Story of Scotch: When was Whisky invented? Where is it from? ‘Water of life’ explained

Beloved in bars worldwide, Scotch Whisky or Uisge Beatha (“water of life”) is a product of quality with a unique heritage fondly associated with Scotland.

While enthusiasts around the globe enjoy a range of whiskies that are uniquely Irish, Japanese or American in origin, Scotch Whisky is truly in a league of its own. Considered Scotland’s national drink (rivalled only by Irn-Bru) Scotch is world-famous as a product of quality that can only be brewed in this captivating region of the world.

Given that its very name is said to be anglicised from Gaelic - the Scots’ Celtic tongue found on Scottish maps - the origins of this beverage are often considered a settled matter. However, history and debate inevitably go hand in hand, and this ancient family of alcoholic drinks is partly shrouded in mystery as historians discourse over who did what and when.

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That said, if we consider the ‘dreich’ (wet) Scottish weather and terrain like the Highlands, it makes sense why whisky - fermented mashed grain and barley - has found its home in this ancient land which of many accolades cannot claim vineyards as one.

To celebrate this historical beverage, here is an overview of Scotch including its origins and when it was first distilled in Scotland.

The word “whisky” is derived from “uisge beatha” which means “water of life” in Scots Gaelic i.e., the native Celtic language of Scotland widely associated with the Highlands and islands. The word “whisky” is derived from “uisge beatha” which means “water of life” in Scots Gaelic i.e., the native Celtic language of Scotland widely associated with the Highlands and islands.
The word “whisky” is derived from “uisge beatha” which means “water of life” in Scots Gaelic i.e., the native Celtic language of Scotland widely associated with the Highlands and islands. | barmalini from Getty Images

What does “whisky” mean?

The name “whisky” is said to originate from “uisge beatha” which means “water of life” in Scottish Gaelic with “uisge simply meaning water and beatha meaning life” according to the Edinburgh Whisky Academy. Much like Manx, Scots Gaelic is a Celtic language that was introduced to the nation by way of Ireland and in the Highlands and islands of Scotland (its heartlands) it is still spoken today.

As Scotland gradually became more anglicised over time, the phrase was shortened from ‘uisge’ to ‘whisky’.

So what separates whisky from Scotch? In short, it refers to a special type of whisky but one that only qualifies as ‘Scotch’ if made in Scotland. As the Scotch Whisky Association reports, Scotch must “by law, be distilled and matured in Scotland in oak casks for at least three years and bottled at a minimum alcoholic strength of 40% abv.”

Pictured above is an Irish distillery. If you pay close attention to the chimney, you will see that  the beverage is listed as “whiskey” with the letter e included; there’s a historical reason for this. Pictured above is an Irish distillery. If you pay close attention to the chimney, you will see that  the beverage is listed as “whiskey” with the letter e included; there’s a historical reason for this.
Pictured above is an Irish distillery. If you pay close attention to the chimney, you will see that the beverage is listed as “whiskey” with the letter e included; there’s a historical reason for this. | searagen from Getty Images

Why is whisky spelled two different ways?

It is widely believed that the spelling “whisky” originated in Scotland while “whiskey” comes from Ireland. Just as their equivalent Gaelic terms have one letter of a difference between them (as seen in the Irish “uisce beatha”) so to do their English ones. Some have chalked this up to marketing.

Writing for The Scotsman, drinks expert Archie McDiarmid explained why one of the world's most famous spirits is spelled 'whisky' in Scotland and 'whiskey' in Ireland. He said: “The earliest mention of whisky (as opposed to uisge/uisce) is found in Scotland during 1715 and in Ireland during 1738 and both omit the ‘e’. The only area where whiskey seems to dominate as a spelling at this time is in the north of Ireland, an area, ironically enough, dominated by Scottish protestants known as the Scots-Irish who would soon emigrate in huge numbers to the USA exporting their spelling with them. So, up until the mid 19th century everyone (except some Northern Irish and their American decedents) pretty much spell it whisky and it is all made pretty much made the same way.

“That all changed when an Irishman Aeneas Coffey perfected the continuous still and ushered in the era of cheap, mass produced grain spirit. At the time, Ireland was the worlds whisky powerhouse and they wanted nothing to do with this cheap, light spirit, condemning it as a bastardization of pot still technique and flavour, not fit to wear the name whisky on its label.”

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At this time, Irish whisky was growing in popularity and thought of as better quality; the unique spelling allowed Ireland to avoid association with Scotland’s ‘inferior’ product.

The origins of whisky in Scotland and Ireland are tied to monks who migrated here from Europe. They faced persecution throughout history and now many of their monasteries lie in ruin as seen here at Cong Abbey. The origins of whisky in Scotland and Ireland are tied to monks who migrated here from Europe. They faced persecution throughout history and now many of their monasteries lie in ruin as seen here at Cong Abbey.
The origins of whisky in Scotland and Ireland are tied to monks who migrated here from Europe. They faced persecution throughout history and now many of their monasteries lie in ruin as seen here at Cong Abbey. | David Stanley

Where does whisky come from?

To pinpoint whisky’s origins we have to start with its progenitor; distillation. The practice of distillation is said to date back as early as 2000 BC when people in regions such as Mesopotamia used it to produce strong aromatics and perfumes.

The first written record of the process is linked to the first century AD, according to Oak and Eden the “first accounts of distillation come from the Greeks and describe how distillation was used to turn seawater into potable drinking water.”

The technique spread west towards Europe where it was used for medicinal products while it grew rapidly in popularity and advancement. Historians remark that there is no ‘firm evidence’ of alcoholic distillation before Italy in the 12th century, but this may speak more to a lack of documentation as opposed to what is true.

Regardless, over 1,000 years ago distillation spread to Scotland and Ireland as travelling monks migrated there from mainland Europe. While Europe was distilling products like wine, the Irish and Scots - living in a climate not conducive to grape cultivation - turned to fermenting grains.

This led to the birth of ‘aqua vitae’ i.e., “water of life” in Latin, just as it is known in Gaelic. This etymology testifies to the monastic heritage of Scotch as ‘water of life’ was a term used by Christians to describe distilled spirits.

When was whisky first distilled in Scotland?

Whisky has been distilled in Scotland for more than five hundred years. As King Henry VII was dissolving monasteries in Scotland, it is thought that he forced monks to begin whisky distillation in farms and the practice rapidly spread from there.

However, the Scotch Whisky Experience notes “it has never been proved that Highland farmers did not themselves discover how to distil spirits from their surplus barley.”

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In the book ‘Scotch Whisky’ by Mr J Marshall Robb, the author confirms that “the oldest reference to whisky occurs in the Scottish Exchequer Rolls for 1494, where there is an entry of ‘eight bolls of malt to Friar John Cor wherewith to make aquavitae’.”

‘Boll’ is a Scottish word used to describe a unit equivalent to six bushels with each bushel weighing around 25.4 kilograms.

Five centuries later in 1994, the industry behind Scotch whisky celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beverage’s production in Scotland. That year, global exports of Scotch surpassed £2 billion.

In 2022 Scotch whisky export topped £6 billion for the first time.

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