The word "whisky" comes from Gaelic word uisce or uisge for "lively water" and the first record of a drink similar to whisky was described by Ramon Llull (1232-1315). This earliest branch of whisky was developed and used primarily in medieval monasteries. The first record of whisky in Ireland dates to 1405, while the first reference to whisky production in Scotland is 1494, in an official order from the king, requesting the production of 500 bottles of aqua vitae.
In the 16th century, England's King Henry VIII brought an end to the catholic monasteries, forcing monks to live in secular life. Many of them resorted to creating whisky and selling it from their homes as a way to support themselves. Through the centuries, the harsh tasting whisky was improved as the distillation process became more sophisticated, resulting in a much more subtly flavored drink. In 1608 an official license was given to Old Bushmills Distillery in Ireland for the production of whisky, which to this day is the oldest licensed distillery still operating in the world.
Other historical highlights include: a season of pr 1880's France's brandy industry struggled through a poor grape crop, causing whisky to be the main liquor in many markets. Whisky was a popular drink in the 19th century in the Old West of American, and some attribute this to the Irish influence of American heritage.
In 1917 during WWI, the United States' Food and Fuel Control Act took effect, necessitating the preservation of food and liquor stocks for war. Not until 1928 did whisky production increase again, though it did preserve a small presence on the market during the Prohibition (1920-33). Whisky was available during time for people suffering with chronic pain, who obtained an official doctor's prescription. Patients were allowed one pint every ten days. In this period the Walgreens pharmacy chain store grew from roughly 20 locations in the country, to nearly 400.
Whisky is made from fermented grain mash, usually made form barley, corn, rye or wheat. The distillation process employed the use of copper, which neutralizes the sulfur-flavored compounds found in grain mash. The liquid may be malted, and aged in wooden caskets of white oak.
The aging of whisky takes into consideration only the amount of time spent in the cask, not the amount of years spent in the bottle. If the whisky was aged for three years in a cask, but sat on a shelf for twenty, it would still be considered "aged three years." Whisky typically contains about 40-55% alcohol content.
According to legend, whisky was used in the medieval monasteries for treatments of small pox and colic. Distilling techniques were brought to Ireland and Scotland around the 12th century, when beer made from barley went through a further distilling process into liquor which eventually became whisky. This liquid was typically produced through monastic communities or apothecaries until the late 1400's when German chemist and physician, Hieronymous Brunschwygk first published a book on distillation, making the process much more accessible. His book also contained details about the medicinal values of the whisky, one of which was to use the drink as an antiseptic and wound cleaner. An old Irish adage summarized the belief held by many that "What whisky does not cure, cannot be cured." It was used as everything from a cough tonic, fever cure, to aftershave. Some studies also show that whisky helps decrease the risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and diabetes. The notion that whisky is also a great pain reliever proved to have some scientific support. Dr. Harold George Wolff from Cornell did a study in which showed two ounces of 90 proof whisky will raise a person's threshold for pain by 45% for two hours. Though not the greatest move for those struggling with alcoholism, Wolff believed the use of whisky to be less damaging than that of morphine and similar drugs.
Whisky recipes can be as diverse as a taste palate. For years whisky has been used to batter fish, season meat, cure ham, flavor pork chops, soak sweet potatoes, add savor to bread, flavor cheese fondue, thicken sauces, create savory beef roast, and add flavor to vegetables and soups. Whisky has flavored Irish coffee, bourbon baked beans, or bourbon pecan pie; it has added gusto to chocolate truffles, coffee cakes, plum puddings, fudge brownies, and added defining tastes to bourbon ice cream, and sweet cream sauce. Because of the homey malt flavor, whisky and bourbon have been popular additions used in main dishes, sauces, and desserts for centuries both in Europe and America.
Whisky can be made of fermented grains like barley, corn, rye, wheat, etc.
There is a general confusion among many about the differences between Scotch, Bourbon and Whisky. Scotch whisky is usually distilled two times, but can be distilled up to as many as twenty times. The Scotch Whisky Regulations (PDF - Scotch Whisky Association) insists that any brand labeling a whisky as "Scotch" must be distilled in Scotland and matured in oak casks for a minimum of three years, etc. Scotch is made from nearly the same ingredients as whisky (usually malt and grain) but is necessarily made in Scotland. Scotch is traditionally enjoyed neat or with water, while other areas in Europe mix it with coke, and countries in Asia blend it with green tea.
Bourbon is a whisky aged in charred-oak barrels, made in the USA, usually from corn. As of 1964 Congress recognized bourbon whisky as a "distinctive product of the United States." Bourbon is often served neat, with water or ice, or mixed in cocktails or soda. Popular bourbon whisky cocktails include the Manhattan, the Old Fashioned, Whisky Sours, or Mint Julep.
Popular Whisky Cocktails: Irish coffee, Jack and Coke, Rob Roy, Rusty Nail, 7&7, Three Wise Men, Whisky Sour, Nixon, Churchill, Amber Moon, and Four Horsemen.
Johnnie Walker Black Label Scotch Whisky has been called the "perfectly blended, desert-island choice" of Scotch. Arguably one of the most popular brands, this bottle is priced at $45.
Four Roses Small Batch Bourbon is an American favorite dating back to 1888, though it ceased production for a few decades. This multi-bourbon combination is a softer, oaky-vanilla bourbon priced at $35 per bottle. American favorite Wild Turkey Kentucky Spirit is another well-loved bourbon with citrus nutmeg sweetness. This choice costs $50 per bottle.
Bushmill's 16 year old Irish Whisky (award winning whisky from the oldest distillery in the world) is distilled three times and aged in American oak barrels. This single malt whisky is priced at around $70 per bottle.
Elijah Craig 21 year old Single Barrel (No. 42) is a sweeter, creamy whisky with hints of caramel, honey and vanilla. It is a single barrel costing $140 per bottle.
Balcones Brimstone Resurrection was recently voted The World's Best American Whisky with rich oak, smoke and cherry flavors. This bottle usually goes for between $140-160.
The most expensive whisky sold to date is The Macallan Imperiale "M" Whisky. It is distilled in Scotland, and is created from a combination of whiskies that ranged in age from 25-75 years old. This particular whisky is called "Constantine" after the Roman Emperor, and it required 17 craftsmen to work over 50 hours on the 28-inch tall crystal decanter, which carries the 6 liters of whisky. The Constantine is one of four bottles, and was sold in an auction in Hong Kong for $628,205.