What’s in A Word: Whisky or Whiskey?
What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for.
Old Irish proverb
Whisky is the Scots English spelling for Whiskey, which is the Irish-English spelling of the word – in the United States, the Irish spelling is generally preferred, in the UK it is the Scots-English which is preferred. No matter what spelling is used, the etymology of the word is as complicated as the spirit itself.
Whiskey first appeared in recorded history in the Irish chronicle, The Annals of Clonmacnoise of 1405 (sometimes known as Mageoghagan’s Book after the translator – the original chronicle being now lost to posterity). The spirit appears as “aqua vitae”, the Latin name for “water of life” and drinking too much was thought to have led to the death of the clan chieftain – not uncommon in those early whiskey making days as the spirit bore scant resemblance to whiskey we enjoy today.
The origin of the word whiskey is the Anglicized version of the Gaelic, usquebaugh. English soldiers stationed in Ireland took to drinking the local “uisce” and it became “whiskey” from this Gaelic root. Uisce Beatha is the Irish form while in Scotland it is Uisge Beatha – the literal meaning is the same as Aqua Vitae; “uisce” meaning water and “beatha” meaning “of life”, hence “Water of Life”.
Who was the first to introduce whiskey making is a source of some controversy, though the consensus is that the art of distillation spread through the monasteries from the Far East, where distillation had been discovered by the Babylonians (in present day Iran and Iraq) over 4,000 years ago. It was in the monasteries that distillation was used around the 6th and 7th Centuries to make medicinal preparations, they being the source of what medical care was then available. Distillation was used to fortify the products of grape fermentation, however in the colder, temperate climate of the British Isles there were none to be had. Undeterred, the Irish were applying the distillation process to the fermented product of cereal grains, used for making barley beer, sometime after 1100AD and certainly by the 1300’s, and whiskey production centered upon the monasteries from which it spread to neighboring Scotland.
It was in Scotland that whiskey was first taxed and it has remained taxed ever since in a highly regulated industry which was initially a monopoly gained by Royal charter. While the Kings and Queens of Scotland and England strictly controlled whiskey production so they could enrich themselves, it is thanks to one, King Henry the Eighth, that whiskey reached a diverse audience. King Henry abolished the monasteries in 1536 and displaced monks turned to whiskey production to earn a living. Numerous distilleries were established in homes and farms around the country and the skills to make whiskey were spread beyond the monks themselves.
Whiskey was extremely harsh to drink at this time and remained so up until the Renaissance. The Renaissance or Enlightenment, was also known as the Age of Reason – it inspired and motivated men such as Thomas Jefferson, however the smooth, mellow whiskey we appreciate today had nothing to do with men being reasonable, the mellowing of whiskey by maturation was discovered by a complete, but happy accident. A cask had been forgotten for several years until rediscovered by drunken revelers who were dared to drink the old whiskey – over the years the whiskey had aged and mellowed with much of the harshness removed and this led to adoption of the aging process in wooden casks which is essential to whiskey production today.
Whiskey still remained heavily taxed and especially after England and Scotland united together under one king in 1707. With the Act of Union came even greater regulation and taxation, so high in fact that many makers were driven underground to escape the taxes and punishment for operating illegal stills. The name “Moonshine” was used to describe the illicit product from stills which were run at night in order to avoid the smoke from the fires giving away their position. Under such circumstances, nothing was too sacred for whiskey production – stills were hidden in coffins and under church altars.
In America, during the War of Independence whiskey was used as a form of currency and the spirit was highly prized after the cessation of hostilities. As with all governments, revolutionary or otherwise, taxation is a fact of life and the embryonic American Government sought to tax whiskey at ever higher levels which resulted in the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. The Whiskey Tax was resisted by the producers in the western states who viewed the tax as an imposition by the Eastern based government – fighting broke out but the rebellion was put down with most of the rebels being pardoned or ignored for their “crimes”.
Whiskey production in Scotland received a boost when it was legalized in 1823, and the need for moonshine operations came to an end. In 1831, an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey invented the Coffey Still, which simplified the distillation process reduced the cost greatly. In 1850, a Scot, Andrew Usher mixed traditionally produced whiskey with whiskey made from a Coffey still to create the first blended whiskey and in so doing sparked the controversy between blend and malt drinkers which continues to this day.