A Brief History of Whiskey From 1400 to Today

Have you ever wondered about the difference between bourbon and rye whiskey, why some liquors are aged, or even how Absinthe came to be? Over the next few months, we are going to do a liquor deep dive. From whiskey to tequila to cognac, we want to know why it exists, how it’s made, typical uses, interesting facts, and more. We’ll be taking a look at the most frequently asked questions, scouring the internet for surprising facts, and leaving no stone unturned. We hope to create a go-to guide for all things liquor, and even learn a bit for ourselves along the way. Our first look is at the history of whiskey and how it came to be what we know it as today.

Ramon Llull
Photo of Ramon Llull via The Ibizan

Distillation itself dates back as early as 2000 BC as a practice used by China, Egypt, and Mesopotamia for creating balms, essences, and perfumes. Accreditation for the invention of distillation is widely disputed, but we do know it’s been around for a long time. The distillation of alcohol came about around the 13th Century, when Ramon Llull, an Italian mathematician, philosopher, and writer, described a technique used to distill alcohol from wine. This technique was widely used in medieval monasteries for medicinal purposes, including the treatment of colic and smallpox.

Monks Distilling
Monks Distilling Alcohol from Irish Whiskey Museum

The practice of distillation eventually spread to Scotland and Ireland via traveling monks. Much like distillation in the first place, there is much speculation about who invented whiskey. There are mentions of whisky in both Scotland and Ireland as early as the 1400s. In Scotland, King James IV sent malt to Friar John Cor to make 500 bottles of aqua vitae, otherwise known as distilled spirits. Aqua vitae shows up in Ireland around 1409, in the Annals of Clonmacnoise, where the death of a chieftain is attributed to drinking too much aqua vitae. While there is no solid answer whether Ireland or Scotland was the first to distill the spirit, we do know that it dates back as early as the 1400s.

So, it was first traced back to the 1400s, but where did it go from there? In the late 1400s, whiskey was still in its early stages. It wasn’t able to age appropriately. So, it was much more raw and harsh than the whiskey we know today. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved monasteries, so all of those monks distilling alcohol were sent to their homes. This led to whiskey becoming more readily available to the public, being that monks were now integrated and needed a way to make money. With whiskey becoming mainstream, we start to see more and more people distilling their own products. In 1608, Bushmills became the first, and now oldest, licensed whiskey distillery in the world, finding its roots in Scotland. Around the same time, European colonizers came to the Americas and started distilling different kinds of grain for whiskey production.

Bushmills Distillery
Old Bushmills Distillery via Whisky Advocate

With new kinds of whiskey and the spread of professional distilleries, whiskey production started to move more quickly, until 1707. That year, the Acts of Union merged England and Scotland, creating Great Britain. This caused taxes to rise dramatically, and the English Malt Tax of 1725 threatened the production of whiskey. A majority of Scottish distillers were now working underground, and being forced to work at night, which brought about the moniker “moonshine.” This lasted until 1823 when the United Kingdom gave Scottish distilleries the option to open legally by paying a fee.

Evan Williams Plaque
Historical Plaque of Evan Williams via Distillery Trail

Meanwhile, in America, whiskey was so popular that it was used as currency during the American Revolutionary War. After the war, Evan Williams became the first commercial distillery, opening in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1783. From 1795 to the mid-1800s, brands like Jim Beam, Woodford Reserve, Johnny Walker, Jameson, Powers, Glenlivet, and more were founded in Scotland, Ireland, and the Americas.

Evan Williams Bottles
Evan Williams Bottles via Evan Williams

Whiskey seemed to be on the up and up until we hit prohibition in America in 1920. Prohibition halted all production, use, and sale of alcohol. During this time, distilleries tried to survive by selling yeast or peddling their product as “medicine,” which was considered legal consumption. Six distilleries in the US were given licenses to sell medicinal alcohol: American Medicinal Spirits, Schenley Distilleries, James Thompson and Brother, Frankfort Distillery, Brown-Forman, and Ph. Stitzel Distillery. When these distilleries ran low on their product, they would buy more whiskey from distilleries that had products but weren’t legally able to sell. This exchange helped keep some businesses alive during this time.

Prohibition eventually ended in 1933, and whiskey production picked back up. In 1964, The United States Congress declared bourbon whiskey a distinctive product, identifiable with the United States. It took the whiskey we know and love over 300 years to become what it is today. America now has around 2,000 distilleries nationwide, with Ireland at 25 and Scotland at 120. There are some key differences between American, Scottish, and Irish whiskey, including variations of bourbon and rye, single cask batches, differences in aging, and many more. Countries like Japan, Canada, and Australia are even producing their whiskeys now, but we’ll save all of that for next time.

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