History in a Glass: Distilling the Origins of Whiskey
It has been noted that whiskey is having a moment in the world of fine spirits. Once thought of as that brown stuff one chased beers with at the bar, whiskey has come to rival wine when it comes to widespread popularity and an evolving connoisseurship. Endless blogs, articles, and videos have popped up exploring blended whiskeys, bourbons, single malt varieties and so much more. No longer confined to the Deep South or Far North, whiskey production is a global phenomenon which can be just as easily discovered in the heart of New York City as in some moss-covered Scottish monastery.
There’s never been a greater time in history to dive deep into the amber libation. Enjoyed straight up, on the rocks, or mixed into cocktails like an Old Fashioned or Manhattan, there’s no shortage of ways to drink up this delectable spirit. Adding to the fun is learning exactly what whiskey is and where it all began. Whiskey history goes way back and is still being made every day. Knowing a little about what goes into making whiskey and how it came into being can help fans unlock ever more possibilities in the quest for a great glass of the good stuff.
What are the Origins of Whiskey?
Whether one is an aficionado of single malt Scotch or just looking to explore one of the world’s favorite spirits, whiskey has long been a lure for sophisticated and casual drinkers alike. Competing claims for the earliest known whiskeys rage between Ireland and Scotland, but its true origins start with the history of distillation itself. Records show that the ancient Babylonians pioneered the process, creating perfumes and medicines as long as 4,000 years ago.
The Greeks picked up the tradition around 100 CE, but instead of alcohol, they used it to make sea water into pure drinking water. The Moors brought distillation to Europe several centuries later, and by 1250, Italian monk Ramon Lull left the first record of producing liquor of the type we all love to down in cocktails, neat or on the rocks.
The first record we have of the origin of whiskey itself – spelled “whisky” (which is still a 100% legitimate alternate spelling) – comes from the year 1405, appearing in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise. By the end of the 15th century, Scotland was a hotbed for distilling the amber-colored nectar – so much so that the country’s King James IV granted large portions of malt to make lots and lots of the so-called aqua vitae. Over the next couple of hundred years, distilleries started popping up from London to Glasgow and Dublin. The oldest standing remnant of this Golden Age of whiskey history is the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland, founded in 1608 and still going strong.
America: A Whole New Whiskey World
As British Isles colonists began arriving in North America, the distilling of whiskey was introduced to the culture of an emerging nation. Previously made primarily from barley, a new world meant new grains and distillers forged their own paths. Using corn, wheat, and rye, the fledgling traditions developed into whole new industries, making singularly American variations – bourbon being the most famous of all.
The early United States was so fond of whiskey that it was actually used as a currency in the post-Revolutionary War period. This liquor-inspired economy was so impactful it caused conflict between producers and the nascent federal government over taxation, leading to an actual Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s.
By the 1820s, the so-called “sour mash” method was perfected, forever leaving its mark on American bourbon. Whiskey became such an important part of the culture that even during the 13 years of Prohibition, doctors could still prescribe the beverage as a medicine to be applied for a variety of illnesses. Just like with any drug purchased today from a pharmacist, patients would be directed by their physicians to ingest the liquor as a treatment for cancers, intestinal disorders, and believe it or not – depression. By 1964, an act of Congress took things to the next level: bourbon was declared “a distinctive product of the United States,” just like champagne was to France.
To this day, strong traditions of American whiskey-making are still in full steam from New York and Pennsylvania to Tennessee and, of course, Kentucky. Distillery tours are now major attractions both in urban settings like Brooklyn and more traditional country experiences like Heaven Hill, KY.
Whiskey History: From Harsh Spirit to Smooth Elixir
Today, drinkers can easily enjoy a great variety of delicious whiskeys, be they single malts or blends, peaty or woodsy. But back in King James IV’s day, the stuff was a lot tougher to swallow. One key step of whiskey distillation – the aging of the liquor – was still not in practice. This resulted in booze with a ridiculously high alcohol content which was brutal to drink, making for a very raw experience modern drinkers wouldn’t appreciate much. In fact, back in those days, herbs and spices were added to help it all go down.
It's not exactly known how and why the aging process began. What is known is that a mid-19th-century wine blight in France led to an overstock of empty sherry caskets, allowing Scottish whiskey producers to buy them cheaply to store their spirits. They soon learned that over time, raw distillate mixing with the elements of these barrels smoothed out the flavor and made the final product a lot sweeter. Once the tradition was discovered to attract more drinkers, aging became a mainstay of the whiskey-making process.
Over time, it was learned that aging only happened in casks. A 12-year-old Scotch doesn’t become 22-year-old Scotch after sitting on a shelf for ten years! As whiskey distillation became more sophisticated, more care was taken in selecting the types of grains used as well as other processes like extraction and filtration, all of which contribute to how the spirits land on the nose and mouth. When one considers it, it literally took thousands of years to get whiskey to be as amazing as it has become. It can only be wondered what the whiskey of the future will taste like!
Good, Great and Sublime Whiskeys
Whiskey is ubiquitous nowadays, produced all over the world. Canada has a great tradition which evolved partially due to an experiment in improving the taste of rum in the 1800s. But even places like Japan, Taiwan, and India have gotten in on the act, each founding their own processes for home consumption while exporting fresh new takes on the spirit the world over. So what makes a good whiskey? The place of origin doesn’t seem to matter anymore, as all these nations and more are offering fine examples.
It’s undeniable, however, that the foundational process of quality whiskey making was perfected in Scotland, partially thanks to a political event. In 1536, King Henry VIII, as part of his religious reformation campaign, closed all the monasteries in his kingdom. Suddenly, Scottish monks were unemployed. This setback turned them to make money using their experience as distillers. Producers became more competitive and inventive in their whiskey-making. Ingredients like grains, water, and yeasts became more selectively chosen. Experimentation would conclude that copper stills were the best conveyors of distillation (which holds to this day). The aging process became more refined, as the type of wood used was discovered to bring out different flavor tones and body characteristics. The art of charring barrels added another dimension for drinkers to savor.
At the end of the day, it’s a matter of taste, and it’s ultimately subjective whether a whiskey is “good” or not. But the long tradition set by master distillers has taken great care every step of the way to deliver a unique experience which whiskey lovers have been coming back to over and over again for the last 800 years of whiskey history.
The Truth About Expensive Whiskeys
There’s an old adage that says: “You get what you pay for.” As with many food products, some of the better-crafted whiskeys front-load extra costs by sourcing organic grains and special legacy yeasts. But for the costlier spirits out there, that’s only a fraction of the expenses producers incur. The big money hit? It’s pretty much all in the aging. When one sees a bottle of 25-year-old Scotch, what they’re seeing is a product which actually spent a quarter-century in the same barrel, slowly transforming from a clear liquid to the golden-brown-colored liquors which fans all know and love. Big producers like Glenlivet began emphasizing aging in the 1800s. They and other well-known names have literally invested generations of their own people to keep up the craft. Such know-how and hard work don’t come cheap.
As the science of aging was perfected, a need for dedicated years of labor became apparent. The barrels couldn’t just be left alone – they need to be tended to. Factors like temperature changes had to be kept on top of, with Southern producers learning to deal with heat extremes while British Isles distillers had to fight harsh winters. The cost to pay those workers for decades have only grown over time. Those costs go into the bottle.
Another huge expense is more surprising. The longer a whiskey ages in a barrel, the more is lost to evaporation. Early into the lore of distilling, the term “angel’s share” was coined to describe that loss. Originally considered a problem, the resulting more refined final product came to be greatly appreciated among whiskey enthusiasts. It became such an accepted cost, producers began to have their accountants incorporate the anticipated dissipation into production budgets, which they do to this day, although large-scale companies like Diaego may be beating the issue. Regardless, the final product is more sublime and there’s much less of it. Is it all worth it? Older whiskeys tend to be smoother, less smoky and more honey-like. Anyone who has the opportunity to taste test these whiskey variables are urged to do so.
Whiskey Ratings Game
When experts and fans talk about whiskey ratings, it’s important to repeat a point already made many times: taste is subjective. The purpose of any decently-evaluated spirits review is not to tell a drinker what “good” is, but to guide the drinker to the whiskey they will like most.
Appreciation for whiskey goes back a long way. Records indicate that King James IV of Scotland was so in love with the sublime flavor of the good stuff, he actually granted a monopoly to the Guild of Surgeon Barber to ensure a steady supply would always be at hand. Believe it or not, it wasn’t just for the king’s drinking pleasure – whiskey was also used as an ingredient in gunpowder! By the late 19th century, flavor competitions were in full swing, with Old Bushmills winning the international spirits competition at the Paris 1889 Expo for “the only gold medal for whiskey.” Nowadays, whiskey competitions are everywhere, and professional tasters are busy every day writing about the never-ending varieties hitting the markets year after year. The idea is never to find the “best” of the bunch but to learn how each individual drinker can find their favorite.
Is a smokier, peaty Scotch one’s preference? A well-balanced reviewer will let readers know what the smoke factor is. How about when folks are in the mood for a mellow, sweeter sipping bourbon? Any passionate alcohol rater worth their salt will properly inform readers which bottles will satisfy those cravings. This certainly should not be taken to mean that there aren’t significant quality differences from distiller to distiller. Obviously, there are. What’s important when hunting for that perfect dram is for the drinker to become educated on the key terms professional writers on the subject will use. Common whiskey rating terms include wood, peat, smoke, mellow, smooth, vanilla, caramel, peppery and so forth.
At Last, the Glass
Anybody who tells us that it doesn’t matter what kind of glass we drink our whiskey from simply doesn’t understand what the whole whiskey experience is all about. We are here to tell you, it absolutely matters. Not only that, it matters depending on how exactly we are enjoying your whiskey. Shot glasses, for example, are meant for quick drinking, landing all the character squarely on the tongue. Snifters, on the other hand, offer wider mouths, allowing for the aromatics of whiskey to dance in our noses before we taste. Truly, there is an art to crafting a great whiskey glass.
But it wasn’t always that way. During the 16th century, whiskey was drunk out of a wooden cup, called a quaich. Wide and flat, it looked more like a bowl than it did a beverage vessel. This tradition lasted for hundreds of years until the 1800s, with the debut of the tumbler glass. It was quickly discovered that using glass actually enhanced the taste of the whiskey. At the same time, new techniques allowed glass-making on commercial scales, greatly cutting prices. This allowed tumblers to become ubiquitous throughout the world, forever changing how whiskey was enjoyed. Nowadays, there is an incredibly vast selection of glasses out there. We can learn about different materials and methods to choose the best receptacle for our highball drinks, slow-sipping bourbon or single-malt favorites.
If all that sounds too complicated, don’t worry. We fine folks here at WhiskeyGlasses.ca have our website set up for easy searching. We’re happy to guide you to the right whiskey glass for whatever the need. Browsing through our selection becomes the last part of your search through the history of whiskey before tasting the good stuff for yourself.