Whiskey history is a long, adventurous story, and many brave people fought to keep the drink flowing along the way. Fittingly, some exact dates were forgotten (whiskey was involved, after all), but this timeline will help you grasp the basics and understand its origin; who played key roles in the history of distilling, how whiskey came to be, how it evolved to be the whiskey / bourbon / rye / scotch we know today, and some fun little annals of history.
The History of Whiskey
Arguably, the art of distillation was founded in ancient Mesopotamia (the modern day equivalent is an area covering parts of Iraq and Syria), often used as a way to produce perfumes and aromatics.
Here we find the first written record of distilling. Ancient Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias describes the process of taking sea water and distilling it into pure drinking water. Medieval civilizations evolved their techniques over the following centuries, although still not resulting in alcohol.
Knowledge of distillation spread to Europe along with the traveling Moors of the early first millennia. The process is picked up by those in the Christian religion, using it to produce ingredients for various ceremonies, and also medicines for colic, palsy and smallpox.
The origin of whiskey began over 1000 year ago when distillation made the migration from mainland Europe into Scotland and Ireland via traveling monks. The Scottish and Irish monasteries, lacking the vineyards and grapes of the continent, turn to fermenting grain mash, resulting in the first distillations of modern whisky.
Around this time, the earliest records of alcohol distillation appear in Italy, with it being distilled from wine. The technique was recounted by Ramon Llull (1232 – 1315).
The first written record of ‘whisky’ appears in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where is was written that the head of a clan died after “taking a surfeit [excessive amount] of aqua vitae” at Christmas.
By this time, the distilling of whisky in Scotland is fully underway, as evident by a record in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 where King James IV of Scotland granted a large amount of malt “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae.”
The production of whisky shifted to the general public, after King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, making a large number of monks independent and looking for new ways to make a living. Distillation was it.
As the European colonists began to arrive in America, they brought with them the practice of distilling whiskey. Many Scottish and Irish immigrants settled in their new territories, eventually beginning to distill their new types of grains and mash.
The Old Bushmills Distillery is licensed in Northern Ireland, and today holds the title of oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world.
The Acts of Union resulted in the merging of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, creating Great Britain, and in the following years, taxes rose dramatically. The English Malt Tax of 1725 seriously threatened the production of whisky, and led the majority of Scottish distilleries to head underground and begin production at night, giving whisky one if its finest nicknames, “moonshine.”
After many years of producing their own whiskey, and seeing its value to the general population, distillers often used whiskey as a currency during the American Revolutionary War.
The first commercial distillery is founded in Louisville, Kentucky on the banks of the Ohio River by Evan Williams.
A new excise was introduced to help fund debt from the Revolutionary War. Import duties were already high, and so an excise tax on domestically produced distilled spirits was levied – the first of it’s kind by the new national government. Although the tax applied to distilled spirits of any kind, whiskey was the most popular, and so the excise became commonly known as the “Whiskey Tax.”
The ensuing unrest between grain farmers and the US government was soon dubbed the “Whiskey Rebellion“. Farmers were used to distilling their surplus grains into whiskey and a united protest gathered speed, particularly in the western counties of Pennsylvania where federal officials were intimidated in order to deny collection of the tax.
The rebellion came to a turning point in July 1794 when the home of tax inspector General John Neville was attacked by nearly 600 armed men. President Washington responded by sending in a militia force of around 13,000 to march west and meet any resistance with force. The rebels disbanded before their arrival, key leaders fled to safety, and the mass protesting came to an end.
While the physical rebellion halted, opposition to the Whiskey Tax continued, and became a significant issue in following political elections. The newly formed Democratic-Republican Party, led by Thomas Jefferson, would pledge to repeal the tax if voted into power, and when Jefferson took office in 1801, he did just that.
A certain Scottish grocer named John Walker began producing his own whisky, which would become one of the most famous and most widely distributed brands of Scotch whisky in the world. John Walker himself, was a teetotaler.
The United Kingdom brought “moonshine” production to an end, when they gave Scottish distilleries an option to legalize their operations by paying a fee.
The process that is sour mash was developed by Dr. James C. Crow at what is now the Woodford Reserve Distillery in Kentucky. In the process, an amount of spent mash is added to a new mash, and the balance of acid and live yeast that is contained controls the growth of foreign bacteria, improving consistency between batches so that every bottle is as close to the previous as possible. This revolutionized the way in which bourbon is made, and is also a current legal requirement when producing Tennessee whiskey.
After inventing a “continuous still” and improving the technology involved in distillation, Irish inventor Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still, allowing manufacturers to produce whiskey more efficiently, and at a lower cost.
Old Bourbon County had been producing “Old Bourbon County Whiskey” for some years; the name was used to differentiate it from other whiskeys because Old Bourbon was the first corn whiskey that most people had come across. It wasn’t until 1840 that it was officially given the name Bourbon, when a distiller by the name of Jacob Spears was the first to label his product as “Bourbon whiskey.“
The first blended whisky comes into production. Andrew Usher mixed traditional pot still whiskey with that of a new batch produced in a Coffey still. Usher met stubborn resistance from traditional Irish distillers, many of whom claimed that this new blend was not whisky at all. Still, his company became the first to produce and mass-market a bottled blended scotch, and even became a popular import in the U.S. after finding distribution with Nicholas & Co. in 1853.
For 13 years, the American Prohibition era banned all production, sale, and use of alcohol. However, the federal government made an exception: the prescription of medicinal whiskey from a doctor, to be sold through a licensed pharmacy. (During this same timeframe, the pharmacy chain Walgreens used this to their advantage, growing from 20 stores to nearly 400.)
Bourbon really hit the big time, as American Congress declared bourbon whiskey the country’s official distilled spirit. They also laid out the specific regulations that are to be met in order to label a whiskey as bourbon. (For more details, read the What is Bourbon? section of our whiskey introduction.)
The American Whiskey Trail is launched to promote many of the historical sites and operating distilleries in Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York.
Related reading: ‘An Introduction to Whiskey’.