A brief, but cask strength, history of whisky

Freedom and Whisky Gang Thegither

Whether it’s illicit distilling, the Whisky Rebellion, Whisky Galore or Prohibition, whisky is a drink that has always had something of the outlaw about it. As with all the great heroes of legend, strict adherence to historical fact has not always been essential to the telling of its story …

Illustration: Nicholas Saunders | Words: Liz Longden
First published in the Whisky Issue of Hot Rum Cow.

One story sometimes heard is that whisky is an ancient Celtic drink, a claim often backed up by the fact that the word ‘whisky’ is a corruption of the Gaelic uisce beatha, meaning ‘water of life’. It’s such a pleasing idea that it really ought to be true. However, in the great family tree of alcoholic drinks, all spirits are but wee whippersnappers, with nothing ancient about them. There is no firm evidence of the distillation of alcohol before the dabblings of the Salerno School of southern Italy in the 12th century. This is at least 5,000 years after barley beer was being brewed and at least around 6,000 years after the first wines were fermented. Even then, it is not clear how widespread distilling was among the general population – distillation techniques were developed during the Islamic Golden Age, between the 8th and 13th century AD, but it’s thanks to the monasteries, those medieval powerhouses of knowledge, that these techniques were preserved, developed and spread throughout Europe.

The word ‘whisky’ actually testifies to this monastic heritage – ‘water of life’ was a general term used across the Christian word for distilled spirits, more commonly rendered as aqua vitae in Latin. The term survives today in drinks such as eau de vie (France), acquavita (Italy), akvavit (Scandinavia) and okowita (Poland). Rather than being an ancient Celtic elixir, it’s likely that the ancestor of modern whisky developed some time in the late middle ages, in the monasteries of Ireland.

Illicit stills

What is true, however, is that whisky has a long and proud tradition of being distilled on the sly. There soon developed a distinction, therefore, between ‘Parliament whisky’, distilled under licence from the Crown, and ‘poteen’, distilled under licence from no one, except perhaps God. Throughout the storms which battered the legal Irish whisky industry over the centuries, small-scale poteen distilling proved much more robust. According to Heidi Donelon, an Irish whisky historian and founder of the Ireland Whiskey Trail, in 1779, when the number of licensed distilleries in Ireland plummeted to just 20, County Donegal alone was home to around 800 illegal stills.

In Scotland, meanwhile, as in England, the first taxes on distilling were introduced in the 17th century. Naturally, there developed a thriving illicit industry, primarily in the Highlands, and the legendary tussles between the wily illicit distiller and the excise man have become an essential part of whisky folklore.

Many accounts of crafty ruses, colourful characters and improbable escapes are recorded in Gavin Smith’s book The Secret Still. Highlights include ‘Sarah of the Bog’, a West Highland lady alleged to have dressed up as a witch to keep nosy neighbours away from her still and Magnus Eunson, an infamous Orkney smuggler, known for his quick thinking and habit of hiding his contraband stash in pulpits and under coffins, among other places. Other accounts include barrels hidden beneath hens, barrels hidden in funeral corteges and barrels ‘nursed’ by breastfeeding mothers.

Of course, for an illicit distilling enterprise to survive, the first requirement was a well-hidden still. While sometimes a remote sea cave or a treacherous bog, navigable only by locals, would do the job, on other occasions a more intricate arrangement was called for. One account in Smith’s book, dating from 1824, describes an ingenious set-up, with a still hidden in cavern, beneath a trap door covered with earth, with water supplied by a underground stream, and its smoke diverted through the chimney of a cottage some distance away.

Illustration of Sarah of The Bog

Naturally, there developed a thriving illicit industry, primarily in the Highlands regions, and the legendary tussles between the wily illicit distiller and the excise man have become an essential part of whisky folklore

It all sounds like good fun – Smith even suggests that Robert Louis Stevenson may have based some of his Treasure Island characters on the wily distillers at work in Aberdeenshire in the 1880s. Yet while illicit distilling was a very real phenomenon and widespread across the Highlands, its causes and culprits weren’t always quite as have been depicted. Prof. Tom Devine is Senior Research Professor in History at Edinburgh University and author of the best-selling book The Scottish Nation 1700–2007, which looks at, among many other things, the illicit distilling industry in Scotland.

“[The illicit distilling boom] was partly to do with the fact that landowners in the north, who abetted and encouraged it, saw it as a form of increasing the profitability of their estates,” he says. In areas where there was a tradition of distilling, rents were “jacked up”, Devine says, “and since the landed class in that period were demanding increased cash rental, people had to search for means of obtaining this.”

Moving to the big smoke

The other factor behind the boom, of course, was demand. And here comes another surprise. Devine says that there was no real commercial market for whisky before the mid-18th century. Instead, the commercial demand for whisky and the beginning of the whisky industry, both legal and illicit, came, he says, not from the pleasant glens of the Highlands, but from somewhere quite different: the 19th-century ‘Gomorrah’ of Glasgow.

“It gave more quickly the possibility of psychological escape through drunkenness.”

A swirling, swarming hive of industrial activity, economic growth and squalor, the city was growing faster than any other European city of its size – and it wasn’t alone. This, Devine says, was whisky’s heyday, when it became established as a drink of the masses. “The big attraction of whisky was it gave the hit to a much greater extent than beer. Life was extremely challenging and rough in the first period of urbanisation, until you’ve got things like sanitary and health controls developing; and so whisky was a kind of antidote to that hellish experience, because it gave more quickly the possibility of psychological escape through drunkenness.”

Against this backdrop a timely intervention by a former excise man, of all people, was to have a seismic impact on the history of whisky. In the 1820s, the first designs for a new kind of still began to appear. Known as the ‘column’ or ‘continuous’ still, it produced a whisky that was higher in alcohol and less flavoursome than pot-distilled whisky, but in much greater quantities, more quickly and more cheaply. Aeneas Coffey, the former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, tweaked earlier designs and patented his version in 1830.

For Heidi Donelon, Coffey’s innovation was the beginning of a painful decline for Irish whisky. “The major Irish distilleries of the time rejected this new invention, which produced these lighter, less aromatic whiskeys, as they did not want to alter in any way their rich, fruity and smooth pot still whiskeys,” Donelon explains. So Coffey took his still to Scotland, where it was enthusiastically embraced. Coffey’s still helped to open up a whole new market for blended Scotch, enabling it to eclipse its Irish competitor.

A timely intervention by a former excise man, of all people, was to have a seismic impact on the history of whisky

And it also opened up a new can of worms. Whisky had traditionally been fairly easy to define, but now there were many more varieties to consider. Was a mix of the grain and malt still a pure whisky, or was it adulterated? Was Irish whisky a style, or a geographic denomination? And what was Scotch anyway?

Not what it says on the tin

In fact, exactly what was going into a dram had been a cause for concern during the 19th century, with many suspecting that what was being served up in the growing cities was anything but pure Highland dew. A relatively little-known scandal that tainted the whisky industry is explored by Edward Burns in his book Bad Whisky. In 1872, the editor of the North British Daily Mail took 30 samples of whisky from bars and pubs across Glasgow and had them analysed in a lab.

To the editor’s horror, almost every sample was a very special ‘blend’ of whisky, water, and noxious additives. These included: turpentine; methylated spirits; ‘finish’ (a thin form of varnish); and highly corrosive sulphuric acid. One, worryingly described in the lab notes as ‘pinkish green’ in appearance, was alleged to be nothing but ‘finish’ and water. These ‘drams’ were not only tasted foul, they were often poisonous.

There was also the issue of fusel alcohols – oily compounds which occur naturally during distillation, mostly towards the end of the run. Fusel alcohols are today often associated with bad hangovers, but the Victorians thought it was much worse than that. According to Burns, they blamed them for the antisocial behaviour that marred 19th-century cities. To prove it, they carried out an extraordinary experiment in which they fed two monkeys large amounts of two different whiskies: one was given new whisky, high in fusel alcohol; and the other a nicely matured Scotch. While the fusel monkey was bad tempered and aggressive, the monkey fed on aged Scotch was a good-tempered, if silly, drunk. When the doses were reversed and the same findings recorded, the evidence, they decided, was conclusive.

The monkey experiment was carried out as part of an 1890 inquiry by a Select Committee of the House of Commons, which in turn led to a Royal Commission entitled: ‘What is whisky?’. It reported in 1909, to clarify once and for all that yes, grain whisky was real whisky, and that Scotch was produced in Scotland, and Irish whisky in Ireland. Within a few years, legislation followed to prohibit the sale of whisky aged for less than three years. Whisky producers began to market themselves on purity, and whisky cleaned up its act to become one of the most prized and highest quality spirits in the world.

While the fusel monkey was bad tempered and aggressive, the monkey fed on aged Scotch was a good-tempered, if silly, drunk.

And where is whisky today? In Ireland, from the hundreds of distilleries once licensed, there are now just four. There are some stirrings of revival, suggestions that a handful of smaller boutique distilleries may soon open up. But there is a lot of work to be done.

Over in the States, meanwhile, there are no such problems. A small core of larger distilleries has now been joined by a growing number of micro distilleries, and the longstanding success of bourbon has now been joined by the revival of rye whisky, while American blends also continue to sell well. Across the world, too, whisky distilleries have opened up over recent decades. Japanese whisky is long established, but perhaps less well known are the distilleries in Sweden, Wales, England, Germany, Australia, India and Brazil. These days everybody wants to distil a dram.

Illustration of a whisky bottle fired from a pistol

But if there is one winner in the world whisky boom, it must surely be Scotch. Scotch, perhaps more than any other drink, has become the global symbol for refinement, arguably trumping even champagne in the status symbol stakes. Even James Bond reaches for a 50-year-old bottle of Macallan in Skyfall.

Between 2010 and 2011, exports of Scotch whisky totalled an astonishing £4.23 billion. It was the seventh year-on-year increase for the industry, and a 62% increase in exports over four years. In 2011 there were even reports that a surge in demand among a new, image-conscious, affluent middle class in the far east could lead to a global shortage. Meanwhile, the Scotch Whisky Association, the body which promotes the Scotch industry, has claimed that the industry earns £125 a second for the UK economy.

All of which seems a far cry from the days of illicit stills hidden in the bracken. But that’s unlikely to be anything that whisky lovers will lose any sleep over.

Of war and whisky – an American tale

Illustration of George Washington wearing a kilt amid a flurry of dollar bills

Across the Atlantic a new nation was born as the 18th century waned. A brave new world beckoned. And you might say it tasted of whisky. 

Whisky wasn’t the first spirit to be distilled in North America – early colonials had first tried their hand at applejack, and before the war, rum had been the thing. But revolution brought more than just political change. “Rum was very cheap and very alcoholic, and that’s primarily what people are looking for. So before the revolution, it was very, very popular,” explains Dr Dennis Pogue, author of Founding Spirits: George Washington and the beginnings of the American whisky industry. “What happened over the course of the war, of course, is that trade with the British Caribbean was interrupted, and then after the war the United States has broken off, so the price of rum that is bought in from the Caribbean increases.” But early Americans were nothing if not resourceful. If they didn’t have huge quantities of sugar and molasses, what they did have, suddenly, was access to vast expanses of land – land that was ideal for growing grain, grain that was ideal for making whisky. “It’s not until after the Revolution that the economics of whisky really begin to favour it and so it takes off,” says Pogue. By 1810, there were an astonishing 3,500 distilleries in Virginia alone.

Unfortunately, as in Britain, a booming whisky industry was too great a temptation for the national treasury to ignore. George Washington was persuaded to levy a tax on the most widely produced luxury good in the land – and whisky once again became a standard for rebellion. Tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Those who paid had their barns burnt and stills destroyed. Violent resistance was urged. There were whispers of revolution, talk of a split from the United States. Just 15 years after the Declaration of Independence, and for the first and only time in American history, the President called out troops against his compatriots.

In the event, it was all a bit of an anti-climax. The rebels capitulated before a shot was fired and the so-called ‘Whisky Rebellion’ collapsed bloodlessly. But it was an extraordinary incident in the early history of the United States, and testament to the growing economic importance of whisky.

Tax collectors were tarred and feathered. Those who paid had their barns burnt and stills destroyed. Violent resistance was urged

The popularity of whisky continued to rise over the course of the 19th century, on both sides of the Atlantic. In The Book of Bourbon, Gaz and Mardee Haidin Regan explain some of the factors behind its success in the US. The renown of Kentucky Bourbon was rising, the railways offered an easy means of transportation, and telegraph enabled saloons to order in new barrels quickly and easily to meet demand. The Civil War also had an impact. On the one hand, it tore apart the whisky-producing states of Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Maryland, disrupting the industry and ultimately leading to the closure of many distilleries.

On the other, whisky and war went hand in hand. The Civil War saw army-issue whisky administered to soldiers on both sides, introducing a whole new generation to the liquor. Whisky was also often the only anaesthetic and antiseptic available for treating the severed limbs and gunshot wounds of the battlefield. To ensure it was able to buy up whisky reserves, Regan and Regan explain, the Confederacy even introduced a temporary prohibition in many states. The result was a surge in the value of whisky – from around 25 cents a gallon in late 1860 to around $35 in 1863.

With his ruthless quashing of the ‘Whisky Rebellion’, George Washington has occasionally been portrayed as a bastion against the demon drink. It may come as a surprise to some, then, to learn that, at the time of his death, Washington himself was quite possibly America’s largest distiller of whisky.

In 2010, Dr Dennis Pogue supervised an excavation at the Mount Vernon estate, where Washington lived out his retirement, which revealed the foundations of a distillery. That in itself was not unusual – it has long been known that Washington had distilled. What was surprising was the size of the operation. “It wasn’t until we started doing our research and looking at the context that we determined that it was one of the largest whisky distilleries at the time in the country,” Pogue says. By 1799, the year of his death, Washington was producing around 11,000 gallons of whisky a year.

Thanks to the discovery of recipes from the distillery, Pogue and his colleagues have been able to recreate Washington’s clear whisky. “You get the natural flavours from the grain coming through, and so it’s very distinctive. It’s kind of spicy, but it’s got a very floral nose to it,” Pogue says. “Some of the distillers we worked with actually characterised it as tasting like brand new tequila.”


Exchanging pedantries

You say pot-ay-to, I say pot-ah-to. You write whiskey, I write whisky. It seems there are few things as divisive and guaranteed to agitate as a minor and wholly trivial difference in spelling convention. However, while it is the convention to refer to Scotch, Canadian whisky and ‘others’ without an ‘e’ and to Irish and American variants with an ‘e’, the distinction is fairly recent and entirely artificial. In fact the ‘e’ variant spelling of Irish ‘whiskey’ was, according to Heidi Donelon, first introduced in the second half of the 19th century by the big Dublin distillers to differentiate their product not from Scotch, but from rural Irish competitors. The Cork Distilleries Company, which produced the ‘Paddy’ brand among others, only added the ‘e’ in the early 1960s.

This feature originally appeared in issue 3 of Hot Rum Cow magazine.