Who Invented Whiskey

Seems like an easy question. Where does whiskey come from? The liquor store! Alas, it’s more complicated, because it’s whiskey, aka whisky, aka uisge beatha or uisge baugh (the water of life in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, respectively).

The basic argument rages (to this day) between the Scots and the Irish, both of whom have variously claimed provenance over the spirit. Apparently, the Irish claim that early Christian Irish monks coming from Arabia around 600 A.D. brought back with them the secrets of distillation (which originated in the Middle East) and made Ireland a very happy country. As some stories have it, the Irish actually brought the art of distilling to Scotland, where the locals ran with it.

Another story involves a guy named Friar John Cor. Apparently a 1494 tax record for his order of “VIII bolls of malt” is the first recorded reference to whisky production in Scotland. 1494 is clearly a bit later than 600 A.D., but the recording of the malt purchase makes it seem like whisky production was at least semi-established.

And yet another story involves the Vikings—believable in the very least because the Vikings really treasured their booze. The Vikings supposedly hit the West Coast of Scotland around 400 A.D., and after a bunch of raiding, decided to calm down and distill whisky (apparently they’d encountered distillation in some Syrian raiding campaigns? They did a lot of raiding.)

Oh wait! Another theory. The first legal distillery in all the British Isles was Bushmills, in Northern Ireland, established in 1608, a fair argument that whiskey distilling was going on there first. And then there’s the fact that when Henry II went to Ireland in 1174, he “recorded the use of aqua vitae.” And then, because why not, an obituary in 1405, attributing the death of a chieftain in Moyntryolas to a “surfeit of aquae vitae.”

It’s a bit of a mystery, and it doesn’t look like one that’s gonna get solved anytime soon. Easier to solve—whether you prefer Irish or Scottish whisky (or both, why choose?).

 

 

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