It is possible that distillation was practised by the Babylonians in Mesopotamia in the 2nd millennium BC, with perfumes and aromatics being distilled, but this is subject to uncertain and disputed interpretation of evidence. The earliest certain chemical distillations were by Greeks in Alexandria in the 1st century AD, but these were not distillations of alcohol. The medieval Arabs adopted the distillation technique of the Alexandrian Greeks, and written records in Arabic begin in the 9th century, but again these were not distillations of alcohol. Distilling technology passed from the medieval Arabs to the medieval Latins, with the earliest records in Latin in the early 12th century. The earliest records of the distillation of alcohol are in Italy in the 13th century, where alcohol was distilled from wine. An early description of the technique was given by Ramon Llull (1232 – 1315). Its use spread through medieval monasteries, largely for medicinal purposes, such as the treatment of colic and smallpox.
The art of distillation spread to Ireland and Scotland no later than the 15th century, as did the common European practice of distilling ‘Aqua Vitae’ or spirit alcohol primarily for medicinal purposes. The practice of medicinal distillation eventually passed from a monastic setting to the secular via professional medical practitioners of the time, The Guild of Surgeon Barbers. 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 Exchequer Rolls for 1494 where malt is sent “To Friar John Cor, by order of the king, to make aquavitae”, enough to make about 500 bottles.
James IV of Scotland (r. 1488–1513) reportedly had a great liking for Scotch whisky, and in 1506 the town of Dundee purchased a large amount of whisky from the Guild of Surgeon Barbers, which held the monopoly on production at the time. Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII of England dissolved the monasteries, sending their monks out into the general public. Whisky production moved out of a monastic setting and into personal homes and farms as newly independent monks needed to find a way to earn money for themselves.
The distillation process was still in its infancy; whisky itself was not allowed to age, and as a result tasted very raw and brutal compared to today’s versions. Renaissance-era whisky was also very potent and not diluted. Over time whisky evolved into a much smoother drink.
With a licence to distil Irish whiskey from 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland is the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world.
In 1707, the Acts of Union merged England and Scotland, and thereafter taxes on it rose dramatically.
After the English Malt Tax of 1725, most of Scotland’s distillation was either shut down or forced underground. Scotch whisky was hidden under altars, in coffins, and in any available space to avoid the governmental excisemen or revenuers. Scottish distillers, operating out of homemade stills, took to distilling whisky at night when the darkness hid the smoke from the stills. For this reason, the drink became known as moonshine. At one point, it was estimated that over half of Scotland’s whisky output was illegal.
In America, whisky was used as currency during the American Revolution; George Washington operated a large distillery at Mount Vernon. Given the distances and primitive transportation network of colonial America, farmers often found it easier and more profitable to convert corn to whisky and transport it to market in that form. It also was a highly coveted sundry and when an additional excise tax was levied against it, the Whiskey Rebellion erupted in 1791.
The drinking of Scotch whisky was introduced to India in the nineteenth century. The first distillery in India was built by Edward Dyer at Kasauli in the late 1820s. The operation was soon shifted to nearby Solan (close to the British summer capital Shimla), as there was an abundant supply of fresh spring water there.
In 1823, the UK passed the Excise Act, legalizing the distillation (for a fee), and this put a practical end to the large-scale production of Scottish moonshine.
In 1831, Aeneas Coffey patented the Coffey still, allowing for cheaper and more efficient distillation of whisky. In 1850, Andrew Usher began producing a blended whisky that mixed traditional pot still whisky with that from the new Coffey still. The new distillation method was scoffed at by some Irish distillers, who clung to their traditional pot stills. Many Irish contended that the new product was, in fact, not whisky at all.
By the 1880s, the French brandy industry was devastated by the phylloxera pest that ruined much of the grape crop; as a result, whisky became the primary liquor in many markets.
During the Prohibition era in the United States lasting from 1920 to 1933, all alcohol sales were banned in the country. The federal government made an exemption for whisky prescribed by a doctor and sold through licensed pharmacies. During this time, the Walgreens pharmacy chain grew from 20 retail stores to almost 400.