Scotch whisky spelling whiskey history single malt origins

Laphroaig - not for the faint of heart

"A spirituous liquor distilled from a fermented mash of grains (rye, barley, wheat, corn, etc.),
matured in wooden casks, usually for three years or more. Inferior grades are produced from
potatoes, beets, or other roots. Scotch whisky takes its dry, somewhat smoky flavour from
the barley malt, cured with peat, used in its preparation. The relatively similar Irish whiskey,
for which no peat is used, has a sweeter taste. American whiskeys are classified as rye or
bourbon. Canadian whiskey is produced from cereal grain only. First distilled in monasteries
in 11th century England, whisky has been produced commercially since the 16th century."

Well, it seems that your average dictionary writer doesn't get out much...
There's so much more to whisk(e)y than can be described in a single simple paragraph.
What's more - that last part about the origins of whisky might not be completely true...
When the first whisk(e)y was distilled is still being debated; probably in the 15th century.
The same is true for the actual birthplace of Uisge Beatha (= Gaelic for 'the water of life').
England seems rather unlikely; Ireland or Scotland are more obvious candidates.

(*) = Under the mistaken impression that these pages would be read only by intelligent beings, I felt like
cheering up the (sometimes slightly boring) theoretical information with a few fanciful (but not factual) stories.
I just assumed that everybody would be able to distinguish between cold, hard facts and my warped wit, but
then I received a message from a reader from South America who wanted to know if the book 'Distillation for
Fun & Profit
' was available as a facsimile edition or reprint. No it's not - because I made the whole thing up.
It was a 'colourful illustration' of the early days, if you will. The same goes for the 18th century photograph of
the distillery, by the way - photography wasn't actually invented at the time (and I think they still wore wigs).
So, I guess I'll have to try to keep my wit in check in the upcoming chapters if the guide...

Malt Madness is dedicated to one particular type of whisky; - and that would be Single Malt Scotch whisky, to be precise.
I'll get back to 'single' and 'malt' part in the next chapter - first I'd like to explain my (slight) preference for Scotch whisky.

Fortunately, they didn't have automobiles yet in 1494...
Instead, they used far more traditional methods of killing themselves and others - like alchemy and claymores.
So, let's pick up another hot potato - is there difference between whisky and whiskey?
When you check your English dictionary you'll find that the word 'whisk(e)y' is spelled in two ways; either with or without an 'e'. I'm not a linguist (so I don't know the proper phrase to describe this weird linguistic phenomenon), but let's call it 'the fluid E' for now. As far as I know, there's no logical explanation for this, but when a whisky is produced in Ireland or the USA, it's usually spelled with an 'e' as in 'whiskey' - otherwise (Scotland, Japan, France, Australia, India, Thailand, etc.) usually just as 'whisky'. Don't ask me why; it doesn't make sense to me either...
I guess it's just one of those inexplicable things in life one simply has to accept, like the popularity of rap music or spontaneous combustion. From now on I'll use 'whisky' as a group name that includes both whisky and whiskey.

Malt whisky production became sort of an 'industry' in eighteenth century Scotland.
Apart from fondling their sheep and shaving their legs, the farmers of Scotland had very
little entertainment in those dark days before the invention of the internet. Shortly after
the recipe for whisky was published in 'Distillation for Fun & Profit', the Scots had found
themselves a new hobby and dozens of distilleries were established within a decade. (*)

Nobody likes to pay taxes. Hiding high in the Highlands many Scots managed to elude the English tax collectors time after time. Only after the taxes were reduced following the Excise Act of 1823 most distilleries were legalised. Production practices gradually became more professional and the fame of the Scottish whisky slowly but surely spilled over the borders into England. Still, the whisky industry remained a largely local affair for many years.

OK, let's start with the basics. Your average dictionary might describe 'WHISK(E)Y' like:

Things changed considerably after a huge wine louse infection (Phylloxera)
in the 19th century wiped out the vineyards in France, and pretty much the
entire brandy industry along with it. The popularity of whisky grew quickly,
both in England and overseas. Scotch whisky production got another boost
during prohibition in the USA. Decades of legal distilling hadn't dulled the
Scottish smuggling instincts and they jumped into the American market.
When prohibition ended, 'Scotch' whisky had already earned its place in
the USA market. The fact that the word 'Scotch' is now synonymous for
whisky (at least in the USA) proves the incredible success of the Scots.
In fact, they're SO succesful that they're running out of barley...

The most popular theory has some Irish monks hopping across the Irish
Sea to Scotland (at the end of the first millennium) to spread the gospel
along with the secret of distillation among the barbarians. However, these
Irish monks didn't invent distillation itself; it was discovered by an Persian
scholar named Rhazes. (These days alcohol is frowned upon in the region.)

Laphroaig (depicted at the right) was the only Scotch whisky that could still be imported
and sold legally by apothecaries during the prohibition that plagued the US in the 1920's.
The reason was its medicinal taste. I guess the government officials who tried it couldn't
imagine anybody drinking the stuff out of their own free will -  it's not for the faint of heart.
To the best of my knowledge, Laphroaig was the only Scotch (!) whisky with a legal status
during the prohibition era. However, both Four Roses & Buffalo Trace (bourbon distilleries
from the US) had licenses to distill bourbon for medicinal purposes during those dark days.
Incidentally, the opnion of the medical community about whisky has changed since then...

These days, whisky is produced all over the world.
You can find whisk(e)y distilleries in Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Canada, the US, Australia,
New-Zealand, Denmark, Holland, Belgium, France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Sweden, Finland,
Spain, Turkey,  India, Pakistan, South Korea, Thailand, Japan, Taiwan, Uruguay, Brazil, Venezuela
and even South Africa. The focus of the 'Malt Madness' site is on Scotch (single malt) whisky, so
the Distillery Data section only contains information on +/- 100 malt whisky distilleries in Scotland.
Those of you interested in the (malt) spirits produced in other countries can find more details in
the Lex-icon on Malt Maniacs (distillery information) and the 'Deviant Drams' section (whiskies).

Whisky basics
Whisky Basics

Scotch whisky

Dr. Kraaijeveld wrote:
 The earliest record of
(...) a distilled spirit in
Ireland dates from the
early 15th century.

Whisky wisdom

Scotch whisky

Keep in mind that these
pages only reflect my
own, personal opinion.
You can find many other
opinions on MManiacs.

Scotch whisky

The earliest forms of whisky were  most likely distilled from ale or beer.

The earliest forms of whisky were
most likely distilled from ale or beer.
They were not matured in any way,
so in those early days it probably
tasted more like vodka than whisky.

Whisky wisdom


Barley is the only type of grain
used for the production of Scottish
and Irish single malt whisk(e)y.

Whisky wisdom

As this picture of a distillery in the 18th century proves,
the crews working the distilleries were about the same
size as they are today. But there have been important
innovations over the centuries. In the old days every
distillery employed its own dog to hunt cats (who were
believed to be pets for witches). When they discovered
that mice were actually more detrimental to profits than
witches the dogs were gradually replaced by cats.  (*)

Recommended Reading about whisky

Appreciating Whisky (Phillip Hills)
Malt Whisky Companion
(Michael Jackson)
Malt Whisky Yearbook 2009 (various writers)
Malt Whisky; A Liquid History (Charles Maclean)
Advanced Beginner's Guide (Johannes v/d Heuvel)

Scotch whisky

It's not because Irish or American whiskeys are 'inferior' in any way.
Actually, I've tasted a few that put most Scottish malts to shame. It's just a matter
of personal taste, really. Over the years I've come to taste some great American
'bourbon' and Irish whiskies, but few of them had the individuality and character
that I love in single malt whiskies. Individuality and character are not appreciated
by everybody though - as my limited social circle proves...
When I was younger (and dumber) I still thought that 'What is the best whisky?'
was a sensible question. I've since learned that it's not - at least not in terms of
some scientifically measurable way. However, there are flavour profiles and some
whiskies are more popular than others. If many peatheads love a certain bottling,
chances are that other peat lovers would appreciate that expression as well.

Barley - the basis for whisky
An 18th century distillery
The recently re-opened Kilbeggan distillery in Ireland

The earliest known Gaelic (the old language spoken in
Scotland and Ireland) records refer to malt whisky as
'Uisgebaugh'. This evolved over time to "Uisge Beatha",
related to the Latin phrase 'Aqua Vitae' (see the quote
at the right). Those among you with a proper education
should know that this translates as 'The Water of Life'.
And this is a good a place as any to point out that this
'water of life' can easily  turn into 'water of death' if you
combine drinking and driving in these modern times with
inventions like cars - so it would be best to avoid that...

Previous ChapterA Beginner's Guide to malt whisky - OverviewNext ChapterAdvanced Beginner's Guide on WhiskyA Beginner's Guide to malt whisky - OverviewAdvanced Beginner's Guide on Whisky

Scotch whisky

The alcohol percentage
(ABV) of Scotch whisky
has to be at least 40%.
This is a minimum ABV
set by British law.

Scotch whisky

But don't just take my word for the superiority of malt whisky. Why don't you make an informed decision by yourself? Just compare an Irish
or American whiskey (or perhaps even a grain whisky or a blended Scotch) to one or more of the Scottish single malts mentioned in chapter 7.
You won't be bored by the experience, I promise - provided you take your time and pay attention. If you've never tried a single malt whisky
before and your first encounter is with the Laphroaig 10 years old, you're in for a big surprise, and I can't guarantee it'll be a pleasant one.
You'll either love it or hate it, there's no 'middle of the road'. But wait a minute! We're getting ahead of ourselves once again...
We have nine more chapters to go. So, check out the next chapter on 'vocabulary' for the proper whisky language.

Whisky information

The earliest official record of whisky in Scotland
appears in the exchequer roll of 1494. Apparently,
King James IV liked whisky because he ordered
some from John Cor (possibly a part-time friar),
who needed "Eight Bolls of Malt to make aqua vitae".
Note: that whisky may not have been for drinking!
In those days it was used for alchemical & medicinal
purposes - and back then that wasn't an excuse yet.

Whisky wisdom

Whisky info

According to Dr. Alex R. Kraaijeveld of the University
of Southampton there is no contemporary evidence
for a relation between John Cor and Lindores Abbey
(or his friarship) as is suggested in various sources.
When I write this we haven't received a satisfactory
response from the Belgian Lindores Whisky Society.
But then again I suppose that these sorts of trivia
are of relatively minor importance to a 'beginner'.

Scotch info

I'll go into some other aspects of 'the fluid E' in the Advanced Beginner's Guide.
For example; fellow malt maniac Davin de Kergommeaux from Canada pointed out
that the 'decision' to spell Irish whiskey with an 'e' was actually made relatively
recently. That worked out because there was only one major player at the time.
It seems you can still buy bottles of Irish whisky (without the 'e') on eBay today.
Davin also pointed out that both spellings are still used in Canada and the US.
The focus of Malt Madness (and therefore of this Beginner's Guide) is mostly on
the MALT whisky from Scotland. The Advanced Beginner's Guide provides more
information about whiskies from other countries like Ireland, the USA and Japan.
But you can forget about those for now...

Scotch malt whisky guide

Scotch whisky information

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