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Have you ever wondered where whisky comes from while sipping a dram on the rocks, or trying out a new whisky cocktail recipe

The water of life’s ancestry is a little bit mysterious, which is only to be expected when its roots go back hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

That’s a lot of years to discuss, but luckily for you we’ve summarised all the important parts about where and how whisky originated in this guide.

A very brief history of distillation

We can’t talk about the history of whisky without talking a little bit about distilling and its roots.

Distilling most definitely dates back thousands of years. This crucial process is what turns liquids into an alcoholic spirit, and if our ancient ancestors never discovered the practice, whisky would not exist today. 

It’s believed that humans first discovered the process of distillation in around 2000 BC, in ancient Mesopotamia, but it was used to create perfumes and essences rather than alcoholic beverages.

Distillation first created medicinal products when it arrived in Europe, with no clear proof of alcohol distillation being recorded until the 12th century (although this doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening earlier).

Who invented whisky?

Legend has it that it was travelling monks who introduced the distillation of spirits to Scotland, although we cannot be one hundred percent sure that Scots did not discover fermenting grains and begin distilling it into whisky themselves. 

But ultimately those finer details don’t matter all that much in the modern day. All that matters is that somewhere along the line, whisky distillation was discovered, and it laid the foundations for the scotch whisky that we know and love today.

It makes complete sense for whisky to be produced in Scotland. The country’s unique climate and environment meant there was plenty of barley and an abundance of fresh clear water, two of the three paramount ingredients in whisky. 

The earliest written documentation of whisky distillation in Scotland was recorded over five hundred years ago in 1495, and can be found in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls. The entry in question reads “Eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aqua vitae.” We can conclude here that aqua vitae refers to an early form of whisky. 

And this leads us nicely to where the name “whisky” actually comes from…


Where did the term “whisky” come from?

The word whisky originates from “uisge beatha”, which is Gaelic for “water of life”.  And “Aqua vitae”, the term used for whisky in its earliest written documentations, also means water of life, but in latin. 

Describing something as the water of life is undeniably a bold claim, but it’s one that’s totally justified when talking about whisky. 

Not only is whisky a warming and invigorating liquid, for us it symbolises being authentic and staying true to who you are, having unforgettable experiences, spending invaluable time with friends and family – all the things that make life so precious. For us, water of life is the perfect way to describe our beloved scotch.

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Did tax laws impact the production of scotch?

The first taxes on Scotch production were brought in by the Scots Parliament in 1644, and it was equivalent to approximately 13p per pint of aqua vitae, although these figures went on to fluctuate regularly. 

Fruitless attempts were made after the Union of Parliaments in 1707 to bring some order and consistency to whisky production, but the excise laws were still in disarray as the 19th century rolled around. 

Unsurprisingly, this led to a huge rise in illicit distilling, and we can’t say we blame the distilleries or the smugglers.

But illegal distilling slowed up after 1823, when The Excise Act was passed. The tax on scotch was set at the equivalent of 12p per gallon, and there was a yearly licence fee of £10. 

This prompted many Scottish distilleries to become “official” and fully legal, allowing them to thrive. Good news indeed.


What about whisky’s modern history?

Let’s skip almost a century to 1920, to when prohibition began in the USA.

Whisky was exempt, but strictly for “medicinal uses”, and only if you were the lucky owner of a doctor’s prescription. We believe this is where our iconic square bottle shape was first designed. 

Not just a pretty face, our sleek bottles were easier than the usual round shape to hide in a briefcase if the need would arise.

And in even more modern history, the Scotch Whisky Regulations 2009 came into force and tightened up the rules on both the production of scotch, and how its labelled, packaged and marketed. Scotch is sacred to us whisky lovers – it’s only right that it’s not a title handed out willy-nilly.

That brings us to the end of our abbreviation version on where whisky originated.

We’re excited to see what the future holds for scotch. Whatever it has in store for us here at Ballantine’s, we pledge to always Stay True to our ethos of creating incredible experiences, being authentic and championing both our own passions, and the passions of our friends.

Want to know more about the history of Ballantine’s? Check out our story and discover more on how whisky is made.

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