People who like to drink their whiskey neat—without ice or water—enjoy it in shot glass, above, or in a larger rocks glass. Photo: CanStock.



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THALIA DEMAKES is a freelance writer.



March 2006
Last Updated May 2013

Product Reviews / Main Nibbles / Cocktails & Spirits

Whiskey History

Page 2: Origin & Types Of Whiskey

This is Page 2 of a seven-page article. Click the black links below to visit other pages.


A Brief History Of Whiskey

Although it was originally considered little more than a distilled beer, whiskey has evolved into a complex beverage made from different types of “mash,” the fermented combination of grains that give each whiskey its distinctive taste. 

Distillation was discovered in the late eighth century by an Arab scholar known as the Father of Modern Chemistry, Abu Masa Jabir ibn Hayyam (?-803 C.E.). He wondered what would happen if he put wine into an al-ambiq, a round vessel like a tea pot with a tall spout on the top, and boiled it. The vapors rose through the spout, were collected and condensed, creating the world’s first distilled alcohol. In fact, since the al-ambiq was often used to boil powdered antimony into a liquid called al-kohl (used to make the cosmetic kohl), the liquid became known as alcohol and the al-ambiq became the alembic still, which remains in use today.

The distillate was originally used as medicine, and remained a secret process, ultimately shared with the monks in Spain for medicinal purposes. Some orders created their own distillations, such as Benedictine and Chartreuse liqueurs.

Around 1300 Arnald of Villanova, a professor of medicine at one of the first European medical schools, compiled the first hand-written instructions for distillation, calling the alcohol aqua vitae, Latin for “water of life.” This translates into French eau de vie, Scandinavian akavit and Celtic uisege beatha (ISH-ka BYA-ha—in Gaelic, uisge baugh, ISH-ka BA-ha); in Russian/Polish it is vodka/wodka for “dear little water.” Alcohol was deemed to prolong life and cure ills. As we now know, whiskey has no curative properties, but it could help people “feel better,” or sleep and forget the pain.

Irish and Scots disagree over where whiskey originated; Scots claim that whiskey originated in Scotland and attribute the monk John Cor with the first variation of the drink there from barley malt in 1294 C.E. There is also an argument that Irish monks who had traveled to the Near East brought back the technique and applied it to a different medium: the ancient Egyptians had been distilling perfume.

As for our word whiskey: The Scotch uisce and the Gaelic uisge, pronounced ISH-ka, became usky and then whisky in English.

Whiskey Vs. Whisky

Until recently, the most popular—and the most readily available—brands of whiskey were from Scotland. Others claim that the Irish were the true innovators of whiskey and that they introduced it to the Scots. Along with Scotland and Ireland, other regions are known for whiskey production, including Canada, a few specific areas in the United States, and several other countries. In Ireland and the United States, the word whiskey is spelled with an “e,” while the British, Scots and Canadians usually opt to drop it.

Scholars can’t determine why the “e” was dropped by the Scots. One theory is that the Irish made whiskey first and pronounced it with a broad “e.” When the Scots began to make it, they dropped the “e” to differentiate their product.*

*Perry Luntz, Whiskey & Spirits For Dummies, Wiley Publishing: 2008, p. 62.

What All Types Of Whiskey Have In Common

All whiskeys, regardless of the type, are made from a fermented mash of grain. Straight whiskeys are bottled from the casks in which they are aged, with water added to reduce their proof. Blended varieties, such as Bourbon and Tennessee whiskey, can be made by either using “sweet mash” (fresh yeast) or “sour mash” (starter yeast culture saved from a previous batch).


  Chivas Barrels
Whiskey aging at Chivas’ Strathisla Distillery. Photo courtesy Chivas.

Types of Whiskey

  • Straight whiskey must be aged in newly charred oak barrels for a minimum of two years in order for it to be considered a true member of this class. Only water is added to dilute the alcohol, which can only be reduced to 80 proof. A few common examples of straight whiskey include Bourbon, Tennessee whiskey, and Rye.
  • Blended whiskey is composed of both straight whiskey and neutral spirits and, like straight whiskey, must be at least 80 proof. The manner in which this type of whiskey is blended allows the various distilleries to maintain a very consistent flavor. Generally, the taste is more mellow than both the straight or single malt whiskey varieties.
  • Single-malt whiskey can only be made from malted mash and must be bottled at a single distillery, making it the most expensive of the various types. Because the flavor so closely mirrors the distillery in which it was produced, there is great variation in taste from brand to brand.

Popular Ways To Drink Whiskey

  • Neat/straight up: without water or ice added
  • On the rocks: with ice cubes  (see photo below)
  • In a highball: in a tall glass with water or a carbonated beverage
    (e.g., rye whiskey and ginger ale)
  • In a Manhattan cocktail: whiskey, sweet vermouth and bitters in a rocks glass, generally garnished with a slice of orange and a maraschino cherry
  • In a Whiskey Sour: a cocktail of whiskey, lemon juice and sugar, shaken with cracked ice (photo at right)
  Whiskey Sour
Whiskey sour. Photo courtesy Chivas.


Go To Page 3: Whiskey Style By Country

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