The history of whisky production in Scotland, Ireland and England is steeped in tradition. Uisge Beatha – the water of life has a folklore that is both religious and rebellious.
For centuries it provided an illicit yet vital income to poor rural communities across Scotland and Ireland, as well as an indulgent tipple for Highland lairds and English aristocracy alike.
As The Oxford Artisan Distillery is one of approximately 30 authentic English whisky distilleries, we’re eager to explore the rich history behind whisky making, from its humble origins as a monastic ‘cure-all’ to the esteemed practice that is revered today.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF DISTILLING
Distillation, in its more rudimentary form, has been present in Great Britain and Ireland for centuries. However, this ancient practice is believed to date back over millennia, in civilised regions outside of Europe.
It is the migration of the knowledge of distillation, and the adaptation of the ingredients and methods used, that the art of whisky making has been born.
Early distilling techniques were most likely used for the creation of ‘perfumes and aromatics’, rather than the distillations of alcohol. The earliest record of alcohol being distilled occurred in Italy, in the 13th Century.
As the practice of distilling spirits became more commonplace in medieval Europe, it was predominantly used for medicinal purposes by monks, who produced it in monasteries.
THE ORIGINS OF WHISKY IN ENGLAND, SCOTLAND AND IRELAND
There is no clear, documented evidence of the exact origins of whisky in England, Scotland and Ireland. Some believe that the unrefined predecessor of modern whisky could have been discovered by farmers, distilling spirits from their surplus grains.
Another, broadly understood, belief is that whisky distillation was brought over by missionary monks travelling between Ireland, Scotland and mainland Europe.
It is believed that the use of distilled spirits remained a largely monastic and medical practice until the 1500s.
Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries and dispersed monks into the general population, causing distilled alcohol and whisky production to be taken up in the home and on farms.
The Latin name for distilled alcohol was ‘aqua vitae’ or ‘water of life’ and was translated into Gaelic as ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced uska beg). Over time, the name became shortened to uska and eventually evolved into the word ‘whisky’ that we know today.
NOTABLE DATES IN THE HISTORY OF WHISKY
1405 - the first written record of whisky appears in the Irish Annals of Clonmacnoise, where it was documented that the head of a clan had died from ‘taking a surfeit of aqua vitae’
1494 – documented evidence of the distilling of whisky occurring in Scotland. It is recorded in the Exchequer Rolls of 1494 that King James IV of Scotland ‘granted 8 bolls of grain to make aqua vitae’ to Friar John Corr
1536 -1541 - Henry VIII dissolves the monasteries. Monks, and their distillation practices, become part of the general population
1600s - whisky distillation is brought to North America by Scottish and Irish immigrants
1608 – royal licence was granted to the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland to distil whisky
1707 – the Acts of Union merged the Kingdoms of Scotland and England, as well as their parliaments. This saw the beginning of increased efforts to tax and control illicit whisky distilling
1725 – a malt tax is introduced which threatens the small-scale illicit distillers of whisky
1822 - Illicit Distillation (Scotland) Act is introduced, bringing in harsher punishments for the production, supply and drinking of illegal whisky
1823 - Excise Duty Act – a licence fee for distilling whisky was introduced and the duty on whisky was significantly reduced
1830 – Aeneas Coffey patents his ‘continuous’ still which would eventually revolutionise the production of whisky and pave the way for blended whisky varieties to enter the market.
A COTTAGE INDUSTRY
Once the knowledge of distillation had passed to the general population in Scotland and Ireland, whisky production became a burgeoning cottage industry for centuries to follow.
The distillation process, however, was still very much in its infancy. The spirit that was produced was not aged like modern whisky. This resulted in a rough, potent and inconsistent product.
EXCISE AND DUTY ON WHISKY
In 1707, the Acts of Union took effect and the Kingdoms of Scotland and England were merged, to create Great Britain. The Government attempted to control whisky production by introducing a series of taxes.
In 1725, parliament introduced a malt tax which presented a huge threat to the small-scale, cottage industry of whisky production. Scottish and Irish distillers largely responded by dodging the tax, and whisky production became even more of an illicit industry.
In Ireland, the introduction of a tax on whisky production crippled its legal industry. Licenced distillers of ‘parliament whiskey’ (whisky legally produced under licence) plummeted from 1,228 in 1779, to 246 in 1780.
POTEEN AND MOONSHINE
Whilst the new taxes being brought in to try and regulate whisky production were reaping havoc on the legitimate industry in Ireland, the production of ‘poteen’ (whisky’s illegal counterpart) flourished. In fact, poteen was often regarded as being of a higher quality than ‘parliament whiskey’, due to the pressures licenced distilleries were under to churn out their products and make a profit.
By 1882 there were a mere 40 legal distilleries in the whole of Ireland, whereas it is believed that in the Donegal region alone, there were 800 illicit stills producing whisky.
In Scotland, there was much public acceptance of illegal whisky production. Illicit stills were mostly small scale and provided an important product to local communities, at a low cost.
Highland lairds often turned a blind eye to illicit stills on their land as the money this produced for their tenants was likely the only way they could pay rent. However, there were still the ‘revenue officials’ to be avoided.
Illicit stills were often set up in remote, well-hidden areas. Whisky production also became a night time activity, to disguise the smoke that was created during the distillation process. It is this practice that earned whisky the nickname of ‘moonshine’.
THE RISE OF LICENCED DISTILLERIES
With illicit stills and whisky production being prolific across Ireland and Scotland by the early 1800s, the Government again intervened with further taxation laws.
In 1822, the Illicit Distillation Act was passed in Scotland. The Act meant the making, supplying or even drinking of illegally produced whisky came with increasingly severe penalties.
However, the following year, the 1823 Excise Act was passed. This Act brought about a major reduction in the duty charged on a gallon of whisky, as well as the introduction of a relatively affordable distilling licence.
The Excise Act saw a huge change to the production of whisky, bringing about a practical end to the larger scale production of illicit whisky in Scotland.
The reduction in duty, to two shillings and three pence (roughly 12p) per gallon, as well as the affordable licence fee, meant that legal trade and exportation of whisky into England suddenly became more attractive too.
By 1824 there were approximately 167 licenced distilleries registered in Scotland, and by 1826 this had risen sharply to 264.
THE INTRODUCTION OF CASK AND BARREL AGING
The aging of whisky, that we now know steeps the spirit in its rich tones and enhances its deep flavour profile, was most likely discovered by accident during the 1800s.
Prior to being barrel or cask-aged, whisky was most typically consumed ‘raw’, straight from the still.
Spanish sherry barrels increased in availability in the 19th Century after blight decimated the wine harvest in the Cognac region of France. With Cognac supply being hugely affected in England and Scotland, Spanish sherry was imported as an alternative.
As it was not cost effective to ship empty barrels back to Spain, Scottish distillers seized the opportunity to buy up empty barrels that were likely of much higher quality than the vessels they were previously using to store their whisky produce in.
It is due to this chance discovery that the origin of cask-aged whisky was established.
Up until the 19th Century, Irish and Scottish whisky was distilled in a pot still, in batches. The pot distillation method produced rich, smooth and flavoursome whiskies.
In the 1820s, a new design of still began to emerge that was eventually patented by Aeneas Coffey in 1830. Coffey, the former Inspector General of Excise in Ireland, had developed what was known as a ‘continuous’ or ‘column’ still.
This simple distillation apparatus is synonymous with the tradition of whisky production. Whilst they vary drastically in size and shape, largely depending on the quantity and variety of spirit being distilled, a pot still consists of a single heating chamber with an arm, or piping, leading to a vessel which collects the distilled alcohol.
A column still behaves much like a series of pot stills combined together in a long, vertical tube. The still produces a rising vapour, which is initially low in alcohol, that condenses and becomes more enriched with alcohol as it ascends up through the column.
Coffey’s development of the column still allowed whisky makers to produce their spirits in a more efficient and cost-effective way.
Rather than distilling in batches, Coffey’s still operated on a continuous basis and produced much larger quantities of whisky, that contained a higher alcohol content – although the resulting whisky was largely deemed to be less aromatic and flavoursome than pot still varieties, especially by Irish distillers.
Although column stills became, and still are, the preferred apparatus in the production of many distilled spirits, pot still technology remains part of the modern production of single malt and single pot still varieties of whisky.
Both pot still, and continuous still designs are traditionally made from copper, as this material helps to remove sulphur-based compounds from the alcohol during the distillation process.
Nowadays, many modern stills are made from stainless steel with copper linings. At The Oxford Artisan Distillery, our stills, Nautilus and Nemo, are crafted from copper and were created from scratch by English historical industrial coppersmiths.
A NEW ENTRANT INTO THE WHISKY MARKET
Coffey’s continuous still design pathed the way for the creation of blended varieties of whisky, which opened up a whole new market for whisky production.
Despite Coffey himself being Irish, the majority of the established Irish distilleries of the time rejected his invention, in favour of their traditional pot still method. This led Coffey to take his still design to Scotland, where it was much more enthusiastically received.
In time, the blended Scotch whisky was created and overtook the consumption of Irish whiskey that was created using the traditional pot still method.
TYPES OF WHISKY
Single Malt Whisky: is a whisky that is produced using a single malted grain, at a single distillery. Single malt whisky is typically created using the pot still distillation process.
Blended Whisky: typically, blended whisky is distilled from different types of grains and is often a blend of various whiskies that have already been aged. The term ‘blended’ can also be used for whisky that doesn’t fit in with any of the standard varieties. Blended whisky is most commonly distilled using the continuous or column still process.
Scotch Whisky: by law, Scotch whisky can only be labelled as such if it has been made in Scotland (and follows a specific distillation process). Scotch can be single malt or blended whisky. Scotch is renowned for its distinctive ‘peaty’ or smoky taste which comes from the malt that is used to create it being dried over a peat-fuelled fire.
Irish Whiskey: as with Scotch, Irish whiskey is only legally permitted to carry that label if it follows a specific distillation process, and is produced in Ireland. Although typically blended, Irish single malts are also available.
Rye Whisky: whilst rye whisky has its roots in North America, there is no geographical stipulation on where it can be produced. Rye whisky is, of course, created using a rye grain but other grains such as wheat and barley can be incorporated too.
NEW WORLD WHISKIES
New World Whisky refers to whisky produced outside of the traditional whisky-making countries, or “whisky made in a style not traditionally associated with the country that it is made in”, as described by Distill Ventures, an independent drinks accelerator.
Traditional whisky-producing countries include Scotland, Ireland, the USA, Canada, and Japan. As different countries across the globe gain a foothold in whisky production, the world of whisky is expanding – bringing a new age to the spirit industry.
Often, New World Whisky producers will use traditional blending techniques in-keeping with original and historic whisky-making practices, while exploring innovation across the production process.
New World Whisky makers such as those in Australia, Bolivia, Scandinavia, and South Africa, are forging their own unique styles, welcoming a new generation of consumers and shaping the future of the whisky industry.
While the history of English Whisky isn’t as extensive as Scotland or Ireland’s, whisky production in England stretches back to at least the 1800s. In 1903, the country’s last distillery, Lea Valley Distillery, Stratford, sadly closed its doors, drying up English whisky production in England for a century.
Over the last decade, however, craft distillers in England have appeared, resurrecting English whisky production. There are now more than 30 English whisky distilleries at different stages of production. The majority of English whisky distilleries are active, producing and selling mature whisky, while some are still under construction.
The Oxford Artisan Distillery are proud to be a part of the small number of authentic English whisky distillers.
Oxford Rye Whisky
Our limited edition runs of Rye Whisky are created using ancient heritage grains that are sustainably and organically grown without the use of fungicides, herbicides or pesticides. Our commitment to soil quality and caring for our environment is not only at the heart of our business and farming practices, it is in the flavour profile of the grains we distil our spirits from too.
Visit our shop to browse the full range of spirits that we craft from our ancient, heritage grains.