Story of Scotch: When was Whisky invented? Where is it from? ‘Water of life’ explained
Beloved in bars worldwide, Scotch Whisky or Uisge Beatha (“water of life”) is a product of quality with a unique heritage fondly associated with Scotland.
While enthusiasts around the globe enjoy a range of whiskies that are uniquely Irish, Japanese or American in origin, Scotch Whisky is truly in a league of its own. Considered Scotland’s national drink (rivalled only by Irn-Bru) Scotch is world-famous as a product of quality that can only be brewed in this captivating region of the world.
Given that its very name is said to be anglicised from Gaelic - the Scots’ Celtic tongue found on Scottish maps - the origins of this beverage are often considered a settled matter. However, history and debate inevitably go hand in hand, and this ancient family of alcoholic drinks is partly shrouded in mystery as historians discourse over who did what and when.
That said, if we consider the ‘dreich’ (wet) Scottish weather and terrain like the Highlands, it makes sense why whisky - fermented mashed grain and barley - has found its home in this ancient land which of many accolades cannot claim vineyards as one.
To celebrate this historical beverage, here is an overview of Scotch including its origins and when it was first distilled in Scotland.
What does “whisky” mean?
The name “whisky” is said to originate from “uisge beatha” which means “water of life” in Scottish Gaelic with “uisge simply meaning water and beatha meaning life” according to the Edinburgh Whisky Academy. Much like Manx, Scots Gaelic is a Celtic language that was introduced to the nation by way of Ireland and in the Highlands and islands of Scotland (its heartlands) it is still spoken today.
As Scotland gradually became more anglicised over time, the phrase was shortened from ‘uisge’ to ‘whisky’. As for the drink itself, the Whisky Advocate explains: “Whisky (or whiskey) is a distilled spirit made from fermented grain and typically matured in wooden containers for some period of time.”
So what separates whisky from Scotch? In short, it refers to a special type of whisky but one that only qualifies as ‘Scotch’ if made in Scotland. As the Scotch Whisky Association reports, Scotch must “by law, be distilled and matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years and bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% abv.”
Why is whisky spelled two different ways?
It is widely believed that the spelling “whisky” originated in Scotland while “whiskey” comes from Ireland. Just as their equivalent Gaelic terms have one letter of a difference between them (as seen in the Irish “uisce beatha”) so to do their English ones. Some have chalked this up to marketing.
As the BBC Good Food Guide puts it: “In the late 1800s, Scottish whisky was also very poor quality therefore the Irish producers wanted to differentiate their product.”
At this time, Irish whisky was growing in popularity and thought of as better quality; the unique spelling allowed Ireland to avoid association with Scotland’s ‘inferior’ product.
Where does whisky come from?
To pinpoint whisky’s origins we have to start with its progenitor; distillation. The practice of distillation is said to date back as early as 2000 BC when people in regions such as Mesopotamia used it to produce strong aromatics and perfumes.
The first written record of the process is linked to the first century AD, according to Oak and Eden the “first accounts of distillation come from the Greeks and describe how distillation was used to turn seawater into potable drinking water.”
The technique spread west towards Europe where it was used for medicinal products while it grew rapidly in popularity and advancement. Historians remark that there is no ‘firm evidence’ of alcoholic distillation before Italy in the 12th century, but this may speak more to a lack of documentation as opposed to what is true.
Regardless, over 1,000 years ago distillation spread to Scotland and Ireland as travelling monks migrated there from mainland Europe. While Europe was distilling products like wine, the Irish and Scots - living in a climate not conducive to grape cultivation - turned to fermenting grains.
This led to the birth of ‘aqua vitae’ i.e., “water of life” in Latin, just as it is known in Gaelic. This etymology testifies to the monastic heritage of Scotch as ‘water of life’ was a term used by Christians to describe distilled spirits.
When was whisky first distilled in Scotland?
Whisky has been distilled in Scotland for more than five hundred years. As King Henry VII was dissolving monasteries in Scotland, it is thought that he forced monks to begin whisky distillation in farms and the practice rapidly spread from there.
However, the Scotch Whisky Experience notes “it has never been proved that Highland farmers did not themselves discover how to distil spirits from their surplus barley.”
In the book ‘Scotch Whisky’ by Mr J Marshall Robb, the author confirms that “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’.”
‘Boll’ is a Scottish word used to describe a unit equivalent to six bushels with each bushel weighing around 25.4 kilograms.
Five centuries later in 1994, the industry behind Scotch whisky celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beverage’s production in Scotland. That year, global exports of Scotch surpassed £2 billion.
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