English  |  عربي
print send to friend Help

The history of Whisky


Whisky is an alcoholic drink distilled from fermented grains, such as wheat, barley and maize. It is preserved to age in oak-wood barrels. It is usually made all over the world in several classes and types according to unified typical properties in fermenting grains, distillation and aging.

Whisky is originally a Scottish word “wisce/wisge”, which means distilled alcohol or aqua vitae (water of life). The word can be differently spelled as “whisky” or “whiskey”. “Whiskey” is used in Ireland and the US whereas “whisky” is used in all whisky-producing countries. “Scotch” is the internationally recognized term that is originated in Scotland, which is the main producer of whisky.

History of whisky manufacture:

The art of distillation moved to Ireland and Scotland before the 15th century, where this technique was used for the so-called “water of life” and for medical purposes. Then this technique moved from priests to physicians. The firs records proving that it was used for whisky came from Ireland in 1405 AD in the Irish periodicals “Clonmacoise”, where it was mentioned that the reason behind the death of the leader was drinking huge amounts of water of life on Christmas Eve.

In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from 1494 AD when the treasury minister sent amounts of fermented barley to Priest John Kough for making water of life as many as 500 bottles.

It is said that James IV, the King of Scotland, (1488-1513) liked whisky. In 1506 AD, he bought a big amount of whisky from the City of Dundee from surgeon barbers and monopolized the production then. Between 1636 and 1541 AD, Henry VIII, the King of England, dissolved the monasteries and sent the priests to the common people. The production of whisky moved from priests to homes, factories and private farms. Until then, the distillation process was still in its primitive stages, and aging of whisky was not allowed. Thus, it tasted pungent and bitter in comparison to today’s whisky. Over time, whisky turned into a milder drink.

In 1608 AD, the Town of Bushmills obtained the oldest licence in the world for producing Irish whisky. The work of England and Scotland merged, and after that the prices increased drastically due to the tax imposed on fermented barley by the English in 1725 AD. Most Scottish distillation machines were closed or hidden underground as well as whisky, so that the English government would not find it. People distilled whisky manually especially at night, so that the rising smoke would not be visible. Thus, this drink was called “moonlight”. It is estimated that more than half of the Scottish whisky production was illegal.

In the US, whisky was used as a currency during the American Revolution. George Washington opened a distillation factory, but given the distances and primitive transport means between the American colonies, the farmers found it easier and faster to turn maize into whisky and moving it to the market. It was very favorable, and when an additional tax was imposed on whisky, an insurgency erupted in 1791 AD.

Drinking whisky reached India in the 19th century. The first distillation factory was built by Edward Dyer in Kasauli in the late 1820, and then the process moved to Solan, where there was abundancein fresh water. In 1823, the British Empire issued a tax law where they imposed taxes on distillation, which put an end to the production of Scottish whisky on a large scale.

In 1831, the Irish Aenas Coffey obtained a patient on an invention that allows distillation of whisky in a cheaper and more efficient way. Then the Irish Andrew Usher produced a whisky mixed between the traditional way and Coffey’s. The new distillation method was used in the Irish distilleries, but the Irish did not consider this drink a whisky at all.

By 1880, the production of French cognac was destroyed due to plant pests; as a result, whisky became the main drink in many markets.

During the ban period in the US between 1920 and 1933, alcohol sale was banned, but the federal government provided an exemption on whisky and considered it a medical prescription, and it was sold at licensed pharmacies. During that time, the Ualgreens pharmacies chain grew from 20 to 400 stores.

Method of whisky manufacture:

Distillation: Whisky is distilled in a copper distillation machine because copper can remove unwanted compounds, such as sulfur, which may make the taste of the drink unpleasant. The machine consist of a container at the bottom that extends upwards in the form of a neck. In Scotland, whisky is distilled twice and in Ireland thrice. Distillation varies according to the country.

The liquid is put into distilleries and is then heated up until it starts boiling it rises to the top of the neck, and distillation into another container starts. The alcohol percentage from the first distillation is so high and pungent. The final result of alcohol is 65-70%.

Blending: The grains from which whisky is made, whether barley, wheat, maize or rye, contain starch. The starch should be transformed into solvable sugars for getting alcohol. For this transformation to happen, the grains should be fermented, and each type has its own fermentation method. Barley should be soaked in warm water 2-3 days then spread on the floor to dry. In the commercial method of drying, the grains are put in barrels and moved or they are dried in furnaces. However, if the drying period is long, the smoke rising from the fire may affect the flavor.

Grinding: The gains are soaked again in warm water to extract sugars. The water should be taken from a clean source because it can affect the final spirit. The grains and water mix is called the mash. Then it is put in big containers and stirred. This process may be repeated three times with raising the temperature a little in each one. Then the mixture is left to cool down and put in wooden barrels. Here, the fermentation process begins through adding yeast. Fermentation usually takes about 48 hours. During this stage, the mixture is called “the wash” and it contains low alcohol percentage (5-10%).

Aging: Whisky does not maturate in glass bottles rather it is put in oak-wood barrels for no less than three years. The age of whisky is defined according to the time between distillation and filling and the extent of interaction between whisky and the wooden barrel. This interaction is what gives the whisky its distinct smell and taste. Wood is porous (i.e. liquid can easily leak through), and thus, over time, the surrounding air becomes affected by the surrounding atmosphere, giving whisky unique properties. The quality of air, whether in an area close to the sea or at heights, as well as the temperature and humidity affect the final result of whisky. During each year of the aging years, about 2% of the spirit is lost through natural evaporation (angel’s share).

Filling: The best known types of whiskyis the one produced in Scotland. The exports increased by 87% in the last decade. In 2012, the US was the largest market of Scottish whisky followed by France. Britain has the best five whisky-producing factories. In 2011, 70% of Canadian whisky was exported, 60% of which was exported to the US and the rest to Europe.

Types of whisky:

Whisky is produced in most countries that grow grains, but its production varies in terms of alcohol and quality. There are many types of whisky:

Finest Whisky: the refined whisky made from one type of grains that is one of the best types.

Malt Whisky: made primarily from fermented barely.

Grain Whisky: made from any type of grains.

Grain and Malt Whisky: combining between them is done in various methods:

Types of whisky according to the producing country:

American whisky: its types: Bourbon: whisky made from mash consisting of 51% maize. Maize whisky: made from mash consisting of 81% maize. Malt whisky: made from mash consisting of 51% fermented barley. Rye whisky: made from mash consisting of 51% fermented rye. Wheat whisky: made from mash consisting of 51% wheat.

These types are distilled with an alcohol percentage of no more than 80%, and water is added to them only in the final result. No type of flavors is added.

Canadian whisky:made from fermented grains mash. It is left to age in wooden barrels for no less than three years. Its types are: Rye Whisky and Canadian Rye Whisky. Caramel flavor or others may be added. The most important brands are: Seagram’s, Canadian Club, Crown Royal, Wiser’s.

Danish whisky:Denmark started producing whisky in about 1974. The first type of Danish whisky was Lille Gadegard (Single malt).

English whisky: currently, there are six whisky distilleries in England producing single malt.

Finnish whisky: there are two distillation factories in Finnland.

German whisky: whisky distillation in Germany is considered a recent phenomenon as it started about 30 years ago. It produces the same types of Scottish, Irish and American whisky.

Indian whisky: India’s consumption of whisky equals the total whisky consumption of the rest of the world. The most popular type is Blends, distilled from fermented molasses with the addition of a simple amount of malt. There is no obligatory definition of whisky in India, and it does not require a defined standard for distillation and maturation. This drink is called “rum” outside India.

Irish whisky: it is produced through distillation three times. There are many popular types in Ireland whish are: Single malt, Single Grain, Blended Whisky, Pure pot still.

Japanese whisky: it is similar to the Scottish single malt. Japanese whisky has gained good reputation in terms of quality.

Scottish whisky: it is distilled twice, some types are distilled thrice and some are distilled as many as 20 times. The most important types are malt and grain blended to produce Blend Whisky.

The smoked flavor sometimes found in Scottish whisky is attributed to the use of plant tissue smoke.

Swedish whisky: whisky production in Sweden started in 1955, and the last bottle was sold in 1971. In 1999, Mack Myra Whisky distillery was established and is still working until today.

Welsh whisky: its production started in the middle ages. The most important current types are: Penderyn Single Malt, Saint David’s Day.


Flavors can be added to whisky. The Canadian whisky contains caramel flavor. The Scottish whisky may contain E150A caramel color.

Adding flavors and colors is not allowed in the single American whisky, but it is allowed in the blended whisky.