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A Gentleman’s History of Whiskey

Whiskey

The long and storied history of Whiskey is lovingly intertwined for better or for worse with the overarching story of western civilization from the first record of whisky documented in Scotland in 1494 to the present day. Kings ordered ‘aquavitae’ from abbeys and monasteries and later strove in vain to control and tax its production (a challenge to governments still today). Settlers carried the distilling methods to the new world and used their skills to spawn all new spirits and forge the parallel path of American Whiskey production.

According to AmericanWhiskeyTrail, farmers had a choice of what to do with their grain,

“Let it mold and rot, or change its form as the ancient alchemists did and produce the “water of life.” (The word “whisky” is derived from the Gaelic word uisgebaugh, [WEEZ-ga-bochh] meaning “water of life.” If you say the word quickly enough–or with a substantial quantity of whiskey in your system–it becomes, with a little shortening, “WEEZ-ga,” a word that was Anglicized to become “whisky.”)”

The Blurred Historic Origins of Whiskey

Whiskey

The origin of whisky, as it is known in the UK or Canada or whiskey as we spell it in the United States and Ireland is murky at best. But the oldest records indicate that it was in 1494 documentation that whisky or ‘aquavitae’ was first mentioned in Scotland. According to most sources, this was at the now ruined LIndores Abbey.

Whisky.com writes,

 “It’s known as the birthplace of whisky and it can be traced back to 1494. It is the oldest noted evidence of distilling. Back in 1494 distilling was mostly used to produce perfume or alchemist substances. As the distilling business was not established in Scotland you didn’t need a licence or have to pay taxes on the alcohol produced. For the documented history this was a bad thing as every farmer could just produce whisky without documenting it.

There are many documents about Lindores Abbey. First of all they needed to buy malt and had to pay duty on it. Secondly and this is the official recorded fact is that King James IV ordered aquavitae from the abbey in a royal commission. The original wording was

“To Friar John Cor, by order of the King, VIII bolls of malt, wherewith to make acqua vitae”.

The boll is an old Scottish unit and varied a lot during the time. Also it could be used to count bushels of wheat barley and measure volumes. So it is very unclear how large the order by the King was but we can assume that the distillery was very, very small compared to the distilleries we have today.”

As the Catholic Church fell out of favor with the Crown, the Abbey was torn down in 1559, and naturally, any books, equipment (or recipes) were destroyed as heresy. The secrets of Lindores  Abbey were regrettably lost to the ages.

Scotland And Ireland Define The Early History Of Whiskey

The Bushmills distillery was the first documented distillery in Ireland entering records in 1608 where the first known whiskey license was granted to Sir Thomas Phillips, a landowner in Bushmills, Co. Antrim. The Old Bushmills Distillery wasn’t officially registered for trade until 1784 though according to Ireland On A Budget, which made the Kilbeggan Distillery in County Westmeath the officially oldest whiskey distillery in Ireland, registered in 1757. So the “oldest licensed” whiskey or the “oldest registered” whiskey, both are in Ireland.

Forbes wrote that “Officially the three oldest distilleries in Scotland are Glenturret (1775), Bowmore (1779) and Strathisla (1786). All three have operated from the same location since being founded. Glenturret and Bowmore have both gone through periods when they were closed. Strathisla, on the other hand, is one of the few distilleries that has operated continuously since its founding.” And it’s probably the one with the slickest marketing, check out their “virtual tour”.

Whiskey Comes To America

The impact of whiskey on the history of the United States of America is difficult to overstate. American Whiskey Trail concluded in their research that the earliest likely distillation of corn and rye to make liquor, thereby being likely a Whiskey of some form was by Staten Island’s Wilhelm Hendriksen, master distiller to William Kieft, Director-General of the Dutch New Netherland Colony, at New Amsterdam, present-day New York City.

They wrote,

“In 1640, William Kieft, the Director-General of the New Netherland Colony, decided that liquor should be distilled on Staten Island. His master distiller, Wilhelm Hendriksen, is said to have used corn and rye to make liquor, and since the Dutch didn’t develop a formula for gin until 10 or so years later, he must have been making some form of whiskey.”

Through the latter half of the 15th century and into the early 1700s, as British Colonists came to America, they brought the Scottish and Irish with them, and along with the Scottish and Irish came the ‘uisge’, the whiskey. However, the vast majority of whiskey production was limited to “farmer-distillers” who essentially produced the spirits for themselves, and their family, friends, and neighbors.

As the British colonies continued to grow and become more populous and French influence gradually receded through war, a far easier liquor to produce with much cheaper ingredients took prominence and still commands a large market to this day: just distill sugar cane and molasses and you get? Rum.. this wouldn’t change until the Stars and Stripes replaced the Union Jack.

WhiskeyGristMill

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, given that the father of the United States, General and later President George Washington was a farmer, well versed in distilling liquor since the 1770s was urged by his farm manager James Anderson in 1797 to plant rye and distill whiskey. The Mount Vernon distillery soon produced 600 gallons of George Washington’s Rye Whiskey by 1799 when America’s first President went to his much deserved good rest, his distillery had churned out 11,000 gallons, making it the largest distillery in The United States.

There is a certain historic irony to that when you consider that in January of 1791 it was Washington’s Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton who levied an excise tax which spurred the first armed rebellion in the young nation’s history: The Whiskey Rebellion of 1794 which forced the President himself to lead a 13,000 strong militia into western Pennsylvania to put down the insurrection of James McFarlane and his 600 rebels. The Whiskey Rebellion is deserving of a story all its’ own and will have one here in time.

“The benefits arising from the moderate use of strong liquor have been experienced in all armies and are not to be disputed.” -George Washington

Whiskey And The South- The Birth of Bourbon

About two decades before the Whiskey Rebellion, a curious effect of settling law was occurring in what would become the state of Kentucky. At this time it was Kentucky County, Virginia, and a new law known as “corn patch and cabin rights,” was set down by Virginia General Assembly. And like the mighty Ohio River, the Scotsmen and Irish came rolling in.
While the Rebellion was being put down in Western Pennsylvania, many of the farmers seeking to escape their tax debts and the militia-men who found little humor in their having to march all the way to Pittsburg from New York, New Jersey, and Virginia added to the number of distillers in Kentucky who were growing accustomed to not only using rye, but barley and corn in small amounts to give their whiskey it’s distinct Kentucky flavor.

Distilledspirits.org explained,

“When the Pennsylvanians arrived in Kentucky, they were met by other masters of the still who had preceded them by a couple of decades and started some new whiskey-making traditions. Since 1776, when corn cultivation in the area had been encouraged by Virginia’s “corn patch and cabin rights,” the pioneers had found that, not only was corn a relatively easy grain to cultivate, but it also made a distinctive style of whiskey. Kentucky whiskey was somewhat lighter than the rye whiskey from the East, and it was a product they could call their own.”

It was around this time in the late 1700s that some of the greatest names in American Bourbon Whiskey became known. Like Robert Samuels who would give us Maker’s Mark and the eldest operating bourbon distillery in the world at Burks Distillery opening in 1773. Elijah Pepper would create James E. Pepper and Old Crow Bourbons. Jacob Beam would barrel his first Jim Beam bourbon in 1795 and Basil Hayden would start pouring Old Grand-Dad around that same time. Old Forrester and W.L. Weller Bourbons popped up within a few years of each other from the Brown Family and Daniel Weller respectively. Of course, no list would be complete without a mention of Jack Daniel’s Distillery “the oldest registered distillery in the USA” clinging to the distinction not unlike Old Bushmills and Kilbeggan in Ireland.

After the Louisiana purchase opened up new roads west and the Mississippi River was carrying Kentucky and even Tennessee Whiskey down its’ broad shoulders to Bourbon Street in New Orleans it seemed as though the sky was the limit. Bourbon was beginning to edge out Rum for affordability the further Americans moved from the coast, and something else was coming too. Rum was a critical leg in the Atlantic Triangle slave trade, one which was being shut down by the British and the United States was veering closer to Civil War both of which would end the supremacy of Rum in America, as a battered people turned to Whiskey for solace.

In the early days of the 19th century, a boon would come in the form of another well-beloved founding father: President Thomas Jefferson who would repeal the excise taxes on whiskey which once triggered a rebellion. Whiskey wouldn’t be consistently taxed again until the Civil War was underway in 1862.

Whiskey And Incivility: The American Civil War

As the War Between the States touched off, the immediate effect on the whiskey industry was catastrophic. The Confederate authorities, painfully aware of the Union Blockade had launched prohibition to conserve stocks of grain, at least that’s what they told people. According to BourbonVeach

“The real reason for Prohibition was that the government needed the copper from the stills to make war materiel. Everything from brass buttons for uniforms to brass cannons needed copper to make so if you owned a still, the government came and took it to make war supplies.”

Either way, it was illegal to distill whiskey or brandy in the South. In the Union the distilleries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and Maryland fared little better, President Jefferson’s repeal of the whiskey excise was as dead as he was and President Lincoln needed money for the war. The guns of the South fell silent 156 years ago, and we’re still paying that very same tax today.

However, the war had an unexpected side-effect. The drink of choice since the collapse of Rum’s hold on the marketplace was Rye in the North. As those soldiers advanced deeper into Confederate territory, they developed a taste for the local Bourbon. That market brought capital into the post-war, reconstruction-era South, distilleries modernized with towering column stills and vast warehouses. It was now a full-time, fast-paced industry. The old farmer-distillers held on, but only barely until the days of Prohibition finally finished them off.

The days of small-pot distillation and a rainbow of different colors and flavors of rich American whiskey were swept away like the ashes from a burned barrel. Only a handful of Whiskey distilleries hold onto the old ways in America today, the situation in the UK and Ireland is regrettably quite similar.

However, here in the U.S., we are seeing something of a Whiskey Renaissance. The Garrison Brothers have brought the first true bourbon distillery into Texas, and in 2013 Glenn’s Creek Distillery purchased and re-opened the legendary Old Crow Distillery which had been abandoned for thirty years and has worked to research the history of Old Crow Bourbon, the recipe of which was lost with its’ creators death in 1856. David Meier, the owner of Glenn’s Creek “recreated a new bourbon produced in the style of Dr. Crow; something that Dr. Crow would drink and approve of.” New distilleries are opening up all the time in fact, some are pioneering new ways to achieve new flavor combinations while others delve deep into the past to rediscover something long thought lost.

The best way to experience this history of whiskey though is a time-honored one: one sip, one shot, or one dram at a time.

What do you think?

Written by Matt Holloway

Matt Holloway is a millennial, constitutional, conservative commentator and writer covering the Phoenix area market. Matt covers politics, faith, history, and news. A thirty-five-year-old happily married father of four: Matt was raised in New Jersey and moved to Arizona in 06'. Matt has written for TheBlaze, Patriot United News, The GOP Times and GOP Newsfeed in addition to hosting a weekly Talk Radio Show The #HollowNet on the MoJo5.0 Radio Network. When he's not writing, working, or spending time with his family, Matt enjoys PC Gaming, Science Fiction, and YouTube. He loves a good dram of Whiskey (current favorites are Maker's Mark 101 and Tullamore D.E.W. 12 Year Special Reserve) a stout Coffee (American Pride Roasters) and a nice Cigar (piratecigar.com)

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