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The Foodie: Whiskey’s Past and Present

December 21, 2009
by Christopher Coats
Warm, earthy and comforting, whiskey has evolved over centuries from its monastic roots to become one of the world’s most varied and consumed spirits.

Ireland’s “Water of Life”

Picturing the rolling green hills of 5th century Ireland, isolated and bone-chillingly cold in the winter months, it’s not hard to imagine a concoction like whiskey emerging from either desire or necessity.

Although the actual birthplace of the famous spirit remains a mystery, its first appearance in recorded history comes from these hills, created by monks who had traveled far and wide, collecting the science necessary to create such a drink.

Legend tells of St. Patrick sailing to France and Spain, where he witnessed Arab alchemists applying the practice of distillation to grapes, herbs and spices to create wine and perfume. Bringing the art back to his homeland, St. Patrick was faced with a lack of native grapes, so he turned his attention to what Ireland had no shortage of—barley.

The distilled malted barley, blended with the clean, cold water of Ireland, soon became a medical staple of the island, spreading eastward to Scotland as monks helped spread Christianity, calling the wonderful new spirit the “Water of Life.”

Heralded for its therapeutic effects, whiskey was soon mass-produced by the Guild of Surgeon Barbers in Edinburgh, who had been granted exclusive rights to distill.

Using their own scientific background to produce a cleaner, easier to drink version of malted barely, the Guild produced what became a drink of noble and upperclassmen.

After 200 years of perfecting the spirit, English taxation almost broke the back of the whiskey market in Scotland, by pressuring distilleries with increased rates on malt and production costs.

The taxes forced whiskey producers underground for the first, but certainly not the last time.

Whiskey in History

Having spread to the United States, whiskey production came under fire in the late 1700s following taxation aimed specifically at the spirit, meant to both curb drunkenness and increase tax revenue.

After forcing farmers and distillers to hide their efforts, the taxes resulted in what author and professor Thomas Slaughter called, “The single largest armed confrontation among American citizens between the Revolution and the Civil War.”

The Whiskey Rebellion
pitted farmers and producers in Western Pennsylvania against the government in a battle of taxation and violence.

This pressure had a long-lasting effect on whiskey production in America, as farmers retreated from view, creating a local version in secret using the far more plentiful and affordable corn. This Americanized version is much more similar to our contemporary version of domestic whiskey than anything produced in the Scottish Highlands.

Back in Europe, the production of the spirit waned under the pressure of increased taxation and was saved not by violence or overcoming England’s oppressive taxes, but thanks to the destructive power of an insect.

In the late 1880’s France and much of central of Europe was invaded by the phylloxera beetle, an insect that destroyed years of wine and brandy and sent much of the continent off in search of a replacement spirit.

Coupled with the innovation of a longer distillation process, allowing for smoother, more widely accepted mixed or grain versions of the drink, the phylloxera beetle invasion spurred the beginning of a worldwide acceptance of whiskey.

In the more than two centuries since, the smooth, light brown spirit has traveled far and wide, adapted by local communities to fit both their environments and tastes, just as Irish monks had once replaced grapes with barely.

Today, regional versions of whiskey abound, most notably in the American south, the mountains of Canada, as well as emerging labels in Wales and Japan.

These many different versions vary in taste, texture and punch, using corn, barely and grains, but all follow the basic premise of the spirit’s birthplace—distilling the mixture and aging it for a more vibrant and stronger taste.

Enjoying Whiskey

The University of Queensland Physics Department provides a quick tutorial of essentials for deciphering the difference between the various types of whiskey produced around the world. The Department’s “Shrine to Spirits” also provides key points about a variety of liquors.

Malthouse walks you through the process of creating a bottle of whiskey, from beginning to end, explaining the science and patience behind the spirit, while the Scotch-Whiskey Web site provides online tutorials and instructions for home tastings.

For those who want to go beyond the online, educational experience, the aptly titled provides an updated calendar of events around the world, including tastings, conferences and educational seminars for all types of whiskies and drinkers.

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