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The Origins of Whisky - Where It All Began

September 27, 2022

The Origins of Whisky - Where It All Began

Whisky is one of the oldest and most complex traditions on the face of the planet. Since time immemorial, people have been eagerly and excitedly doing everything they can to be sure to that their grains have been distilled, aged, and perfected into a wonderfully elegant spirit - the kind of thing that makes an ideal present.

A whisky hamper, or any other type of whisky gift, is something that’s appreciated by any lover of the good stuff, especially when it’s drunk with an element of the mind thinking about the strong place in a culture that whisky has. The complex and long-studied history is fascinating, and we’re going to scratch the surface a little in this article.


What was the first whisky?

This is a question long debated by scholars of history, particularly the history of the Scottish highlands. There are a few schools of thought revolving around where the first whisky was distilled, and by who.

There have long been barley farmers in Scotland, all across the dales and hills of the land. It is a great location for growing since it has such a changeable climate, which is so well-suited to hardy crops like barley.

One school of thought is that excess barley from a particularly bountiful year was likely fermented and distilled accidentally. Making beer in your own home was the domain of most housewives, and had been for a large stretch of history. It’s not a great stretch of the imagination to consider the idea that a forgotten brewer boiled a barley-based beer, accidentally distilling it into some kind of ancestor to the whisky of the modern day. From there, that brewer may have tried to replicate and refine the process, ending up with the whisky recipes that have been made in Scotland for centuries.


The other school of thought is that no one in Scotland had thought to distill alcohol from grains. There is no evidence that no one considered it, but there is some evidence that Christian missionaries introduced the practice to other countries around the world.

There were certainly Christian missionaries that went as far as Scotland, and they may have shared knowledge of this distilling technology with Scottish farmers. Whether they made the first mash and distilled the first bottles of whisky is unknowable - though there’s a chance that it’s the case. 

What is peat smoking, and why do people do it?

Peat smoking is something that brings a lot of flavour to the whiskies of the highlands, and it’s something of an acquired taste. The general process is really quite simple - a layer of peat is burned on the ground floor of a building. On the second floor of the building, through a mesh floor, the smoke rises, heating and, eventually, cooking the grains of barley that have been deliberately placed there.

This is done in modern times to bring a level of flavour to the whisky. Peat smoking brings, unsurprisingly, a smoky flavour to the sips of the whisky, and it often results in whisky gifts that people either adore or loathe. Personally, we adore the flavour.

As well as the smokiness, the peat, which is fossilised grass and heather, brings a vegetal, grassy note to whisky, which typically manifests as something of a bright, grassy aftertaste. Again, this is an acquired taste, though it’s one that we love.

It’s unclear whether the first time that this was done was the result of an accident or a purposeful choice. Frustratingly, it’s rather impossible to know either way.

It’s likely that it was a deliberate choice - the idea of cooking the grains over some kind of fire likely came to the first distillers as a way to ensure that the grains were safe to drink. At the time, they wouldn’t have known about germ theory or bacteria, so the fact that the alcoholic whisky would sterilise itself wouldn’t have meant much. Instead, the heat from the smoking and cooking process may have been seen as a way to dry the barley itself, leading to a final grain that was prime for extracting flavour from.

This purposeful choice likely coincided with a happy accident. Peat is a fossil fuel that’s long been used by highlanders to heat their homes, or otherwise simply create fires. It’s likely that the combination of peat smoke and barley grains creating the uniquely wonderful flavour was a happy accident at first, rather than a deliberate choice.

 Whiskey barrels

The difference between malt whisky and non-malt whisky

Malted and non-malted whisky is a very simple comparison - it all comes down to the barley that’s used in the distilling process.

Malted barley is barley that has been left in a slightly damp location, and allowed to germinate over time. After that has taken place, the small green shoot is left on for the smoking process, before the rest of the brewing and distilling takes place. This results in a slightly heightened level of natural sugars being within the barley itself since those sugars would feed the barley shoot as it grows. Therefore, malted barley has a slightly bready sweetness to it, compared to non-malted barley.

That’s a simple difference - malt whisky is made with malted barley, and non-malt whisky is made with non-malted barley.

The commonality of malt whisky in the early days of whisky making lends credence to the theory that the first distillers were Scottish farmers with excess barley. After all, they couldn’t sell barley that had already germinated and may have looked for an alternative use for those precious grains. Little did they know what they were starting!

With a little knowledge of the origins of whisky, you may be able to appreciate whisky a little more, with each sip having a long and complex history. Therefore, sharing this little tidbit of knowledge, along with a whisky tasting gift box, with a loved one can bring you a little closer to enjoying the wonderfully complex flavours and historical tastes of the respected elixir.

Whiskey in a glass

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