The history of whisky

Go deeper into the origins of whisky and its evolution.

Whisky history and its invention is an adventurous tale. Tracing back more than 1,000 years, it is widely believed that it wasn’t until the knowledge of distillation travelled from mainland Europe to the shores of Scotland and Ireland that whisky was born.

 When arriving in the UK, without access to vineyards and grapes, monks chose to ferment mashed grain and barley in monasteries; and the first origins of whisky, as we call it today, was born.

When was whisky invented?


When whisky was invented, it carried a very little resemblance to the whisky we now know.

Originally, it was not allowed to age in oak casks, so would have been very raw and strong in alcohol content, devoid of the nuances, aromas, flavours, and character we enjoy today.

Like the spelling, the true place of whisky’s origin remains a point of deliberation between our friends in Ireland and Scotland, both claiming to have invented the spirit. North of the border, records of the Scottish Exchequer first evidenced a history of whisky in Scotland in production in the late 1400s. 

Throughout the next 100 years, when King Henry VIII dissolved monasteries in Scotland, monks were forced to begin distilling the first whisky in farms and houses across the land and the practice spread. 

In Ireland, it is said St Patrick first taught the Irish to make whisky 1,500 years earlier, although there is no finite proof from that era. One thing we do know with certainty, however, is that, with a licence to distill Irish whiskey from 1608, the Old Bushmills Distillery in Northern Ireland remains the oldest whiskey distillery in the world.

Who invented whisky?


Irrespective of who invented whisky distillate, long before whisky was the spirit we know and love, the Cognac makers of France were distilling and ageing wine in oak casks sold to royal houses across Europe.

After a catastrophic wine harvest in the 18th Century, short supplies led to Scottish aristocracy switching attention to sherry, shipped in oak casks from Spain.

As spent casks built up, distillers saw an opportunity to switch from storing whisky in casks previously containing fish, meat or a whole manner of products, and, instead adopted the readily available sherry casks.  

To say that was a success is an understatement. The interplay of flavours imparted from housing Scotch Whisky in fortified wine seasoned casks revolutionised the spirit, opening up a myriad of possibilities to create flavour. And the longer the whisky was stored in the casks, the higher the demand became.

Where was whisky invented?


Historically, in reference to medicinal qualities, distilled liquid was known in latin as aqua vitae or the water of life - the true origin of the word whisky.

In Old Gaelic, aqua vitae translated into ‘uisge beatha’ (pronounced Ooshka Bayy), which in turn was anglicised to become ‘uisce’, ‘uiskie’, ‘whiskie’ and, eventually, ‘whisky’.

Common confusion remains about how to spell whisky - whisky or whiskey - upon which there are two schools of thought. One viewpoint is that the discrepancy is simply a trivial matter of dialect or regional language. The second is that the spelling is a reflection of where the whisky originated.

Said to have been changed to include an ‘e’ in Ireland to separate the country’s big distilleries from rural makers – rather than from it’s Scotch counterpart – it was also adopted, somewhat less consistently, in the USA. The rest of the world spells whisky without the additional letter. 

In Scotland, Scotch Whisky is also known as simply Scotch.

Whisky Today


Despite the contradictory who, when and where of whisky history facts, today, by law, a whisky must be distilled and matured in oak casks for at least three years before being bottled at a minimum strength of 40% ABV. 

The Scotch Whisky Act, introduced in 1988, was followed by new Scotch Whisky Regulations in 2009, and it is these comprehensive rules which govern the Scotch Whisky industry, protecting its integrity and quality; rules we adhere to at The Lakes, despite being an English whisky distillery.

Inspired by the interaction between spirit, oak and air, today, our approach to making single malt whisky is holistic. This means that our whisky maker, manages the whole process from beginning to end. Selecting the barley, through to putting the whisky into the bottle. 

For us, this is important because it ensures that if a change is made in one part of the whisky-making process, it is done with complete awareness of the impact further down the line, without any detrimental effect on the flavour.  

Each element is managed to ensure that our whisky has a balanced flavour profile. This is quite different from many distilleries who have a head distiller, or master blender who only manages one single part of the process.