That’s an easy one, it was John Whisky from Auchtermuchty who came up with the brilliant idea when tinkering in his shed one warm afternoon in 1852. If only it was that simple. In fact, the origins of whisky are mysterious and ancient. So let’s take a trip back in the Master of Malt-branded time machine and see what we can find out.


Who invented whisky?

There are two great claimants to the invention of whisky, the Irish and the Scots, but we have to go back even further in time to the origins of distillation.

Distillation, the process of using heat to separate liquids into component compounds, dates back to the ancient Greeks (probably). The processes of distillation were refined in the Islamic world in the early middle ages by polymaths such as Al-Razi who lived from 854 to 925 AD. Indeed the word ‘alcohol’ comes from the Arabic ‘al-kuḥl.’ The term originally referred to the production of fine powder used in eyeliner – think kohl eyes – which used a kind of distillation. The term gradually came to be used to refer to the distillation of alcohol.

Initially, alcoholic distillation was used to make perfumes and medicines. The process reached Europe via cities like Montpelier in Southern France which had strong links with the Muslim world. A Catalan alchemist (another Arabic word) Arnaldus de Villa Nova is credited with first distilling wine in the 13th century.

Arnaldus_de_Villanova who invented whisky?

It’s top Catalan polymath Arnaldus_de_Villanova

The water of life

While in Southern France, wine would be used for distillation, in other parts of Europe, people would use ale made from grains, mead, cider etc.

In mediaeval Europe, spirits were known as aqua vitae – the water of life – because of their supposed medicinal properties. This would be translated into the vernacular such as eaux-de-vie in France, aquavit in Swedish and in Irish Gaelic uisce beatha. 

We’re getting close to whisky, aren’t we?

Yes, yes we are, because ‘uisce beatha’ if you say it quickly enough and perhaps when slightly inebriated sounds a bit like ‘whisky’. In Scots Gaelic this was called uisge beatha. Pretty similar isn’t it? That’s because the Scots were a tribe who originated in Ireland before invading Scotland which at the time was mainly inhabited by Picts. But I digress.

It is said that Irish monks were distilling back in the 12th century though there is no firm evidence. The earliest known written record of spirits in Ireland comes from the 1405 Annals of Clonmacnoise, which mentions the death of a chieftain from “taking a surfeit of aqua vitae” at Christmas. The first mention in Scotland dates from 1496, in the Exchequer Rolls of Scotland, where it is referred to as ‘aqua vitae.’ So the Irish invented whisky? Hurrah for Ireland.

Not so fast! Neither what the Scots or the Irish were making was what we would think of as whisky*. Both would probably have originally been made from whatever cereals came to hand such as oats, barley, and wheat. They would probably have been flavoured with herbs, spices or fruit and they would have been consumed young so would have spent no or very little time in oak.


George IV was the first British monarch to visit Scotland

Ageing in wood

Now this is where it becomes tricky as it would have been noted in both Scotland and Ireland that the raw spirit would mellow and take on flavours from storage in wooden barrels. However, this wouldn’t have taken place at the distilleries, who sold their spirit straight off the stills. 

There’s a famous story about George IV coming to Scotland in 1822 and asking for the real Glenlivet which was supplied by Lady Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus. She writes in her diary: “Lord Conyngham, the Chamberlain, was looking everywhere for pure Glenlivet whisky; the King drank nothing else. It was not to be had out of the Highlands. My father sent word to me – I was the cellarer – to empty my pet bin, where was whisky long in wood, long in uncorked bottles, mild as milk, and the true contraband goût in it.”

Famous Grouse who invented history?

Is that John Whisky? No, it’s Matthew Gloag, the man behind the Famous Grouse

Mature your own whisky

Note this had been matured in her cellar not by the distiller. All over Ireland and Scotland, whisky would be sold unaged and it was merchants, publicans or private house owners who aged it. In the 19th and early 20th century, Irish distilleries mainly sold their whisky in bulk rather than bottling and marketing it themselves. It would be bought by so-called whiskey bonders who would mature it under bond (ie. without having to pay duty) hence the name. Most would run a pub, or general store and buy wine, as well as supplying various whiskey blends to the local market.

A similar thing happened in Scotland with merchants like John Walker of Kilmarnock or Matthew Gloag of Perth. In 1864 Williams Sanderson, creator of the Vat 69 blend wrote: “’it is well-known that whisky stored in sherry casks soon acquires a mellow softness which it does not get when put into new casks; in fact the latter if not well seasoned, will impart a woodiness much condemned by the practised palate”.

While in Ireland the spirit bought by bonders would have been 100% pot still, made from a mix of malted and unmalted barley with other cereals such as oats, blended whisky was developed in Scotland. This combined flavourful pot still malt whiskies from the Highlands with cheaply made grain whiskies distilled using continuous stills.

What is Whisky?

Barrels of Jameson ready for export, circa 1950

What is whisky?

But throughout the 19th century there were no rules over what could and couldn’t be classed as whisky. Whiskies could contain unaged spirits. Malt distilleries in Scotland and the Irish distillers like John Jameson and Powers, which had dominated the market for much of the 19th century, claimed that these new-fashioned blends weren’t really whisky at all. 

A Royal Commission was launched in 1908 and published its findings the following year. It stipulated that blends could be classed as whisky. Furthermore, there was no compulsory maturation period.

But this changed in 1915  with the Immature Spirits (Restriction) Act 1915. This declared that the spirit must be matured in oak for a minimum of three years to be classed as whisky. It applied to both Scotland and Ireland, which at the time was part of the UK – though not for much longer.

Finally whisky as we know it had arrived.

So who invented whisky then?

It was John Whisky, of course!

*I have spelt it ‘whisky’ throughout for clarity.