Keltfacts: Whisky for beginners

We would love to get you acquainted with the Celtic culture in our new series Keltfacts. In this blog we are looking into whisky.

It’s the year 1494. An order by the Scottish king is sent to Friar John Cor to produce 500 bottles of Aquavitae. This Water of Life is said to heal all kinds of diseases and ailments. Luckily enough, the recipe of this panacea survived hundreds of years. Nowadays we still know and drink this so called Water of Life. Because in 1494, the Scottish king requested 500 bottles of whisky.

Aqua Vita

The history of whisky starts far away from Scotland. Traveling Irish monks learned the art of distilling in the Middle-East. The Arabs used that technique to create a perfume of flowers called al-koh'l.
Back in Ireland, the monks saw another use for distilling.
With barley as the main ingredient, they created a drink that they called uisge beatha. This was Irish for Aqua Vita. When the British conquered Ireland, they found uisge beatha hard to pronounce. Uisge turned into fuisce, fuisce turned into whisky.
Irish missionaries brought the technique and recipe to Scotland. In the following years, producing whisky became an occupation mostly practiced in monasteries.


Around 1543, King Henry VIII of England turned his back on the Catholic Church of Rome. He began to close the monasteries, leaving the monks to their own devices.
To make a living, the monks started to produce and sell whisky on their own. The demand grew and the distilling techniques and quality improved. Whisky became quite popular, not only in Great Britain but also in other countries.
So popular, that around 1700 the government began to tax it. Many distilleries went underground. When it started being produced secretly in the middle of the night, whisky soon was nicknamed “Moonshine”.
The smuggling and illegal trade of whisky would continue for the next 150 years, especially in Scotland. In 1780 there were 8 legal distilleries and about 400 illegal ones!
To end the huge problem of illegal production, taxes were eventually lowered. In 1823 it became profitable to buy a distilling permit, for only 10 pounds. Now being legal again, distilling techniques became more and more refined. Scottish and Irish whiskies were soon more popular than ever.

How is whisky made?

The first step is to mix roasted and grinded barley with warm water. This creates a liquid that contains sugar. By adding yeast, the liquid will start to ferment. The result is a drink that contains about 8% alcohol: wash.
The boiling point of alcohol is lower than the boiling point of water. By carefully heating this so called wash, the alcohol will condensate before the water does. This way, the water and alcohol can be separated, getting a drink with a higher percentage of alcohol.
After the distilling, the whisky is stored in wooden barrels to ripen. The longer the whisky ripens, the more intense the taste gets. The kind of wood of the barrels has a huge influence on the taste.
But that’s not all. The differences in water, barley and peat (to roast the barley with) per region also leave their mark. A real expert can judge by the taste and smell of a whisky where it is produced!

“A neat single malt Scotch please!”

The slang of whisky sounds like a secret language, but speaking it is easier than it seems.
First of all, there is the difference between single malt whisky, grain whisky and blended whisky.
Single malt whisky is produced in one distillery. This does not mean that a single malt comes from a single batch. Different batches that all come from the same distillery are combined to get the best taste.
Grain whisky is a whisky with different grains mixed in with the barley, to get a flavour that is less heavy than a single malt.
A blended whisky combines single malt whiskies and grain whiskies from different distilleries. They mix and match different flavours until they find the perfect recipe. Because the combinations are endless, this kind of whisky has the widest variety in flavour.
What’s the difference between whisky and Scotch? Scotch is the term that is used for whisky that is produced in Scotland, just like Bourbon refers to whisky from the United States. To put this name on a product you’ll have to follow certain rules about ingredients and recipes in the production of whisky.
Last but not least, drinking your whisky on the rocks means adding ice to your drink. This is generally rejected. If you like your whisky cold, you can use special whisky stones. The overdose of water from the melting ice cubes kills the flavour. Drinking your whisky neat means you’ll be drinking just whisky like it is. However, some people like to add just a single drop of water to their whisky, because that brings out the more subtle flavours.

What’s your favourite whisky, and how do you drink it?

By Norn Wesselius

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