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Wednesday 22 September 2021


Aqua Vitae: UisGe Beatha Vs UisCe Beatha 

I am asked very often by various people if the Aqua Vitae of the past should be spelled whisky or whiskey. I keep referring them to two posts by me online. These are:


Let me first put some facts in historical perspective, starting with the 19th century. We could examine events in Ireland/Scotland both chronologically and in parallel. Ireland was the world’s first maker of pot-distilled spirit, and the world’s largest till 1914. 99% of its whiskeys up to 1860 were blended malt spirits, with the odd rarely seen grain-based spirit.

Scotland Pre 1823: Only 4 large and 7 small legal distilleries existed in Scotland. The licence and tax cost them a pretty penny, hence their products’ exclusivity/steep price and the inexorable rise of illegal distillers. There were at least 14,000 bootleggers at any given time who manufactured Uisce Beatha, pronounced Ooishkebah, which became whiskey /whisky in 1736 (F P Pacult) or 1746 (Charles MacLean). Most were one-night stands, carting their distillery along on two horses, with mature males from that family in tow to avoid the tax men (gaugers). They could create between 20-30 gallons(90-135 litres) overnight. The first and the last two-three gallons were discarded as near poison. Their 80% ABV potion was absolute rotgut, drunk after adding water to dilute the liquor. This stomach-churning product was sold by themselves or the distaff side of their family, grocers and vintners. They were encouraged by the local royalty, who each had a seat in Parliament and kept pushing to legalise distilleries because the illegal distillers/distilleries operated on their tracts of land or property. They took their cut and, as the local Chief Magistrates, turned a blind eye to the goings-on.

Ireland Pre 1823: Official records in Ireland are pure gobbledygook. Irish records were oral rather than written, and details cannot be set store by. The Old Bushmills Distillery, Antrim, N Ireland, is the world’s oldest licensed distillery, dating back to 1608, and is a promising distillery even today. In 1661, a new tax was introduced on whiskey production in Ireland. Almost the entire distilling trade went underground immediately. Landowners were asked to control illegal distilling but did exactly what was to happen in Scotland, i.e. turn a blind eye. Whiskey produced legally was known as "parliament whiskey", while illicit produce was/ is referred to as Poitín, meaning "small pot." Surprisingly, the people’s alcohol of choice till 1785 was Rum! As demand for whiskey increased later, quality dropped. An Act was passed limiting distillers to the use of only malt, grain, potatoes or sugar in producing whiskey, and specifically banning several ingredients. Laws were changed in 1780 to collect tax on theoretical produce based on equipment available rather than actual quantity. As a consequence, small legal distilleries also went underground. In 1779, there were 1,228 registered distilleries in Ireland; by 1790, this number had fallen to 246, and by 1821, there were just 32 licensed distilleries in operation.

Scotland 1823-1863: The first use of Scotch with the sense of specifically relating to whisky occurs in 1855 (Gavin Smith). The term whiskey was more in use in those days. In fact, the Hansard (record of all Parliament discussions) of a year as late as 1896 uses the term whiskey. Whisky or whiskey was by convention, not law: the Royal Commission on Whiskey and Other Potable Spirits (1908/09) spelt both Irish and Scotch with an ‘e’ throughout. 95% of the whiskies produced were blended malt and 5% blended grain (corn, wheat, rye). That said, blending of malt and grain whiskies was banned.

1853: An Act permitting vatting of whiskies when in a bonded warehouse was passed, with a proviso that the bonded warehouse would be no further than one-quarter mile from a town. The number of blended malt whiskies increased five-fold within a month. Andrew Usher, a small-time distiller who had an outreach into the halls of power in London, launched Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet – OVG, the first ever commercial vatting to be marketed. The average strength of a vatted malt was 65% ABV and it was best had with soda to cut its strength, though many preferred it straight or with some ice.

1858: Usher informed George Smith (Glenlivet) and grocers John Walker, George Ballantine, William Teacher, the Berry brothers, Arthur Bell and the Chivas Brothers, among others, that their soon-to-be-elected Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance Minister), William Gladstone would permit blending of malt and grain whiskies in bond by 1860. In exchange, he asked to be made their chief distributor in Edinburgh. These grocers immediately started blending their stocks of malt and grain whiskies in anticipation of the Act. Usher was en route to selling millions of £s of Glenlivet as its sole distributor. (At today’s rates).

1860: The anticipated Spirits Act was passed, but limited to distillers only! Usher was seen as a chalu chapati! Grocers and vintners were cleared by an extension to that Act in 1863. The worldwide journey of Blended Scotch that would set the world afire in the forthcoming years had begun.

1863: Wise grocers had stored their blends in wooden casks. (Some had used metal, and rued their decision, as what came out was exactly what went in!) Suddenly, most grocers had 4-5 Years Old blended whiskies that had matured in wooden casks and their flavour and taste were sublime, compared to the earlier vattings. They were nice and mild (46-53% ABV) to drink and possessed flavours hitherto unsensed. The importance of maturation was finally understood. They would learn more in time that the make of the barrel was an important factor in maturation along with the type of storage and the vicissitudes of the climate. Terms like Angels’ Share and the Devil’s Due would emerge.

Ireland Post 1823: In 1823, the authorities cut the duties by half, and made legal distillation attractive. Reforms led to improvements in fuel efficiency and product quality. Distillers could operate their stills at their pace, with more freedom to tailor their equipment. Duty was to be paid on volumes sold, making storage in bond more attractive. The greatly improved distilling landscape led to a drop in illicit whiskey production and a boom in investment in legal distilleries. In 1821, two years before the reforms, there were 32 licensed distilleries in Ireland. By 1827, this number had risen to 82 reaching its 19th-century peak of 93 by 1835. The scale of the equipment used also increased. Prior to 1823, the largest pot still in Ireland could accept just 750 gallons. By 1825, the Midleton Distillery operated a 31,618-gallon (143,860 litre) pot still, the largest ever built; the largest pot stills in operation in the world as of now are next door in the New Midleton Distillery, at 16,498 gallons (75,000 litres) each.

By 1823, Dublin boasted the five largest licensed distilleries in the world, with a combined output of its 35-odd distilleries of almost 10 million gallons per annum, the largest of which, Roe's Thomas Street Distillery, had an output exceeding 2 million gallons pa. In contrast, no Scottish malt distillery exceeded 100,000 gallons pa. Between 1823 and 1900, whiskey output in Ireland increased fourfold, and with access to the overseas markets provided by the British Empire, Irish whiskey became the most popular spirit in the World. By 1878, Distillers Company Ltd., a Scottish distilling firm, built a distillery in Dublin, and had a demand five times that of Scotch at the time. During this period, the four largest Dublin distilling firms, of John Jameson, William Jameson, John Powers and George Roe (all family-run and known as the "Big Four") dominated the Irish distilling landscape. The chief output of these distilleries, known as a single or "pure pot still" whiskey, was made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley, and solely distilled in pot stills.

The Column Still

Scientists in Europe were trying to invent/develop continuous distillation apparatuses for Cognac and Armagnac. A Scot, Robert Stein, patented a continuous still in 1828 which was the first such still to be employed commercially in Scotland. It had one flaw, requiring the process to be stopped to change filters and clean the apparatus. John Haig, Stein’s cousin, used the apparatus in his set-up at Cameron Bridge which Diageo owns today. That historical grain distillery has been totally revamped.

It was improved upon by an Irishman, Aeneas Coffey. He built and patented the two-column, continuous distillation Coffey still, enhanced versions of which are now in use across the distilling industry. That still could create alcoholic spirit with an ethanol content of 90%+ and soon reached France. Modified versions can achieve an ethanol content of ~95%.

Even today, the time taken from freshly cut barley deposited in a malt distillery till it is casked as New Make is anywhere from 90-100 days. The number of processes involved is mind-boggling. Moreover, with the Scots being as parsimonious as they are reputed to be, the reject from every stage is routed back to its previous stage and comes back again and again. The apparatus is shut down in sections after completing a batch and cleaned. The next batch starts the long journey some 15 days later. The distillate that goes into the barrel is called new make and may only be called whisky when that barrel is finally opened after a minimum of three years. Common sense prevailed in the 1990s, where distilleries were established to complete the initial stages of preparation up to the drying of the malting at the desired phenol level, i.e. passing them over a fire for a computed period of time using a calculated amount of peat as fuel. Now, single malt distilleries reach the new make stage in about 50-55 days.

The column or patent still works non-stop and produces the new make from one batch of grain every single day. These distilleries produce single and blended grain whisky as required, selling surplus neutral ethanol to other industries. The ingredients of a single/blended malt/blended Scotch are now available. The Irish did not see things in this light starting 1860. They openly deprecated grain whisky and deemed it unfit for consumption. Irish grain distilleries sold their output to the Scots for blending and to the British for making Gin. They did produce excellent whisky, because they triple-distilled their spirit and collected a very balanced cut i.e. the portion of the entire distillate that is extracted and diverted to the next stage of creating a new make. Usually, this is between the 40-70% segment of the downwash and called the heart. The first portion is called the head, of which the initial 10% is discarded and the last section is called the tail, of which the final 10% is discarded. The head and tail of the distillate that is retained is cycled back to the previous stage.

At their peak, the ~32 distilleries in Ireland would grow to become the largest in the world, with a combined output of almost 12 million gallons per annum that sold readily in the market. On the other hand, the combined output of the ~70 distilleries in Scotland was less than three million gallons pa., but rising as more and more distilleries were sprouting in Speyside and Campbeltown.

Legal Disputes: In 1878, Irish distillers, led by their big four, filed a petition in London claiming that spirit made from grains be given a totally new name, as they were an insult to whiskey. It took almost thirty years to decide the case, which went against the Irish, as more and more parliamentarians in London had interests in distilleries in Scotland. In a strange counter, the Irish filed another suit demanding that the desecrated spirit ex-Scotland be named whiskey, and Irish triple pot distilled spirit be called whisky, indicating purity and superior quality.

A Royal Commission was set up to investigate the matter and in 1909, ruled against the Irish. The outcome of the petition was typically British-ambivalent. The Rule said that the spirit under question could be called by either of the two choices, irrespective of the country of origin. The Irish chose whiskey, whereas the Scots chose whisky. Sadly, distilleries in Ireland were affected by WW I (1914-18); their war of independence from the British and their own civil war (1919-21) which also led to the migration of locals to the USA (where they called their spirit whiskey); prohibition in the USA, their second largest market (1920-33); widespread counterfeiting of Irish whiskeys in America and Britain; British trade restrictions (sanctions) that cut off the Colonial market and WWII. A glorious chapter of the whisky industry had to be closed, to next resurface in the following millennium.

Kockmann, Norbert (2014). "200 Years in Innovation of Continuous Distillation"
Ryan, Eric (2018). "Cork's Patent Stills: The Untold Story”
Townsend, Brian (1998). "The Lost Distilleries of ireland"