The Water of Life: a brief history of whiskey and distillation

The Internet. Penicillin. The wheel.

These are pretty cool – and one might even say useful – inventions. But just imagine how much less we would enjoy all of these nobel fruits of our collective intelligence – to say nothing of Irish music – if it wasn’t for the hands-down most important invention of all time, whiskey.

Don’t believe me? Well, as it happens, the name “Whiskey” is one of those morphed words that was originally from the Gaelic uisge, as in uisge beatha, meaning “Water of Life.” And in fact, that same phrase was also translated into Latin as aqua vitae. Who are we to correct history?

Whiskey’s origins start with the process of distillation, which was developed in Mesopotamia. But the Mesopotamian people had not yet evolved to the point of enjoying delicious whiskey – in fact, they used grapes, which are all wrong for whiskey, and merely used alcohol to make perfumes. This to me says a lot about the barely-civilized origins of that perfume counter at Macy’s you’re always trying to avoid: they’re primitive and violent for a reason.

"For fuck's sake, Margaret, just buy something! God only knows what's going on beyond those cold, dead, lizard eyes."

The distillation process eventually made its way to Ireland, where the lack of grapes meant alcohol producers needed to find a new substrate for their experimentations. As a result, monks who produced alcohol for its medicinal purposes used grains and the first important leap forward was made towards that most enlightened of potables.

But the party really gets started in the mid-1500’s when King Henry the VIII and his vicegerent Thomas Cromwell, seeking to unburden local Catholic institutions of their considerable wealth, dissolved the monasteries throughout England. That sucks for England’s monastery community – which is estimated to have owned one-third of all the land in England prior to that – but its pretty awesome for us, because the monks decided to bring their distillation home with them. And when they did, it was all about rockin’ a fat buzz, no fever, infection or possession by Satan required.

Shure 'an forgive ush father, for we have shinned. Alsho like to shay a shpecial shorry about pisshin' in the holy water, I would. Shaints presherve us.

To be sure: those old monks partied high-test style, drinking the whiskey immediately after distillation. But eventually after enough former monks died of alcohol poisoning, someone got the idea to age the whiskey in barrels and allow it to mellow, not to mention adding the caramel goodness we’ve all come to know and love. And to this day, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Antrim County, Ireland remains the oldest working distillery of whiskey in the world.

I like to believe that, somewhere way down there in our history, this is some branch of my family's coat of arms.

These days, whiskey comes to us in a variety of different variations, from the extremely rare single-cask bottle to the more commercially-viable blended whiskeys. Purists generally prefer the single-malt stuff, which while probably blended from a number of casks, only comes from a single distiller, thus being a reasonably-pure expression of that maker’s techniques.

Me? Well, I’m not purist for anything. But given the option, I trend towards Knob Creek as my poison of choice, particularly for a Manhattan. Bourbon whiskey, I guess you would call that.

If you’d like to know more about whiskey than I can tell you, I know just the place to go, too: Marketview Liquor is having a special whiskey tasting tonight, February 17th, from 4pm to 7pm. Get there early, but if you don’t see me, please save me a sip or two!

By Tommy Belknap

Owner, developer, editor of DragonFlyEye.Net, Tom Belknap is also a freelance journalist for The 585 lifestyle magazine. He lives in the Rochester area with his wife and son.