In the Scottish highlands, a few men get together wood and brush, return to their home and stoke the huge fire blazing beneath caldrons of barley mash. It’s about 1150 A.D. and the men, monks protected by giant monastery walls, are creating a high-alcohol drink called “uisge beatha,” the breath of life (aqua vitae in Latin). Around Europe, the truly amazing cathedrals are just being started using the new technique: the flying buttress. A Remarkable Crusade is underway inside the Holy Land.
The monks, when not distilling the earliest known liquor that’ll be commonly known as Scotch whiskey, were growing food including the ingredients for the mash: barley and the fungi called yeast. The barley is soaked for several days, or “malted,” and then ground (mashed) and fermentation begins. Distilling occurs in copper vats, and the monks pour the distillate into oak casks that would have taken months to build and seal. The casks then sit for half a year to several years. The security and affluence of the monastery, and the fearful reverence the populace would’ve had for monks, guaranteed this to be one of the few reliable places for producing whiskey in the High Middle Ages.
Take a look at how Scotch is produced today.
The original commercial distilleries appear at the conclusion of the 15th century, with written receipts for Scotch documented in 1495. As Europe urbanized and supplies became more available, folks could design and make more useful stills, those not open to the air and losing most of the product to steam. Coils and other reduction equipment for barley distilling came into use, as well as other cereals became popular.
Meanwhile, on which would become the American continent, Indians were producing spirits from many native plants, including corn. Europeans arrived to see many foods and grains, and experienced corn whiskey for the first time. In Massachusetts, the Scots-Irish inhabitants settling in and sawing down vast hardwood forests knew how to proceed. They used whatever materials were available to make corn liquor, and as early as 1633 the Massachusetts Colony started requiring a license to distribute it. The fight between governments in search of revenue and the people who sought to make their own rules about distilleries had commenced.
Certainly, people had made wine and ale for much longer than this. Many beverages with alcohol were available, nevertheless the private enterprise issues that continue today had began. Before the revolution, still owners were left almost entirely alone. Washington and Jefferson operated their own stills. After the revolution, taxes were put on all alcohol to help pay war debt and farmers would not approve. Their stills had in large part become their livelihoods.
The Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania was the most significant and best known of the battles moonshiners had with government agents, but the battles continued, large and small, throughout rural areas in the east. The Appalachian Mountains through Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee subsequently became recognized for moonshine whiskey and the many stories of backwoods distilling.
Now that your interests are peeked possibly it is time to investigate the entire process of making whiskey. You ask “how to make whiskey?” The web is a great place to discover and educate yourself on the art. For more information check out How To Make Whiskey Headquarters. There you will find mash recipes, techniques and discussions on still types.