Next time you come down to The Thirsty Barber and order a whisky on the rocks, you’ll be sure to appreciate it even more than usual. So, come and enjoy one of these rich, international spirits and allow us to whisk-y you away with our vast selection!