The mere word Whiskey, which means “water of life,” conjures a variety of images, including gun-slingers sauntering into Western saloons and distinguished gentlemen sipping in their private clubs, as well as cups overflowing with mint and ice as the symbol of the Kentucky Derby.   Join Active Minds as we explore the history of this iconic drink in countries around the world, how it is made, and some its classic cocktails.

Key Lecture Points

  • The origins of whiskey are lost to the vapors of history.  Distillation techniques were developed in different places, but developed significantly by Arab chemists in the 8th and 9th Centuries CE who used the distillates of fermented wine as medicine.
  • Because distillation was brought to both Ireland and Scotland, likely by Christian monks, both countries claim credit for the origin of whiskey.  Documentation starts to show up in the late fifteenth and sixteenth century in both countries.
  • Wherever produced, whiskey is the name for distilled liquors made from a fermented mash of cereal grains.  The most common grains used are barley, corn, rye, and wheat.  Whiskey is always aged in wooden containers, usually white oak. The name derives from Celtic Gaelic from the phrase meaning “water of life.”  As disputed as its origins is the spelling of the word.  In Scotland, it is spelled “whisky”; in Ireland, it is spelled “whiskey”.
  • Whiskey plays a part in key episodes of American history.  Soon after independence the federal government imposed an excise on whiskey as part of an effort to pay off the debt several states had incurred to wage the Revolutionary War.  Small producers in western Pennsylvania and other areas resisted the tax, leading to violence in some instances.  President Washington sent federal militia to put down the so-called rebellion, helping to establish the authority of the new federal government.
  • Taxation of whiskey led to a major scandal during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant.  After that there was a movement for greater standardization and regulation by the federal government at the same as the Temperance movement was gaining strength.
  • During Prohibition (1920-33), there was a thriving illegal market in whiskey that included home production and gangster-run import, particularly from Canada.  One of the legal loopholes was alcohol for so-called medicinal use.
  • Today, whiskey is a vibrant part of the liquor industry, fueled in part by the emergence of the craft distilling industry and interest in foreign product, including Japan.
  • Major producing countries are the United States, Scotland, Ireland, Canada and Japan.  The basic production technique is the same everywhere, but the local product will vary with the ingredients, storage vessels, and length of aging, among other variables.
  • Whiskey features prominently in American culture, whether through images of gentlemen sipping in private clubs, gunslingers in Western saloons, or stories of Prohibition.  Whiskey is also the key component of such iconic cocktails as the Kentucky Derby’s mint julep, the Manhattan, Old-Fashioned and the whiskey sour.

Exploration Questions

  • What explains the enduring fascination for whiskey in our culture and worldwide?
  • Why do you think different countries have linked their whiskey to their national culture and history?  Do you think the particular whiskey reflects something about a nation’s culture, for example the “peaty” quality of single malt Scotch?
  • What do you think accounts for changes in interest in market segments like beer, wine and craft distilleries over time?

Reflective Questions

  • Do you have a favorite whiskey or whiskey cocktail?  Is it associated with a specific person or event in your life?
  • Has your taste in alcohol changed with time?  Have you sampled any of the Colorado craft distillery products, for instance?

More to Explore

Books For Further Reading

  • MacLean, Charles.  Whiskypedia:  A Compendium of Scotch Whisky. Skyhorse, 2016. 3844 pages.  A source for the flavor and character of every malt whisky in Scotland, as well as a history of the industry.
    Click here to order
  • Mitenbuler, Reid.  Bourbon Empire:  The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey.  Penguin, 2016.  336 pages.  The author provides the history of American whiskey, the various forces that shaped it, and some of the key characters in the development of the industry.
    Click here to order
  • Cooper, Harris PhD.  American History Through a Whiskey Glass:  How Distilled Spirits, Domestic Cuisine, and Popular Music Helped Shape a Nation. Skyhorse, 2021. 304 pages.  A unique perspective on American history told through the whiskey, cuisine, and music that played a role or was popular at the time.
    Click here to order