The origins of whisky remain something of a controversy between the Irish and their Scottish cousins. The uncertainty over its past contributes to the mystery surrounding this eau de vie. The Scottish lay claim to the very first whisky based on written records. The Irish on the other hand, take a very different and, it has to be said, quite convincing view of whisky’s origins.
The first traces of distillation were found in Egypt and date from around 3,000 BC. At that time, fragrance was distilled, as was kohl, a dark powder used as eye shadow. The term ‘alcohol’ appeared around the end of the Middle Ages and is derived from the Arabic word al-khul. In the 9th century BC, arak, a liqueur obtained by distilling molasses, sugar cane or fruit, is said to have been made in India. Much later, in 384 BC, the Greek philosopher Aristotle was the first to mention stills in a treatise on meteorology.
In an age where Europe was plagued by barbarian invasions, after the fall of the Roman Empire, Ireland became a safe haven for Christianity and monastic teaching. Irish missionaries led by Saint Patrick are said to have returned from their evangelical missions to Ireland, bringing knowledge of a distillation technique with them, which they adapted to makeuisce beatha, the Celtic term for ‘water of life’.
Although no mention is made of a grain distillate prior to the 15th century, whether using barley, wheat or oats, uisce beatha is thought, originally, to have been used for medicinal purposes. In reality, the spirit produced at the time bears no resemblance whatsoever to modern-day whisky. Closer to a fragrant liqueur of herbs and honey, it served as a kind of antibiotic, and may even have been used as an antidote to food poisoning. This undoubtedly explains the spiritual name given to this drink.
In 1170, the English armies invaded Ireland. King Henry II’s soldiers discovered an alcoholic beverage beloved by the native people. Legend has it that the English, too, fell under the spell of uisce beatha - the only thing they had in common with their Irish foes. As the name of this drink was utterly unpronounceable for the English invaders, it gradually became uisce, fuisce, uiskie, whiskie and finally whisky.