Thursday, October 4, 2018

Whisky or whiskey? : A brief history

Whisky (or whiskey) derives from the Gaelic word uisce/uisge meaning water. Distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae ("water of life") and translated in Scottish Gaelic to: uisge beatha "lively water" or "water of life". Whiskey is made from fermented grain mash. Various grains (which may be malted) are used for different varieties, including barley, corn (maize), rye, and wheat. Whisky is typically aged in wooden casks, generally made of charred white oak. Whisky is a strictly regulated spirit worldwide with many classes and types. "Scotch" is the internationally recognized term for "Scotch whisky" and "whiskey" was invented by Irish distillers to distinguish their wares from the sub-standard Scotch whisky.

Distillation of alcohol had its origins in 13th century Italy, where alcohol was distilled from wine. Its use spread through medieval monasteries largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic and smallpox. The Scots and Irish started distilling the spirit alcohol primarily from barley due to the absence of grapes for medicinal purposes. The first confirmed written record of whisky in Ireland comes from 1405, in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, which attributes the death of a chieftain to "taking a surfeit of aqua vitae" at Christmas. In Scotland, the first evidence of whisky production comes from an entry in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent "…eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae’. A boll was an old Scottish measure of not more than six bushels. (One bushel is equivalent to 25.4 kilograms). This was enough to make about 500 bottles.

Outside the monasteries the Guild of Surgeon Barbers held the monopoly on production but when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries between 1536 and 1541, whisky production moved into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money. Then whisky was not allowed to age and tasted very raw and brutal. It was taken undiluted and was very potent. Whisky was very much a poor man's drink.

In 1295 Scottish merchants started to import Bordeaux's finest wines from France and claret became the national drink of Scotland. The Auld Alliance was built on Scotland and France’s shared need to curtail English expansion. Primarily it was a military and diplomatic alliance but for most of the population it brought tangible benefits through pay as mercenaries in France’s armies and the pick of finest French wines. The Auld Alliance made sure the trade between France e and Scotland was robust and when England was at war with France and the import of claret to that country banned the Border Scots made a good living smuggling supplies into northern England. French wine was landed on Wine Quay of Leith and rolled up the streets to the merchants’ cellars behind the water front.

‘To drink withe ws the new fresche wyne
That grew apone the revar Ryne,
Fresche fragrant claretis out of France,
Off Angeo and of Orliance,’

William Dunbar extolled the selections of wine to be found in Edinburgh to King James IV (1473 – 1513).

The Auld Alliance was no longer feasible between Protestant Scotland and Catholic France after the Reformation but the trade in Claret continued. As late as the 1670s, Scots merchants were still going to Bordeaux to get their first choice of wine. Even after the Union of Parliaments with England in 1707, Scots continued to smuggle Claret into Scotland to avoid taxes. Scots of all persuasions, Jacobite or Hanoverian drank Claret in preference to patriotic Port especially when toasting the exiled Stuart kings as ‘the King over the water’. When in 1880s, the French crop of grapes was devastated by the phylloxera pest whisky became the primary liquor in many markets.

The first license to distil whisky was granted in Ireland in 1608, to the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland . The first reference to distilling in a private house in the parish of Gamrie in Banffshire came in 1614. According to the Register of the Privy Council a man was accused of house breaking combined with assault. It is recorded he knocked over some ‘aquavitie’. The Excise Act fixing the duty at 2/8d (13p) per pint (one third of a gallon) of aquavitae or other strong liquor was passed by the Scots Parliament in 1644. For the remainder of the 17th century various alterations were made to the types and amounts of duty collected. The earliest reference to a distillery in the Acts of the Scottish Parliament appears to be in 1690, when mention is made of the famous Ferintosh distillery owned by Duncan Forbes of Culloden.

In Ireland a law was passed (1661) which forced distillers to pay tax on spirits produced for private consumption. The law was difficult to enforce and a further bill was passed in 1760 to make it illegal to operate a still without a license. Illegal stills were set up in rural areas and people started making poitín (put-cheen) distilled in small copper pots from a mash of malted barley. Later corn, treacle, sugar beet, potatoes or whey was also used as a wash to ferment before distillation. The still was heated by peat fires and attended to for several days to allow the runs to go through. The quality of poitín was highly variable, depending on the skill of the distiller and the quality of his equipment.

After the Union of the Parliaments in 1707, English revenue staff (excisemen) crossed the border to bring whisky production under control. The excise laws were so confused no two distilleries were taxed at the same rate. When the new Malt Tax was introduced in 1725 it forced whisky distillation underground. Illicit distilling flourished and the highland distillers worked under the cover of darkness to hide the smoke. Rough whisky was known as moonshine and it was estimated over half of Scotland's whisky output was illegal. Illegal trade in whisky and smuggling over the border became common.

Whisky proved popular and spread throughout the colonies and during the American Revolution; George Washington operated a large distillery at Mount Vernon. Colonial farmers found it easier and more profitable to convert corn to whisky before transporting it to market. After the American Revolutionary War an additional excise tax was levied in 1791. The new excise on America’s popular drink was to help fund war debt incurred during the American Revolutionary War. The "whiskey tax" was the first tax imposed on a domestic product by the newly formed federal government and triggered the Whiskey Rebellion. Protesters used violence and intimidation to prevent federal officials from collecting the tax. Even after resistance was quelled the whiskey excise remained difficult to collect and was eventually repealed in 1801. From 1823 whisky in the US was called Bourbon.

The legalization of whisky production in Scotland came when the British government introduced the Excise Act in 1823. A new vigour for whisky making saw a wave of technical innovation including the "continuous still. " Brewers could now produce whisky much faster as well as make the drink of higher quality. By 1850 some whisky makers were experimenting with mixing traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still (continuous still). The new distillation method or blending was scoffed at by some Irish distillers, who clung to their traditional pot stills. Scott Andrew Usher is credited with successfully perfecting blended whisky. The introduction of new train routes in the 19th century opened access to the farthest corners of Scotland. Rural farms with distillation as a sideline became economically independent companies and their malt whisky could be easily transported into the cities. Blending became more common practice and the industry boomed. Important blended whisky brands such as Dewar's and Haig emerged. Single malt whisky led a shadowy existence and was only appreciated by the Scots themselves and as 'spice' for the blended whiskies, which were meanwhile sold worldwide.

Malt whiskies were the taste-defining ingredient of the blends and the new corporations became dependent on the supply of malt whiskies. Principal whisky producing areas include Speyside and the Isle of Islay. The big success of the blended whiskies made the corporations grow until 1914. World War I (1914-1918) led to a drastic decline of the whisky production. This led to serious problems for the whisky companies. High debt and distillery closures followed until the recovery came with the end of prohibition in 1933. Britain paid its war debts to the USA in whisky. During this time Distiller’s Company Ltd. took over many companies and distilleries.

Whisky exports went all over the world but the bulk was destined for the USA and when Prohibition was introduced in North America (1920 - 1933) distilleries in the US become illegal. Public pressure forced the US government to ban sale, manufacturing, and transportation of alcohol. Only a limited production of religious wines and medicinal whisky was allowed to remain. In the US the illegal booze trade was dominated by developing bootlegger gangs who smuggled illicit supplies from Canada and elsewhere. City and town speakeasies supplied an eager audience with Scotch and Irish whiskey.

Whisky was made in a pot still. For batch distillation heat is applied directly to the pot containing the wash. During distillation the vapour contains more alcohol than the liquid. When the vapours are condensed, the resulting liquid contains a higher concentration of alcohol. In the pot still, the alcohol and water vapour combine with esters and flow from the still through the condensing coil. There they condense into the first distillation liquid, the so-called "low wines". The low wines have strength of about 25–35% alcohol by volume, and flow into a second still. It is then distilled a second time to produce the colourless spirit, collected at about 70% alcohol by volume. The distinctive smoky flavour found in various types of whisky, especially Scotch, is due to the use of peat smoke to treat the malt. Colour is added through maturation in an oak aging barrel, and develops over time. A still for making whisky is usually made of copper, which removes sulfur-based compounds from the alcohol that would make it unpleasant to drink. Modern stills are made of stainless steel with copper piping and plate inlays along still walls. Scotch whiskies are generally distilled twice, although some are distilled a third time and others even up to twenty times. Scotch Whisky Regulations require anything bearing the label "Scotch" to be distilled in Scotland and matured for a minimum of three years in oak casks, among other, more specific criteria. Any age statement on the bottle, in the form of a number, must reflect the age of the youngest Scotch whisky used to produce that product. A whisky with an age statement is known as guaranteed age whisky. Scotch whisky without an age statement may, by law, be as young as three years old.

Like wine whisky changes its chemical makeup and taste as it matures in wood. Whiskies are matured in the cask additional aging in a barrel after a decade or two, does not necessarily improve a whisky. Cask-strength whisky can have as much as twice the alcohol percentage sold over the counter i.e. alcoholic strength of 40% abv.

The basic types of Scotch are malt and grain, which are combined to create blends. Scotch malt whiskies are divided into five main regions: Highland, Lowland, Islay, Speyside and Campbeltown.

A Single malt whisky is whisky from a single distillery made from a mash that uses only one particular malted grain. Unless the whisky is described as single-cask, it contains whisky from many casks, and different years, so the blender can achieve a taste recognisable as typical of the distillery.

Blended malt whisky is a mixture of single malt whiskies from different distilleries. If a whisky is labeled "pure malt" or just "malt" it is almost certainly a blended malt whisky. This was formerly called a "vatted malt" whisky.

Blended whisky is made from a mixture of different types of whisky. A blend may contain whisky from many distilleries so that the blender can produce a flavour consistent with the brand. The brand name may, therefore, omit the name of a distillery. Most Scotch, Irish and Canadian whisky is sold as part of a blend, even when the spirits are the product of one distillery.

After the Second World War more companies merged or were taken over as the demand for spirits increased. More international interest saw bigger take-overs but unlike other drinks the importance of country of origin was steadfast for whisky. While the billion dollar corporations used their cost advantages in distribution, smaller whisky companies made their profit with valuable special bottlings. The continued popularity of malt whisky opened up new possibilities for small companies. Privately-owned distilleries survived and develop. Popularity of whisky continues to grow with each passing year, and in 2009 Scottish brewers managed to export record breaking 1.1 billion bottles of whisky to the customers around the world. The Scotch whisky industry boosted the value of its exports in 2011 to a record £4.2bn. Brazil was the fastest growing market, recording an increase over 2010 of 48%, with Singapore and Taiwan close behind on 44% each. In 2014 Scotch whisky exports fell for the first time in a decade, declining by 7% to £3.9bn.

Barnard A 2008 The Whisky Distilleries of the United Kingdom
Holt M. P 2006 Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History

(Video Courtesy: WalrusWatch Published by Youtube Channel)

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