The history of whisky

Nobody knows precisely how long people have been distilling alcohol, but it seems likely that the practice is at least four thousand years old.

By the 12th Century, it had made its way to Europe. The earliest written evidence of distillation in Scotland is from the 15th Century, with an order from the king in 1494 for enough malt to make five hundred bottles of aqua vitae, Latin for ‘the water of life’.

Barley field with white clouds and blue sky

The same name in Scottish Gaelic is uisge beatha, from which we derive the word ‘whisky’.

The earliest whisky was fairly bracing stuff, distilled almost exclusively by monks. It was never allowed to mature and tended to be very raw, as befitted a drink that was seen primarily as a medicine, used in the treatment of everything from pox to palsy.

Then along came Henry VIII who dissolved the monasteries and turned out the monks, whereupon whisky production made its way into the cottages and homesteads of regular Scots.

Barley field with wind farm and pink flowers

Over time, these ‘home distillers’ refined the process and discovered that whisky could be a pleasurable experience in its own right.

Fast forward to the early 19th Century and a dram of whisky was a staple of life in Scotland. Some became quite widely available, usually through your local grocer’s shop. The trouble was that these whiskies weren't always that consistent. The one you enjoyed yesterday might taste completely different tomorrow.

Coloured whisky casks
Glass of whisky on a stone window ledge

For one young man named John Walker - the proprietor of a grocer’s in Kilmarnock - this wasn't good enough. He wanted his customers to enjoy the same quality and flavour time after time after time. So he began to blend them together until he produced a whisky he was happy to put his name to.


Framed pictures of John Walker, Alexander Walker, George Walker and Alexander Walker II
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