17 May 2025
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A brief, but cask strength, history of whisky

Whisky has always had something of the outlaw about it. As with all the great legends, facts have not always been allowed to get in the way of the story …

Before we begin: Whisky vs whiskey

It is the convention to refer to Scotch, Canadian and ‘others’ as whisky without an ‘e’. Irish and American variants on the other hand are whiskey with the ‘e’. However the distinction is fairly recent and entirely artificial. The Irish spelling was, first introduced in the 19th century by the big Dublin distillers. The intention was 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. It seems there are few things as divisive as a minor – and wholly trivial – difference in spelling.

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

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. 5,000 years after the brewing of barley beer and around 6,000 years after the first fermentation of wine. Even then, it is not clear how widespread distilling was among the general population. Distillation techniques 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 have been 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 was a distinction, 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. Heidi Donelon is an Irish whisky historian and founder of the Ireland Whiskey Trail. According to her, 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.

MGavin Smith’s book The Secret Still charts crafty ruses, colourful characters and improbable escapes. 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 Treasure Island characters on the wily distillers of Aberdeenshire in the 1880s. Illicit distilling was a very real phenomenon and widespread across the Highlands. But its causes and culprits weren’t always accurately depicted. Prof. Tom Devine is Senior Research Professor in History at Edinburgh University. He is also the 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 would be 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?

Contaminated whisky

During the 19th century what was being served up in the growing cities was anything but pure Highland dew. Edward Burns explore a relatively little-known scandal that tainted the whisky industry 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.

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, 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. The first monkey 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 growing number of micro-distilleries has now joined a small core of larger 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. While Japanese whisky well-known, there are also 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 has become a global symbol for refinement. It even arguably trumps 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.


Illustration: Nicholas Saunders | Words: Liz Longden
First published in the Whisky Issue of Hot Rum Cow which is still available digitally as part of our Lost Issues bundle series.

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