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Whisky, Water of Life and a Religious Rite

The Secular Story of the Aqua Vitae

By the time Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, religious orders in Scotland and Ireland had established a burgeoning whisky industry. In Scotland in 1494 Friar John Cor received a shipment of malt, “wherewith to make aqua vitae.” While the monks used distillation to produce beverages for religious rites, Cor’s delivery was large enough to produce some 1,500 bottles, indicating that whisky distillation had already transcended the spiritual world and entered the secular.

Babylonians discovered distillation 4,000 years ago, using the process to concentrate natural essences for perfumes. Greeks left the first records of the process for consumptive purposes; they were making seawater potable through distillation by the first century A.D. As distillation made its way across Europe over the next 1,000 years, Celtic tribesmen and Christian clerics used it on their fermented grain beverages. Here is where whisky gets its name, a shortening, and adaption of “uisge beatha,” Gaelic for “water of life.”

Many monks turned their whisky distilling skills to make their living outside the church

Grain distillation in northern Europe remained the monks’ domain until King Henry VII dissolved Great Britain’s monasteries in the middle of the 16th century and James VI followed suit in Scotland two decades later. Many monks turned their whisky distilling skills to make their living outside the church. Equipment and methods improved, and the trade spread and flourished until taxation – long a scourge of the whisky industry for decades – nearly killed it in the early 1700s. The Act of Union, which brought England and Scotland together in 1707 initiated, even more, taxation on whisky distillers, and drove many to produce the spirit illegally, under cover of the night, hence the term “moonshine.”

During the last half of the century 200,000, Scots-Irish immigrated to America. Many settled inland, where they set up farmsteads. The American Revolution won, the fledgling government needed money. It imposed heavy taxes on grain and whiskey sales, which provoked the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794. President George Washington put down the uprising, establishing federal authority. Westward migration continued into Kentucky; Settlers found the fertile soil and limestone-filtered water perfect for growing corn and distilling whiskey.

The phylloxera outbreak in Europe opened the door to Scotch Whiskey

The United Kingdom relaxed taxation in 1823. A rush of whisky distillation followed. The invention of a “continuous” still, which made increased production and improved quality, and the perfecting of grain and blended whiskies came just in time to meet growing demand throughout Europe. The phylloxera outbreak in Europe very soon would devastate France’s wine, cognac, and armagnac vineyards, opening the door to Scotch whiskey.

At the same time, America’s whiskey industry also was thriving. By mid-century Bourbon, makers were aging their product in new, charred oak casks to give them the color, aroma, and smoky flavor we associate with whiskey.

The progressive era in the United States brought the prohibition of intoxicating spirits. Prohibition (1920-1933) outlawed the production, and many whiskey distilleries went out of business. But like the regulation in the UK 200 years earlier, Prohibition catalyzed an important bootlegging industry. Speakeasies, Appalachian moonshiners, and larger-than-life gangsters such as Al Capone operated with seeming impunity. The ban also increased the popularity of hard liquor such as whiskey, gave saloons an exclusive, glamorous reputation, and introduced drinking culture to young women.

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