‘Whisky’, or ‘whiskey’, comes from a Gaelic word ‘uisce’/‘uisge’, which means ‘water’, or ‘uisgebeatha’ – ‘lively water’, in full. In turn, this likely comes from the Latin ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘water of life’, meaning distilled alcohol. The French equivalent is ‘eau-de-vie’, ‘water of life’, meaning, of course, ‘spirits’ or ‘brandy’.
Distillation probably goes all the way back to Mesopotamia (2000 BC), and it was definitely around in Greece in 300AD. Disappointingly, these were distillations of perfume!Distillation was brought over to Europe by the Moors, probably around the time of the Crusades. The earliest record of distilling alcohol in Europe comes from 13th century Italy, where it was distilled from wine. This was strictly medicinal, of course (no, really!): hence – ‘aqua vita’.It was supposed to be a cure for everything from blindness to colic to influenza.
Distillation eventually moved out of a monastic context to a secular one, because of all the lay travelling medical practitioners.It got to Ireland and Scotland in the 15th century.The first evidence of whisky production in Scotland,comes from 1494Exchequer Rolls(tax records) where malt is sent “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae”. Early whisky was very severe because it was consumed young: it wasn’t until an accidental discovery of an aged barrel that people learned that whisky improves with age!
The 1725 English Malt Tax (which lasted all the way to 1823!) forced most distilleries to shut down or go underground. This is where the smuggling begins! Whisky was hidden from government officials in places like coffins, and under altars! It’s estimated that about 80% of the whisky exported from Scotland was illegal!Homemade stills took to distilling at night, when the smoke would be hard to spot – this is how the drink got the name ‘moonshine’