The Origins Of Whisky

The whisky industry’s history within Scotland, Ireland and England is steeped in tradition. Uisge Beatha – the water of life – has a story that is both religious and rebellious.

Through the centuries, it was an important, yet illegal source of income to poor rural communities across Scotland and Ireland in addition to an indulgence drink for Highland ladies and English aristocracy alike.

An overview of the history behind distilling

Distillation, in its more rudimentary form, has been present throughout Great Britain and Ireland for centuries. The tradition is said to date to the past millennia in civilised regions outside of Europe.

It is through the transfer of knowledge from distillation and the re-appropriation of the ingredients and techniques employed, that the art of whisky-making has emerged.

The early distilling techniques were likely employed for the production of ‘perfumes and aromatics’ instead of distillations of alcohol. The first evidence of alcohol distillation was in Italy, in the 13th century.

When the practice of distilling spirits became more commonplace in the medieval period of Europe It was primarily utilized for medicinal purposes by monks, who made it in monasteries.

The history of whisky’s beginnings in England, Scotland and Ireland

There isn’t a clear known evidence to support the precise origins of whisky’s origins in England, Scotland and Ireland. Some believe that the crude precursor of whisky today may have been found by farmers creating spirits using their surplus grains.

Another, broadly understood, notion is the whisky industry was brought over by missionary monks traveling from Ireland, Scotland and mainland Europe.

There is a belief that distillation of spirits was mostly a medical and monastic practice until the 1500s.

Between 1536 and 1541 Between 1536 and 1541, between 1536 and 1541 King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and dispersed monks in the general population, causing whisky and distillery production to be absorbed into the household or on the farms.


Its Latin name for distilled alcohol was ‘aqua vitae”water of life which it was transliterated into Gaelic as ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced uska beg). As time passed, the term was changed to uska and eventually evolved into the word “whisky” that we use in the present.

Some notable dates in the history of whisky

1405 – the first written account of whisky appears in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it was recorded that the chief of a clan had died after taking a surfeit of aqua vitae’
1494 – evidence that is documented of the distillation of whisky taking place in Scotland. It is recorded on the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 that King James IV of Scotland ‘granted 8 bolls of grain in order to make aquavitae’ to Friar John Corr
1536-1541 1536 – 1541 Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries. Monks, as well as their distillation practices, eventually become an integral part of the populace.
Whisky distillation began in the 1600s. brought in North America by Scottish and Irish immigrants
1608 – Royal licence was given to Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland to distill whisky.
1707 – the Acts of Union merged the Kingdoms of Scotland and England in 1707, and their parliaments. This was the year that saw increased efforts to control and tax illicit whisky distillation
1725: A malt tax is introduced, which puts at risk the small-scale illicit distillers of whisky
1822 1822 – 1822 – the Illicit Distillation (Scotland) Act introduced, bringing in stricter penalties for the manufacture, distribution and consumption of whisky that was smuggled out.
1823 – Excise Duty Act – a licence fee to distill whisky was introduced. The duty on whisky was substantially decreased
1830 1830 Aeneas Coffey invents his “continuous still that would eventually revolutionize whisky production and pave the way for whisky that was blended to enter the market.

A small-scale industry

When the distillation process was understood and was handed down to the populace of Scotland and Ireland whisky production became an increasingly popular cottage industry for centuries to follow.

The process of distillation was, however, quite new. The whisky that was made did not have the same maturation as modern whisky. This led to a rough, potent and unbalanced product.
Excise and duty on whisky

In 1707 in 1707, in 1707, the Acts of Union took effect and the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were united to form Great Britain. The Government attempted to control whisky production by introducing a number of taxation.

In 1725, Parliament enacted the malt tax, which was a huge threat to the tiny-scale, home-based industry of whisky production. Scottish and Irish distillers mostly were able to avoid the tax as whisky production became even more of an illicit business.

In Ireland, the introduction of taxes on the production of whisky was a major blow to the legal whisky industry. Licenced distillers of “parliament whiskey’ (whisky legally produced under licence) dropped from 1,228 in 1779, and 246 in 1780.

Moonshine and poteen

The new tax laws brought in to try and regulate whisky production were creating ruin on the legitimate industry in Ireland, the production of ‘poteen’ (whisky’s illicit cousin) prospered. It was often regarded as being superior to “parliament whisky” due to the pressure licensed distilleries were under to churn out their product and turn profits.

By 1882 there were a mere 40 legal distilleries in the whole of Ireland and it is believed that in the Donegal region alone, there were 800 illicit stills producing whisky.

In Scotland the country, there was widespread support for illegal whisky production. Illicit stills were mostly small scale and provided an important product for local communities, but at very low costs.

Highland lairds were often able to turn off illegal stills that were erected on their land because the revenue they generated for their tenants was likely the only means to pay rent. But, there were those who were’revenue officials’ that had to avoid.

Illicit stills are often placed in isolated and well-hidden locations. Whisky production became an activity at night, to hide the smoke that was created in the distillation process. This method of distillation gave whisky its name of moonshine.

The rise of licenced distilleries

Whisky and illicit stills production being prolific throughout Ireland and Scotland in the early 1800s, the government intervened by imposing further tax laws.

In 1822 the Illicit Distillation Act was passed in Scotland. The Act meant the making, supplying or even drinking of whisky that was produced illegally came with severe punishments.

In the next year in 1823, the Excise Act was passed. This Act caused a drastic reduction in the tax charged on a gallon of whisky, in addition to the granting of a relatively affordable distilling license.

The Excise Act saw a huge shift in the production of whisky, which brought about a real end to the larger scale production of illicit whisky in Scotland.

The decrease in duty to two shillings, and three pence (roughly twelve pence) per gallon, as well as the affordable licence fee, made it possible for legal trade and export of whisky to England immediately became more appealing too.

By 1824 there were approximately 167 licensed distilleries in Scotland, and by 1826 the number was up to 264.

The introduction of the cask and barrel aging

The process of maturing whisky, which we know now steeps the spirit in its rich tones and enhances its distinctive flavor profile was probably discovered by accident during the 1800s.

Prior to being aged in barrels, or casks whisky was generally consumed raw, directly off the still.

Spanish sherry barrels grew in popularity in the 19th Century after the blight destroyed the harvest of wine of the Cognac region of France. Due to Cognac availability being severely impaired in England along with Scotland, Spanish sherry was imported as an alternative.

Because it was inefficient and cost effective to ship empty barrels from Spain, Scottish distillers seized the opportunity to purchase empty barrels, which are likely to be better than the vessels they had been using to store their whisky produce in.

It was because of this accident that the origin of cask-aged whisky was established.


In the 19th century, Irish and Scottish whisky was produced in a pot still, and in batches. The process of distillation by pot made smooth, rich and tasty whiskies.

In the 1820s, a new design of was emerging which was later licensed through Aeneas Coffey in 1830. Coffey, the former inspector general of Excise in Ireland created what was called a “continuous’ or ‘column’ still.

Pot still

This distillation machine is associated with the traditional manufacturing whiskies. Although they can vary in their size and appearance, largely depending on the quantity and types of spirits being distilled the pot still consists of an individual heating chamber and an arm or pipe, leading to a vessel which collects the distilled alcohol.

Always still

A column still functions like a pot stills that have been arranged in the form of a long vertical tube. The still produces the rising vapour, which is initially lower in alcohol content, but is then condensed and becomes more rich with alcohol as it rises upwards through the column.

The column that Coffey invented has allowed whisky makers to manufacture their spirits in an efficient and cost-effective way.

Instead of distilling in batches The Coffey’s still operated on a continuous basis and produced larger amounts of whisky that had an increased alcohol content, however, the whisky that resulted was largely deemed to be less flavorful and aromatic than those made with pot stills particularly in the eyes of Irish distillers.

Modern stills

Although column stills became in the past, and are still the most popular equipment in the distillation of many spirits, pot still technology is a vital component of modern manufacturing of single malt and single pot still versions of whisky.

The pot stills as well as continuous still designs are usually constructed of copper, since the copper material assists in removing alcohol containing sulphur-based substances in the distillation process.

Today, many modern stills are made from stainless steel with copper lines.


The continuous design of Coffey’s stills paved the way to the development of whisky blended that created a whole new market for whisky production.

In spite of Coffey his own being Irish, the majority of the well-established Irish distilleries of the time rejected his innovation, favoring of the traditional pot-still method. This was the reason that led Coffey to introduce his design to Scotland which was welcomed with more enthusiasm.

The mixed Scotch whisky was made and took over drinking Irish whiskey, which was made using the traditional pot still method.


Single Malt Whisky: is a whisky made from a single malted grain, at the distillery of a single person. Single malt whisky is generally made using the pot still distillation process.
Blended Whisky: typically, blended whisky is made from various grains and typically, it is a blend of different whiskies that have been seasoned. Blended whisky can also be used for whisky that doesn’t fit in with the traditional whiskies. Blended whisky is typically distilled by using a continuous or column still method.
Scotch Whisky: by laws, Scotch whisky cannot be identified as Scotch whisky when it is made in Scotland (and follows a specific distillation method). Scotch whisky can be single malt or blended whisky. Scotch is known for its distinct ‘peaty’ or smoky flavour that results from the malt that is dried over a peat-fuelled fire.
Irish Whiskey Similar to Scotch, Irish whiskey is only legal to wear that label if it follows the exact process of distillation and is made in Ireland. Although typically blended Irish single malts can also be found.
Rye Whisky Rye Whisky originates from North America, there is no geographical stipulation on where it can be produced. Rye whisky is of course, created using a rye grain but other grains such as barley and wheat are added to it too.


New World Whisky refers to whisky that is produced outside of traditional whisky-making nations, or “whisky created in a style not normally associated with the country that it is made in”, as described by Distill Ventures, an independent drinks accelerator.

Traditional whisky-producing countries include Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Japan. As more and more countries around the globe gain a foothold in whisky production and distribution, the whisky industry is growing – bringing a new age to the spirits industry.

Most of the time, New World Whisky producers are using traditional blending techniques in line with historic and traditional whisky-making techniques, but also explore innovative production methods.

New World Whisky producers, such as those in Australia, Bolivia, Scandinavia and South Africa, are forging their own distinct tastes, welcoming the new generation of customers and shaping how the industry will evolve in the coming years.


Although the whisky history of England isn’t as extensive like Scotland or Ireland’s whisky production, whisky production in England has been in existence since around the 1800s at a minimum. In 1903, the nation’s final distillery, Lea Valley Distillery, Stratford had to shut its doors, sabotaging English whisky distilleries in England for nearly a century.

Over the last 10 years however, distillers who are craft in England have emerged, which has revived English whisky production. There are more than 30 English whisky distilleries in various phases of the production process. The majority of English whisky distilleries are in operation that produce and sell mature whisky, while a few are still under construction.